“African” is more than one nationality, culture, language, people…

I’m a writer. But you’re reading my blog right now, so you know that. What I mean is: I am a prose fiction writer. Part of the fiction writing process is the naming of characters.

Ever since high school, I’ve been using BabyNames.com to help me find appropriate names for my characters; names that fit a particular theme, or their personality. For example, the civilian name of latest incarnation of my Sailor Moon character is Shasa. I chose it because of its meaning, “precious water”, which suits Shasa, because her element is water. (Shameless advertising: You can read her story, “Sailor Philiopa: Surge of the Lifestream”, at fanfiction.net, or on DeviantArt.)


Shasa McNeil, aka Sailor Philiopa


While I love BabyNames.com, and have come to rely heavily upon it, I’ve noticed a trend. Take a look the entry for “Shasa”:

Shasa babynames.com

If you haven’t frequented BabyNames.com as much as I have, you probably wouldn’t notice it: The origin of “Shasa” is listed as “African”. But Africa is a continent with many languages, ethnicities, nations, peoples, etc.

We don’t have to go far to see the origins of other names are more specific. Let’s take a look at the entry for some of the recommended names under “Shasa”: Liam (Irish), Tobias (Hebrew), Petra (Greek), and Nahla (Arabic) all have specific languages/nationalities listed as their origins.

I did notice, though, that “Native American” is also listed as an origin. And, interestingly enough, so is “Egyptian”, even though Egypt is in Africa. (The cynic in me wonders if it’s because, over the years, the Ancient Egyptians have been so whitewashed in history and in media.)

Maybe BabyNames.com didn’t want to overwhelm their servers with a long list of nationality/language names. But if really sounds like the the result of the tendency to lump all of Africa together in Western news and fiction. Honestly, as a writer, I’d like to know which part of Africa, which African language a name comes from. Suppose I want to have a Yoruba character, but I find a name I like that happens to be Twi? Anyway, I suspect potential parents would want to know, too.

Babynames.com isn’t the only site that’s problematic in that regard. Try as I might, Google as I might, I was unable to find out which African language/people the name “Shasa” comes from; on every site, I found the name listed as merely an “African” one.

Webmasters, media personas, etc: Africa is not a language, country, or a single people. It’s a rich, diverse place, and was so even before the Arabs and peoples of peoples of Europe entered it and created their own national borders.

Please remember that.

This entry was posted in Miscellaneous Language Issues and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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