What gives us our names

by on January 31, 2016

We choose and lose our given names, but surnames prove more durable. The word ‘surname’ itself derives from Medieval Latin supernomen, and entered the English language via the Anglo-Norman French surnoun, referring to the title added to—or ‘above’—one’s name. The Old English equivalent, freonoma, meant ‘free name’: a word born at a time, perhaps, when allegiances were more easily found or forged. However far we go today, our surnames hover above our names with a certain staying power.

My surname, Kwek, comes from a lesser-known Chinese term for ‘city-wall’—郭—pronounced ‘guo’ in what we know today as Mandarin. I like to think of it as the pictogram of a watchman (often the son, 子), with his broad-brimmed cap and halberd. The truth is less imaginative, or at least less imagistic. The Chinese radical (meaning the name for an individual component of a Chinese character) “阝”—simplified from “邑”, for ‘settlement’—is what lends it the idea of a town or city. There is some debate over whether the other part of the character “享” (pinyin: ‘xiang’) provides its phonetic component, or adds the idea of an ‘enclosure’. Early versions of the character, carved painstakingly on oracle bones and held to the fire, appear to depict houses on either side of a round earth, or a man holding up the roof of his own home. Distance and duty: the ideas are etched into the body of the word.

Records tell us that the surname 郭 was given to those who lived ‘beyond the bounds’ of a city’s fortified fringe. It’s hard to say now, but my forebears may have been outsiders, even foreigners, or simply the suburbanites of their day. Some of the name’s origin myths claim Persian ancestry through majority-Muslim Hui communities in Fujian province in China, where some bearing the surname still live. Given that 郭 is, today, the 18th most common family name among China’s 1.4 billion people, and shared by members of at least four dialect groups—not to mention many others who speak Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Tagalog—our roots are probably far too rich and varied to trace.

I hail from Singapore, a nation which depends on regional migration for both economic growth and population replacement, and has thrived on the flow of peoples around Southeast Asia for centuries. The first documented arrivals of members of the 郭 family are during the 19th century, mostly Han Chinese youth seeking refuge from tumult at home. As they came to the colonial East Indies, their lilting surnames, strange to the ears of British, French, and Dutch administrators, were Latinised in a variety of forms. The opening ‘gu-’ sound, common to nearly all dialect pronunciations—and similar to how one might say “coup” as in “coup d’état”—was rendered in the English alphabet as ‘qu-’, ‘ku-’, ‘ko-’, or, in my case, ‘kw-’. Almost all dialect pronunciations also share a clipped, ‘-k’ ending, like the sound of chopsticks closing. This constant explains why I share a history with those who spell their names ‘Kok’, ‘Quek’, ‘Gock’, and a brief Vietnamese dynasty that the textbooks document as ‘Quach’.

It’s difficult to explain all this on the other side of the world, where surnames are easier to spell, and more readily comprehensible. Often, I go by my given name Theophilus—itself an Anglicised form of the Greek Θεόφιλος, synonymous with the Latin Amadeus and German Gottlieb. But there’s something about my surname that stays with me, and will not let me go: the image of a watchman crossing between home and beyond, the histories of all those journeys wrapped in a single word. I would not trade it for the world.

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