27 March 2011

Puke and Rocket: Tongan names that catch foreigners off guard

What's in a name? He whom we
call Puke in any other language
would still smell as sweet.
When I first met someone called Puke, I was, to say the least, confused. My bewilderment wasn't at all diminished when I learned that puke (pronounced poo-kay) is the Tongan word for "to be sick," bearing an uncanny resemblance to it's English meaning. But Puke doesn't mind his name, which is actually a shortened version of a longer name, and the sidelong glances I kept expecting when people met him were just nonexistent. I was the only clueless foreigner snickering at my own tasteless joke. It just wasn't an issue.

Naming in Tonga is a unique and important topic. Often, people can trace their entire family line through their last name, and know that certain families are renown for high status, for producing many church pastors, for being very kind and reliable, for having the familial honour of serving the King's kava, or having baked the late Queen's bread. All the noble names are another matter altogether; immediately recognizable, and irrefutably noble.

When a baby is born, the father's oldest sister gets to choose the first name, and often, people choose old family names to carry on a memory. The most common names are the Tonganized British-sounding names:

John       Tonganized to:   Sione
William                            Viliami
Jane                                 Seini
Alfred                               Alifeleti
Robert                              Lopeti
Mary                                 Mele

There are the Marys and the Janes, and plenty of Maryjanes (Meleseini, which doesn't carry the same connotation as it does in English), but that girl I knew in highschool named Summer would not be out of place among the many creative names that are popular here. It is very common for both men and women to be named 'Ofa, (Love, in Tongan), and other names get even more creative. 

One of my favourite names, first and last name, translated into English, was First one Late from the House. It isn't uncommon to see names, that translated into English, lose all of their meaning and become quite different. We know people named: Hurricane, Tower, Big Ship, Rocket, First, Eight, Mother, Journey, and  Israel. Eventually, the names become in our minds what they are intended to be: simply a poetic name for a person.

Sometimes, we get incredibly confused when a person is called by the English version of their name, when all along, we've been using the Tongan one. A friend and colleague at work is called Sina- her full name is Siosina, or in English, Georgina. The other day, a mutual acquaintance told me "So I saw Georgina the other day and we talked about the great lunch we'd had." "Who?" I asked. "You know, Georgina. You work with her." It took me embarrassingly long to realize that she was talking about the friend that I see and work next to every single day of the week. "Ohhhh, you saw Sina!" I finally exclaimed.

But with the surplus of unique names, some are still very unfamiliar. When I introduce myself verbally as "Elena" (Pronounced Eh-LEH-nah), I get a host of interpretations back. "Alina," "Elina," "ElenAH," "Elenoa," (the Tonganized Eleanor), and "Helena". I don't mind, but always chuckle a little when someone introduces Mark and I, and, being much more familiar with Mark's common name, they refer to us in a thank-you speech or a prayer as "Ma'ake mo .. hono hoa," or "Mark and his partner," a very respectful and careful way to refer to us!

My name, which is virtually the same pronunciation in Spanish, Russian, Greek, and English, is at least not quite as strange to Tonga as some. My absolute favourite English name has been that of a recent candidate for Parliament. He is named Seventeen (not in Tongan, straight up Seventeen in English), but everyone, not just me, thought that was a bit too out of the ordinary.


  1. Wow, what a fascinating insight into another culture. In huge contrast, we refused to tell anybody our names, even our families, until after our son was born...

  2. It's funny, I never even made the connection between Puke and vomit until your post.

  3. Malo e lelei 'a 'Elena,

    In many ways, Old Testament names often have significant reason of all varites behind it. Many times it can speak of past "defining event, landmark, prophecy, dreams, etc..." And at many other ways names often announce what coming ahead. Interesting enough, I became more and more aware of these expressions everytime I am asked about what Sione means and is Tu'uta (last name) really mean anything? Tongan names and its meaning most of the time have the same sense as those old testament usages.

    On a lighter side of what 'Elena share here is that Tongan participate in this endearing expression of calling each other by a "shortening" of each other's full name. It is a sign/expression of endearment - deep love and very close relationship. I am aware that in other settings and cultures that this could be disrespectful act....not in the Tongan setting. Very very facinating and interest practice.....and I miss that!

    Also, 'Elena will tell you that Tongan children call their parent by their names instead of (mom and dad - same for the extended family members). At times, I find myself in moments where step children call their step parent by their first name and I sense the distant or the line that is drawn between how each other relates to one another....huuuuummmmm - very opposite of the far flung islands in the south pacifics...

    Thanks again 'Elena for sharing your experiences with us.


  4. Sam, thank you for your comment!
    Sione, wow, thank you for a valuable addition to this post! I definitely remember being very confused when I heard kids calling their parents by their first names- exactly because of that distance it implies in the US. But instead, it implies the opposite here- love and respect for one's parent. It really is such a different context.
    If it's OK with you, I'd like to add the last two paragraphs of your comment to the post- just so more people can see it without having to click on the Comments section. Thanks again!

  5. John, well I apologize to Puke then for making the connection for you! :D

  6. Yes, 'Elena - go for it...glad that I can contribute to the sharing you have....Say hi to 'Asinate for me (Ki's older brother who live in Louisiana)


  7. I have a question. I am half Tongan and half Native American, and am just learning the Tongan language. My parents divorced when i was an infant and so i was never raised around other Tongans or Polynesians. Is there a translation for the name "Jayson" or "Jason" and also for the name "Dalton"? Thank you very much for any help.


    1. Hi Jayson, good on you for learning Tongan! There really isn't a translation for Jayson or for Dalton, but don't let that stop you Tonganizing it. I know a Jason here who calls himself Soni, so you may want to use some version of that. People make up nicknames constantly!

  8. I worked in the falemate for many years and I have seenmany interesting names across all cultures as well as reasons behind the names. I was glad to read your article as I to know how it feel to call parents by their first names.


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