A Russian teacher at my school recently switched to teaching English, and I never noticed her name too often when I first got here, mainly because she didn’t work with me directly.
Her name is Nergui.
“Ner” (нэр) is the Mongolia word for name. “Gui” (-гүй) is a suffix that you can attach to different words to make a negative form. Roughly translated, her name is “not name” or “no name.” With such colorfully inspired names like Golden Flower and Eternal Happiness, I was curious as to why she was bestowed with such a curious name.
I spoke to my teachers one day after a meeting. Nergui had to leave, so she excused herself from the room. I spoke with my other teachers about Mongolian names, and casually brought in Nergui’s name. They conferred with one another in Mongolian before electing someone to give their explanation.
“Sometimes,” she began, “there is a… sick child. We give names like this to sick child.”
“So you give special name to children who are sick?”
“They are always sick. Easy to get sick? Something like this.”
“Ah, so the child is sickly? They get sick easily?”
“Yes, I think so.”
They explained that some other common names to give these children include “not this” (энэбиш), “not it/that” (тэрбиш), and, surprisingly enough, “pants” (өмд). They told me that if you gave a sickly child a name like one of these, it would assure that the child would grow up healthy and have many children of their own. They used the word for “to be kept safe” (хадагадах, which is also a palindrome) to explain this to me.
I remember reading about names in a Mongolian culture book that Peace Corps had. Apparently, back in the day when shamanism reigned supreme, there was a belief that these sickly children were being attacked or bothered by evil spirits. In order to repulse the spirits, they were given unusual names. Without the spirits harassing them, it was thought, the child would be protected, and could live on to have a normal, healthy life.
It makes you wonder who out there has these unique names.