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By Jim Engle
In America and in much of the Western World in recent centuries a woman has typically given up her last name, her family name, when she marries. She sacrifices a part of her identity and takes on that of her husband; thus Peg Groff became Peg Engle when she married me. In the past few decades some couples have tried to be more equitable by using a hyphenated name, especially if the woman has become well known by her maiden name. So we considered using Peg and Jim Groff-Engle. Occasionally both members of a married couple will each keep their own names. In America this sometimes gives the impression that the two are not really married, so it is helpful then to say, for example, Jim Engle and Peg Groff, a married couple.
But other countries have different customs with names. In Ethiopia it is customary for a woman to keep her birth name even after marriage. This can be a problem for a naïve visitor in Ethiopia who then may have trouble figuring out who is husband and wife in a group, or especially when looking at a list of names. To further complicate things for a Westerner, Ethiopians do not use family names, last names, as Americans do. Ethiopians will traditionally use the father's first name as the person's second name. According to this pattern my oldest son would be David Jim; the second would be Michael Jim, etc.
Before you smile too broadly, remember that this is a biblical pattern: "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?" (Jn. 21:17). The Old Testament pattern is similar; in 1 Sm. 9:1 Saul's father is Kish son of Abiel son of Zeror, son of Becorath, etc. Ethiopians will often take their line back through numerous generations going from father's first name to grandfather's first name to great-grandfather's first name. Thus my oldest son would be David Jim John Edgar Eli, etc. There are clues that this may once have been the custom in Scandinavia and Great Britain . Think of names like Johnson (John's son) or Hanson (Hans' son), Erickson, Andersen, and so on. In Ireland mac (son of) was added in front of the father's name giving MacArthur, MacIntosh, MacDonald, MacGregor, etc. Also in Arabic, for instance, Ibn Saoud, would be literally, son of Saoud.
In Ethiopia a girl will also typically carry her father's first name as her second name; thus my daughter would be Karis Jim. Many Ethiopians would be certain that the first name of my wife's father was Groff, since her name was Peg Groff. So while it is possible to identify siblings who will all carry their father's name as their second name, it becomes almost impossible to recognize larger family connections at a glance as we do in America with the Smith's, the Weaver's, the Carpenters, etc. And when did they start using a person's profession as part of the name?
Different countries, different languages, and different religions have their own typical names. An educated person could make a good guess as to which country, gender, and perhaps to which religion, Yohannes, John, Hans, Juan, Giovanni, Ivan, Joanna, Juanita, Yvonne belong. Names that are common in some areas may sound very strange in other regions. In America Mohammed, Ali, Tadessa, Truwurk, and Rivkah might sound strange even though they are common somewhere else.
In our Ethiopian context Jim and Peg are not familiar names and a person can be forgiven for not recognizing which name belongs to a male and which to a female. So I have, on occasion, appeared suddenly, as in coming around a corner, and heard the person begin to greet me as Peg, instead of Jim. Well after all we are jointly Peg-n-Jim, or is it Jim-n-Peg.
In Ethiopia if one adds a title of respect such as Mr. (Ato) or Mrs. (Wezero), one adds it to the person's first name not the second name. So I become not Ato Engle, but Ato Jim; and Peg becomes Wezero Peg. One somewhat informed Ethiopian who knew enough English to say Mrs., rather proudly addressed my wife as Mrs. Groff, using her maiden name by which he knew her in earlier years.
Now in the confusion of customs and language and strange sounding names, one who knows enough English to address me as mister, might nonetheless end up calling me Mr. Peg. And this has happened. I feel a little reduced in the process, subordinated, just a footnote to my wife. Suddenly I experience what thousands of women have felt for generations in the Western countries. Likely most of us could benefit from such a gentle adjustment to our ego from time to time.
I have learned to accept a secondary role to Peg in Ethiopia from the beginning of our relationship. First because she handles the Amharic language with some skill; I do not. Second because she knows the Ethiopian customs and geography and streets so much better than I. And thirdly she has a thirty-some-year network of friends that extends back well before our marriage. To many of Peg's old friends I am simply Peg's husband; and I am happy to accompany this well-loved and respected, and almost famous person. For some, I suspect that I am Peg's trophy, her "catch," the answer to their prayers for her for some years. Recently while visiting a hospital where she had worked long ago she was warmly greeted, "Aeye Miss Groff, Miss Groff."
Later from another person, I was hearing, "O Peggyaa" and "Groffyaa." I guess it sounded so normal to Peg that she hardly noticed, but I did. To me Peg is Peg Engle, not Miss Groff, or Mrs. Groff; but I can understand this quite well in an Ethiopian context. So where Peg is loved and respected I am happy to be an attachment to her. I might as well be Mr. Peg, humbly if possible.
There is something about knowing a person's name that gives better access to that person. Some sales techniques teach the salesperson to use the name of the customer as often as possible, under the assumption that everyone likes to hear one's own name. One is "programmed" over the years to respond to one's own name. Did you ever notice how you can hear someone whisper your name even on the far side of a crowded room?
Knowing a person's name gives a certain power over that other person. If you know someone's name you can control them better. I sometimes tell students that when God revealed God's name to Moses (Ex. 6:2-3) as Yahweh (the LORD) instead of El Shaddai (God Almighty), God was giving Moses a handle to get a hold of God. In a way it was like revealing God's "first name" to Moses, and saying you may call me any time. I remember hearing about a college student doing a teaching practicum in a public school setting where students asked him what his first name was. Not wishing to give the students that much control over him he replied that his first name was "Mister!"
Not long ago I experienced the power of knowing a name in a different context. Peg and I were casually introduced to an American woman organizer of a conference that called together several hundred Ethiopian college students. At the beginning of one session she suddenly realized that she needed help to figure out the overhead projector. Not knowing where to turn for help she remembered my name and thought that I could help her. I would hardly have volunteered to walk to the front of that group to try to solve a mechanical problem - actually, find a place to plug it in; but when she said, "Jim, would you please come and help me?" I felt compelled to respond. When she used my name, she had power over me. Is this why people seem increasingly to introduce themselves only by their first name in some casual introduction? So people do not get enough of their name to contact them later?
The Mr. Peg story is not quite finished. My humbled ego has been restored. Soon after we returned to Ethiopia Peg encountered in the street a student connected to the college where we taught. The student looked at Peg with some sense of recognition, I suppose, and asked in all seriousness, "Are you Mr. Peg's wife?" So Peg became an attachment to the man attached to her.