Onomastics of Tamil Personal Names – Part 1

by Sachi Sri Kantha, February 23, 2016

Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

I contributed a regular column about Tamil personal names to the Tamil Nation (London) [August 12, 1992] print edition, under my pseudonym C.P. Goliard. As 23 years had passed since then, I revisit this vital theme on the onomastics of Tamil personal names and provide additional materials which were quoted in my original column.

Here is one reason, what made me to write this column. Our second daughter was born in June 1992, seven weeks after I wrote this column. Before her birth, I had decided on a very popular Hindu name Uma [the consort of Lord Shiva], if the baby happened to be a girl. One special preference was the minimal number of alphabets it has; two in Tamil and three in English. While I was discussing this particular name in my lab, two of my young Japanese women assistants expressed a dislike for this name, because ‘Uma’ means ‘horse’ in Japanese language. They insisted that I should change my preferred name for the new born baby. Though Saki (my wife, a Japanese too) was agreeable to my choice of Uma name, I did listen to the reasons of my Japanese colleagues, and choose the name Sangita for our second daughter.

Onomastics or onamatology [Greek, onoma= name] is the field which specializes in studying the origin, spread, history and use of names. Another reason, why I became interested in onomastics was due to my teenage idol, boxing champion Muhammad Ali (b. 1942) who changed his given name Cassius Clay Jr. in 1964, which caused much furor in USA then. I believe that Tamil onomastics is an interesting area which has been left untouched so far. Younger generations of Tamil origin in the diaspora may gain some perspectives to dig their roots and ancestry from this field. As such, I present this multi-part series on the onomastics of Tamil personal names. For obvious reasons, I have to limit the focus mainly to Eelam (Sri Lankan) Tamils.

Bashir Qureshi column 1990

Tamil Names (1992 Column) – A Revised and Expanded Version 

‘What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

by any other name would smell so sweet?’ [Act 2, Scene 1]

wrote Shakespeare, for his play Romeo and Juliet. But that play was written almost 400 years ago by the Bard. Now, even the Bard will agree that ‘there’s a lot in a name’, especially if it happens to be a Tamil name in Britain (or anywhere else other than Tamilnadu or Eelam).

To explain my point, I will transcribe some relevant portions of a thought provoking piece which appeared in the British Medical Journal of Feb. 17, 1990. It was written by Bashir Qureshi, a general practitioner.

“The Royal Society of Medicine hosted a two day international conferenced, entitled ‘Cancer Today’, at an elegant hotel in London…A hospital consultant, an oncologist and  a general practitioner were selected to open the debate by speaking for three minutes; the first two were Englishmen, but the general practitioner was a British Asian (to be precise a Tamil from Sri Lanka)…

South Indian Names 1983The Chairman of the conference (who) arrived to organize the sequence for the three discussions, wrote down the two English names without any reaction but was stunned when he heard the southern Indian name, and his eyes opened wide. The chairman was clever and he divided the name into syllables so as to enable him to pronounce it correctly. It sounded like Jaya-sri-vasta-wa (first name) Nava-rat-num (surname).

Incidentally, southern Indians and Sri Lankans are short people with long names. If a surname ends in a vowel the person is a Sinhali (Buddhist) but if it does not the person is a Tamil (Hindu).”

Guessing that the contributor of this piece is a Pakistani and that his crass identification criterion between Sinhalese and Tamils (based on the presence or absence of vowel at the ending of the name) is erroneous, I mailed my comments to the British Medical Journal on March 1, 1990 to correct this misrepresentation. I wrote,

“Being a Sri Lankan Tamil and possessing a surname ending with a vowel, I was bemused to read Bashir Qureshi’s generalization…Maybe he also has not heard the surname of the present Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, India, Muthuvel Karunanidhi which ends with a vowel. In fact, numerous Dravidian surnames end with the following suffixes, which have a vowel in the end: ‘pillai’ (literal meaning: child), ‘thurai’ and ‘sami’ (literal meaning: Lord), and ‘muthu’ (literal meaning: pearl).

Though the British Medical Journal did not publish my correspondence (presumably because it was not of great medical interest to its readers), one of the editors wrote a courteous letter thanking me for taking the time to clarify the matter and he assured that my comments would be passed on to Dr. Bashir Qureshi, who wrote the original piece.

In this regard, it is relevant to reproduce a portion of another letter which appeared in the reputed British science journal Nature of Feb.17, 1983, under the caption ‘South Indian names’. It was written by one M.V. Ramana. He noted,

“The way the surnames are derived is different in the four South Indian states. The Andhras and the Kannadigas derive their family name through the paternal line, all generations having the same family name. The Tamilians have as their surname their father’s given name with no constant family name. The Malayalees (of the state of Kerala) have two family names, one from the paternal line and the other from the maternal line, the males carrying the constant paternal family name and the females carrying the constant maternal name.”

That is correct. The Tamilians (whether they live in Tamilnadu, Eelam, Singapore or Malaysia) traditionally do not carry a constant family name. But now, with computerization of so many documents including the vital ones such as passport, the necessity to create a family name has to be satisfied. Every individual living in the diaspora is free to create (or chose) his or her family name.

I would suggest that rather than having one initial (standing for the father’s name), Eelam Tamils need to add another one, which would ideally be a place name (of birth or long-term residence). Traditionally, Tamils in Tamil Nadu do have this practice. Examples are as follows:

C (Conjeepuram) N. Annadurai

C (Chidambaram) S. Jayaraman

N (Nagarkoil) S. Krishnan

Here, the place name appears as the first initial in the name of the person. To make a distinction, Eelam Tamils can put the place name as the middle name (or the second initial). For example,

  1. V (Valvettiturai) Prabhakaran
  2. A (Amirthakali) Anandan

Bu this means, Tamils living in the diaspora can honour their place of birth or long term residence in Eelam, and they will create an identity which will help the future generations of Tamil progeny to trace their roots.

In the past three decades or so, family names have been found to be useful in a variety of genetic and demographic studies. I will list some of the titles of recent research papers which illustrate this trend.

  • Surnames and cancer genes (Human Biology, April 1989)
  • Ethnicity determination by names among the Aymara of Chile and Bolivia (Human Biology, April 1989)
  • Analysis of marital structure in Massachusetts using repeating pairs of surnames (Human Biology, Feb. 1992)

One of America’s leading geneticists, James Crow, who authored the now classic paper entitled, ‘Measurement of inbreeding from the frequency of marriages between persons of the same surname’ in 1965, had proposed the use of surname analysis as a tool in the investigation of population genetics.

Why the Tamils of Tamil Nadu and Eelam have not adopted the surname system, like the Western countries, is a worthy question to ponder. But now, the time has come to unite with the rest of the world to initiate the trend of using first, middle and last name. I would propose that Eelam Tamils in diaspora, consider using the name of place (of birth or long term residence in Eelam) as their middle name.

William Shakespeare might be correct in writing that oft-quoted verse, ‘What’s in a name?’, as long as it applies to rose or other non-human objects. But for humans, to quote Prof. Judith Bula Jacobs, “Names are so much a part of our identity that it is easy to underestimate their importance and meanings. Names affect our interpersonal transactions, self-esteem, ethnic identity, gender respect and developmental awareness.

“But names, naming, and name-calling issues have even broader repercussions. Grounded in systems theory, research in the ways of neighborhoods, organizations, and nations select their names and name meanings can increase our understanding of the macro-contexts of names, naming, and name calling. Many states and provinces bear names of native American tribes. Many nations use ‘united’ in their names. Names can promote self-esteem; join us across age, gender and cultural differences; help us understand what it might mean to become ‘united’ as a globe. Or names can divide us, debase us. To make these choices, we must become aware of the power inherent in names, naming, and name calling.” (Journal of Contemporary Human Services, July 1980).

In the bibliography on surname onomastics presented below, I could find only one study (that of Raja Jayaraman, an associate professor affiliated to University of Western Sydney, Australia; published in 2005) which covers the Tamil names. He has provided an interesting survey on Indian naming customs of Hindus, and infers that ‘naming customs are not static, but respond to changes in the social, cultural, and political life of the nation; and that both national and international migration have modified Indian naming customs.’

The only reference I could locate on the personal names of Eelam Tamils was a brief paragraph of five sentences in Jaffna (Sri Lanka) 1980, authored by American missionary Robert W. Holmes (116-1998). He had written,

“The usual method of naming children in Jaffna is to give them their own name by which they will be known throughout life, with their father’s name as an initial. So Mr. Kandasamy’s children will be K. Nadarajah, K. Kandiah and K. Saraswathi. His friends and neighbours are expected to know these names and never to forget them, so they are not confused by the system as foreigners so often are. However, not all Jaffnese follow the Tamil system. Some, particularly Christians, keep the family name for generation after generation as is common in the West.”

In fact, in early 1980s, I did have a brief letter correspondence with Dr. Holmes on some of the themes covered in his Jaffna 1980 book.


A Select Bibliography on Surname Onomastics (alphabetically arranged)

Ashley DJB, Davis HD. The use of the surname as a genetic marker in Wales. Journal of Medical Genetics, 1966; 3: 203-211.

Balakrishnan R. African roots of the Dravidian-speaking Tribes: a case in onomastics. International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics, 2005; 34: 153-202.

Balanovsky OP, Buzhilova AP, Balanovskaya EV. Russian gene pool: gene geography of surnames. Russian Journal of Genetics, 2001; 37(7): 807-822.

Chakraborty R, Barton SA, Ferrell RE, Schull WJ. Ethnicity determination by names among the Aymara of Chile and Bolivia. Human Biology, Apr 1989; 61(2): 159-177.

Cleek RK. Surnames and cancer genes. Human Biology, Apr 1989; 61(2): 195-211.

Crow JF, Mange AP. Measurement of inbreeding from the frequency of marriages between persons of the same surname. Eugenics Quarterly, 1965; 12(4): 199-203.

Crow JF. Surnames as biological markers: Discussion. Human Biology, May 1983; 55(2): 383-397.

Fisher RA, Vaughan J. Surnames and blood groups. Nature, 1939; 144: 1047-1048.

Healy MJR. The lengths of surnames. Journal of Royal Statistical Society, series A (General), 1968; 131(4): 567-568.

Jacobs JB. Names, naming and name calling in practice with families. Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 1990; 71(7): 415-421.

Jayaraman R. Personal identity in a globalized world: cultural roots of Hindu personal names and surnames. Journal of Popular Culture, 2005; 38(3): 476-490.

Jell-Bahlsen S. Names and naming: instances from the Oru-Igbo. Dialectical Anthropology, 1989; 13: 199-207.

Kotilinen S. The geneology of personal names: towards a more productive method in historical onomastics. Scandinavian Journal of History, 2011; 36(1): 44-64.

Lasker GW. Surnames in the study of human biology. American Anthropologist 1980; 82: 525-538.

Morrow L. The strange burden of a name (Essay), Time magazine, March 8, 1993, p. 52.

Nagata ML. Why did you change your name? Name changing patterns and the life course in early Modern Japan. History of Family, 1999; 4(3): 315-338.

Qureshi B. Multicultural Medicine: The evil eye. British Medical Journal, Feb 3, 1990; 300: 320.

Ramana MV. South Indian names. Nature, 1983; 301: 560.

Relethford JH. Analysis of marital structure in Massachusetts using repeating pairs of surnames. Human Biology, Feb 1992; 64(1): 25-33.

Roberts JAF. Surnames and blood groups, with a note on a probable remarkable difference between North and South Wales. Nature, 1942; 149: 138.

Tan PKW. Evolving naming patters: anthroponymics within a theory of the dynamics of non-Anglo Englishes. World Englishes, 2004; 23(3): 367-384.

Yasuda N. Studies of isonymy and inbreeding in Japan. Human Biology, May 1983; 55(2): 263-276.

Yasuda N, Cavalli-Sforza LL, Skolnick M, Moroni A. The evolution of surnames: an analysis of their distribution and extinction. Theoretical Population Biology, 1974; 5: 123-142.

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No Responses to “Onomastics of Tamil Personal Names – Part 1”

  1. Sachi Sri Kantha

    A correction to the Front Note:
    In the second paragraph, second sentence, I had erroneously written, ‘Our second daughter was born in June 1992, seven weeks after I wrote this column.’ It should be, ‘Our second daughter was born in June 1992, seven weeks before I wrote this column. The error is regretted.

  2. Vibhushana

    Well, your surname “Kantha” has no meaningful equalant in the Tamil lexicon. As with many Tamil surnames in Ceylon yours is a Tamilised Sinhala name.

    I would presume “Kantha” would have been “Kanda” (or mountain) originally.

    Why on earth would one want to name one self after a mountain is an entirely another issue. Perhaps your forefathers were from a mountainous region.

  3. Sachi Sri Kantha

    I’ll respond promptly to reader Vibhushana’s comment in part 2 of this series, if he(she) let us know his given Sinhalese name. Why be a coward to hide behind a villain’s character name in Hindu Ramayana epic?