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Sandy's Say: Clue-Doh

What’s in a name? Well for one thing there can be an all-too-obvious warning, and for another a huge plateful of embarrassment as Sandy James reveals after summoning the courage to announce the place of her birth.

To read more of Sandy’s delicious columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/sandys_say/

What’s in a name? Quite a lot actually if you care to study the matter a bit more closely. Sometimes names hint at probability, one which we ignore at our peril.

A triathlon was held here in Sydney last year and the swimmers had to thrash their way around Shark Island. Why then were the organisers surprised when a shark showed up in the middle of the race and caused utter panic and chaos?

Hello, people. Call me the voice of experience but was a big, fat clue not right there to start with? If you had wanted a safe swim wouldn’t Kiddies Corner, Fairy Bower or Winki Pop beaches have been wiser sounding options? Do you think that Deadman’s Beach, The Wall or The Toilet Bowl were christened these names by hunky surfers because they have waves of a placid nature? I don’t think so.

On the evening news last week it was announced that a poor young woman had been raped by a bus driver whilst travelling on his bus. Armed with local knowledge that the word ‘root’ is Australian crude vernacular for sexual intercourse, was there not a definite warning when the destination on the front of the bus read ‘Rooty Hill’? Surely I can’t be the only person who picked up on this double entendre? Come on, people. Call me the voice of cynicism but there was a hint there.

If place names play a part in suggesting one’s destiny, what hope then is there for me – a child born in Wankie of mother who had lived in Bangalore? The first home I lived in was on Prospect Hill but out in the middle of nowhere in the Rhodesian bush there was little prospect of anything other than heat, dust and boredom. It should have been renamed No Prospect Hill. This is a case of a deliberately misleading name. Perhaps it had been labelled by a deceptive estate agent hoping to generate a quick sale.

‘Wankie’ was an unfortunate corruption of the traditional name, Hwange. Colonialists are guilty of these misinterpretations throughout Africa and in so doing, many a warning is lost forever. In Durban, South Africa there is an Umgeni River which, when translated into Zulu, has no meaning whatsoever. It is said that an English man asked a local, Zulu man what the river was called. The Zulu man, knowing that the river was full of hippos and crocodiles warned, “Musa ukungena” which means ‘don’t enter / don’t go in’ and our ignorant white man misheard and misunderstood, hence the senseless name and a wasted opportunity to forewarn others.

The Zulus are masters of onomatopoeically suitable names. There is a place in Kwa Zulu called Ixopo. Now, if you know that ‘x’ is a click pronounced at the side of your mouth, similar to when one encourages a horse to gee up, then you will understand that this place is named after the noise which the cattle’s hooves made as they struggled along and pulled their legs out of the mud. Pure genius. Another appropriate name is that of the ‘iklwa’ or stabbing spear, which when pronounced with a guttural ‘k’ mimics the sticky, resistant sound made by a spear being pulled from flesh. Charming, I know but nonetheless perfectly descriptive. So much more fun than “yanked it out”, don’t you think?

Based on this naming hypothesis, I would advise travellers to Africa to give Bulawayo a miss. In case your Ndebele is a bit rusty, the name translates as ‘Place of Slaughter’. You have been warned. Of course, this is not to be confused with Lower Slaughter in the English Cotswolds. Here is yet another example of a corrupted name. It is thought to have come from the Old English word ‘slohtre’ which means muddy place. Whilst on the topic of the Cotswolds, what was that rollicking, Anglo-Saxon comedian smoking when he romped through there on a naming expedition? Never since has the world seen such a conglomeration of peculiar place names: Upper Swell, Lower Swell, Stow on the Wold, Oddington, Chipping Norton, Broad Campden and Moreton in Marsh, to name but a few.

The most obvious name clue of all time sat under our very noses, undetected for years. It is not a place name but a surname - Bernie Madoff - perpetrator of the largest investment fraud in all of history. Perhaps we were thrown off the scent by mispronouncing his name. It is not pronounced ‘Ma doff’ but should be articulated as ‘Mei dof’. Yeh. Doh. MADE OFF with $65 billion! Talk about stating the bleeding obvious. Wake up, people. We were handed that one on a plate.

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