The Name Nigeria, What Is in a Name...?


Prince Charles Dickson

Jos, Plateau Nigeria


Names From Obasanjo, Abati, Atiku, Nda, Matto, Charles...names, I am yet to see anybody who does not have one, the English language calls it a noun. Everyone and everything has one, from the very popular to those that are virtual unknown. The first thing one asks a kid on meeting is, what is your name? Most people have a vague idea what their own means, but few give them much more thought. The study of names is called onomastics, it is a Greek work that sounds like Onome, a Niger Delta name..  (onoma), which means, "name". It is a field that touches on linguistics, history, anthropology, sociology, philology and much more.



Questions onomasticians try to answer about given names include:


*        What they mean - their etymology or origin.

*        How they affect the people, their cultures.

*        Why names are chosen.



This is not intended to be a controversial essay but again as always to provoke us into thought...I will try as permit-able to make common sense of the issues that I would raise, and also task our mental reasoning and maybe this little contribution in the near future would be part of the process to building a new nation, call it a nation named freedom, a nation with meaning. This essay is not as academic as it may sound; it is done with the love of nation and believe that we all can contribute towards a redefining of this nation of ours.


Etymology is the study of the origins of words. The etymology of a word is its linguistic history. The word etymology comes to us from the Ancient Greek Language. It is composed of two parts: the Greek word etymon, which means "the true sense of a word", combined with the Greek element logia, which means "doctrine, study". Combining these two parts gives us "the study of the true sense of words", which can be said to be the 'meaning' of the word etymology.


So my first question would what is the etymology of the word Nigeria, while we ponder on that, my research showed the country's name first appeared in print in The Times in 1897 and was suggested by the paper's colonial editor Flora Shaw who would later marry Fredrick Lugard, the first Governor General of the Amalgamated Nigeria. The name comes from a combination of the words "Niger" (the country's longest river) and "Area". Its adjective form is Nigerian, which should not be confused with Nigerien for Niger.


The origin of the name Niger is unknown. It is often assumed that it derives from the Latin word for "black", niger, but there is no evidence for this, and it would have been more likely for Portuguese explorers to have used their own word, negro, or preto as they did elsewhere in the world; in any case the Niger is not a blackwater river. The name is thus thought to be indigenous, but no convincing origin has been found among the 30 languages of the Niger delta and lower reaches of the river. One hypothesis is that it comes from the Tuareg phrase gher n gheren "river of rivers" (shortened to ngher), originating in the middle reaches of the river around Timbuktu.


The nations of Nigeria and Niger are named after the river. The people who live along it have a variety of names for it, notably Jeliba in Manding and Isa Ber "big river" in Songhay. The Romans had heard of the Niger and called it Dasibari; the middle and lower course of the Niger was also known as Quorra, also of unknown origin.


In writing this essay I spoke to a number of historians, spoke with Nigerians and no one could give me a satisfactory explanation, definition, in one word no one could give me the etymology of the name Nigeria, the common thread was that the name was given to us by Flora Shaw, it means Niger Area and I asked how many of us would name our kids Abuja, Lagos or Kaduna Area because they were born close those places or would we just address our pet as obajoke or athiefku without as much as knowing the origin of the names.


What is in a name, why is it that Matthews, Joshuas, Solomons, Peters, in our political landscape have not behaved to name. Can someone show me a stealing or a corrupt government official and I will tell you the history, the origin, anthropology and philosophy of the name whether Muslim, Christian or Pagan and the question then is why are they like they are. Do they respect the values that the names stand for, and talking about values, what value does the name Nigeria stand for?


Is it because we do not know the meaning of Nigeria or could it be because we do not know the origin of the name that we have attached a phenomenon to it called the Nigerian myth or the Nigerian factor...I looked up the web and got a search engine to do me a search on nation, names and their meanings, I did this via a random sampling and my find was noteworthy. When I entered the name Nigeria, the laughable shock was I actually got close, I saw the name Nkiru, an Igbo name and I could not but shake my head.


For the name Ghana, it had both the Arabic and indigenous meaning, from Warrior King, Kings land to gold, precious stones and what have you. It was very explanatory as regards origin, linguistics, and much more, it stretched to now Ivory Coast and talked about similarities in meaning with Togo. Sadly there was nothing on Nigeria.


I almost want to say at this point that hence Nigeria has no meaning, can we not start to give it an etymology, after all what we want as Nigerians are simple, a Nigeria that is as good as its promise. We need a Nigeria that is a definition of principles, of idealism, of character, not birthplace, creed, ethnic group or tribe. This lack of origin is one that has led to a weakness of attitude, which translates to weakness of character.


Our name Nigeria has left a sour taste in the mouth right from time, we have become fanatical, we cannot change our mind, we cannot change the subject, so we are still grappling with the same problems, only the styles that change and new terminologies developed but the ideology be it corruption or ethnicity it remains largely the same. So our culture has been shaped by the Nigerian factor, one that we have been forced to develop for lack of direction, for lack of a beginning. So as a nation we have continued with a culture of indifference.


When we do not know the meaning of our name, we do not know why it was chosen, our case can then be only likened to getting a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. Telling our leaders who are Nigerians to tell the truth is like un-Nigerianizing them, they lie about everything, they are loved for what they are not, they speak of changing Nigeria, but they are not changing. For lack of an origin, because we do not know the why of Nigeria, we have leaders that have integrity without knowledge, thus they are weak and useless, the other lot possesses knowledge without integrity and this equally portends danger and a dreadful end.


Do we appreciate Nigeria, if we do not, we do not deserve it, we want the Nigeria of our dreams, with this and that, with leadership made in heaven but we have refused to go back and ask patiently what is Nigeria, who is Nigeria, what makes Nigeria? Today it is all talk about reforms, anti-corruption, dividends of democracy, yet we forget that these are not new, no one catches a fish in anger. That Nigeria has gone wrong, should we also go wrong with Nigeria, can we not help Nigeria take a new meaning, animals do not hate and we are supposed to be better than them.


To our leaders, the true measure of an individual is how he treats a person who can do him absolutely no good. For us the ordinary Nigerians we cannot do everything at once, but we can do something at once. We cannot start to give a new meaning to this structure called Nigeria, we have to change it from a Niger area of corruption, an area of lawlessness, an area of bad leadership to an area of hope, an area of godly expectation, an area where all and sundry are treated fair and square. In contemporary Nigeria we have continued to exhibit that we have neither history nor heritage apart from all the scatters of cultures from Odua to Arewa, Biafra to South-South.


I end this with this encounter, a politician who was charged with profanity for calling an opponent a bastard: the politician retorted, "When I call him s.o.b I am not using profanity. I am only referring to the circumstances of his birth". What is the circumstance of the birth of Nigeria, can anything be done to bring destiny and fate to conjure up some good for us all? Almighty Allah help us.