My first ever exposure to a Nasrani (the colloquial term for a Kerala Syrian Christian, derived from Nazarene which means the ‘one from Nazareth’) was in primary school. I had a maths teacher named Eliamma. When she walked in and introduced her sweet self, the entire class was tickled. Being hard core Tamils, we all wondered how anyone could name themselves after a lowly rat. Years later, I was pretty embarrassed when I found out that the ‘Eli’ in Eliamma was simply a diminutive of Elizabeth!
So, recently, when someone made fun of the Kerala Chief Minister with a sly, “How can a man be called Women Chandy?” I had to explain the cultural nuance to that oaf. He didn’t know Oommen Chandy was a common Syrian Christian name. Had he been told that Oommen was a localised version of Thomman or Thomas and Chandy was the Malayali way of communicating Sandy or Alexander, he would have probably cocked up.
Come to think of it, several hard core Keralites aren’t aware of the etymology of their neighbour’s surnames. I knew a guy called Eapen. His name sounded similar to Aiyappan. I hypothesised that perhaps both had the same roots. He nodded wisely. The fact is we were wrong. Apparently, Eapen and Esthappan draw their roots from Stephen. There’s a wealth of material on the internet on the origin of Nasrani surnames.
I wish to share a few pearls that caught my fancy. Are you aware that Chacko is a distant cousin of Yakub that later became Jacob? Bangaloreans who are in awe of Koshy’s may not even have a clue that Koshy is etymologically related to Joshua. I was equally bemused when I learned that Varghese owed its existence to George. If that’s true, then George Varghese is worth a ponder.
Kurien, Kuriakose and Kuruvilla are, ostensibly, fruits from the family tree of Cyriac. Mathai flows from Mathew. And surprise, surprise: Ninan is a derivative of John; Cherian is a descendant of Zacharias; while Pothen is a by-product of Philip. Somehow I would have imagined Pothen to be connected to Botham or Bodin.
I ‘simbly’ can’t figure out the Mallus, I say!
Got any Syrian Christian surname stories? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org