Great Benin Bronze


Edo Names in Nigeria and Georgia

Summary of a lecture delivered at

Central Conecticut State University on April 19, 1995

by Roger Westcott
Professor Emeritus, Drew University

Proper names are a human universal. Originally, all names had a transparent
meaning. They were invariably derived from common words or phrases. In
English, for example, the surname Smith is derived from the obsolescent noun
smith, meaning "metal-worker." Each individual had only one name, which was
by definition a forevalue, like Dick or Jane.

The practice of giving an individual several names arose only in complex societies, as a result of
either or both of two developments. One was increasing population, producing
communities in which a number of people received the same name. In Medieval
England, for example, a village in which there were two men named John might
distinguish them by calling the one who ground grain John Miller and the one
who made bread John Baker. The other development was class stratification,
yielding elites who wanted their names to proclaim their superior status. In
Benin, for example, chiefs and kings were awarded, in addition to their
birth-names, praise-names like "The Leopard" or "The Greatest One."

Edo belongs to the most wide-spread of the five great language families of
Africa. Variably known as Niger-Congo or Congo-Kordofanian, it contains most
of the languages of coastal West Africa as well as all the Bantu languages
of eastern and southern Africa, including Swahili.

In Nigeria, few Edo personal names are occupational, as so many European
names are. And none are patronymic, like English Wilson ("son of Will").
Instead, most are descriptive, like the female name Evbu, "Misty," or the
male name Odayon, "Palm-wine drinker." Some are local, like Ode, "road"
(short for Abievbode, "born along the road"). Others are temporal, like
Edegbe, "day-break" (meaning "born at dawn"), a name-type that is rare in
English. Many Edo descriptive names consist not of single words but of
short sentences like Osahon, "god hears (my prayer for a child)" - a
name-type which, during the 17th century Puritan period, was common in
English but has since then ceased to be popular.

In Nigeria, many Edo names were given not only to people but also to gods,
tribes, rivers, and planets (these are technically known as theonyms,
ethnonyms, toponyms, and astronyms, respectively, in contradistinction to
personal names, technically termed authroponyms). When Edo war-captives
were sold to European slavers, many were transported to the coast islands of
Georgia and South Carolina. There they lost the conversational use of Edo ,
learning instead the slightly Africanized English known as Gullah or
Geechee. But they retained their African names, which they used among
themselves, alongside the Christian names of Eurasian origin by which they
were known to whites.

Recent commercial development of the Georgia and South Carolina coast by
chains of resort complexes has unfortunately forced many, if not most,
Gullah-speakers out of their island homes. Such distinctively African
linguistic traits as Edo personal names are now rapidly vanishing in North

Edo Names in Nigeria and Georgia: Summary of a lecture by Roger Westcott in Africa
Summary of a lecture delivered at Central Conecticut State University on April 19, 1995


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