Sunday, April 1, 2012

Cool Tibetan Baby Names - Reloaded

Mastiff and felt boots by Dropenling

Readers have asked about the baby names list which I mentioned in passing in You Name It! back in 2009Although the list is personal and wasn´t intended to be published, if it helps future parents find a beautiful name for their lovely babies, heck, why not? So here comes the improved, free version of Mountain Phoenix’ “Cool Tibetan Baby Names” for modern Tibetan parents, including some bonus material on how you could create your own baby names list, if you haven’t done that already.

And these are the names that made it into our final list – ladies first:



Tibetan for “moon goddess”

Contraction of Dawa and Lhamo

Exclamation of joy
Comparable to Spanish olé!
In Tibetan, an identical sounding word is used to denote “Sichuan pepper”


Name of an ancient Buddhist kingdom

Covered Northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan; beautiful Graeco-Buddhist art


Tibetan for “star goddess”

Contraction of Karma and Lhamo


Hindi for “victory”
Tib: Gyaltsen
Tibetan for “divine lake”

Popular eastern Tibetan name; the combination of “L” followed by “h” is difficult to pronounce for Anglophones


Tibetan for “true to mind”
(double-check meaning with a qualified native speaker; I'm not sure on this one)

Fancy way of spelling Loden
Tibetan for “good mind goddess”
Contraction of Lobsang and Lhamo

Tibetan for a female Naga (klu)
Mythical and magical serpent-like beings (from Tibetan Buddhism) believed to be living under the sea


Name of Queen Maya, Buddha Shakyamuni’s mother.

In some eastern Tibetan dialects the word for “peacock” rma bya is pronounced “maya.”

Sanskrit for “vows”
Tib. sdom pa - Buddhist vows

Sanskrit for “peace”
Tib. shiwa

Sanskrit for “good mind”

Tib. Lobsang

Hindi for “northern star”


Name of a mountain
After “Yara Lhatse”, a peak in eastern Tibet


Tibetan for “turquoise lake”

Alternative spelling: Yumtso

And now for the boys:

Eastern Tibetan nickname
Letter “A” + syllable –den from boy’s name Palden

Sanskrit for “the one loved by everyone”
Buddha Shakyamuni’s cousin and favourite disciple


After the Kadampa master Geshe Ben Gungyel


Tibetan for “place of joy”
After Ganden Monastery in Tibet

Tibetan for “adorable”
Literally “loved beyond all things”

Tibetan for “jewel, treasure, precious”
Always a good choice, timeless


Tibetan for “adorable”

Reversed form of Garab; name of a Tibetan reformer

Tibetan for “wisdom”
Always a good choice, timeless, suitable for both boys and girls

At this point, I should stress that if you prefer requesting a name from a Lama as is customary, that’s totally alright. In a Western setting however, it may be difficult for a family to find a Lama who is readily accessible and gives guidance. Few families are lucky to have such an intimate relationship with a Lama, a true Root Guru or Tsawai’i Lama, and so a lot of people resort to the top level and request a name for their child from the Dalai Lama.

Some parents however consciously choose not to delegate this competency to a third person. It’s not a sign of disrespect for the clergy or for tradition, but a sign that people are becoming more self-reliant. A name can define a person even before that person is born so if you don’t want to leave that to chance, and if you prefer a modern Tibetan name for your baby, by all means, go for it.

Buddha depicted in Gandharan style

Don’t just pick a name from a ready-made list though. It’s worth creating your own baby names list. There is so much to learn and discover in the pursuit.

When my partner and I built our list, we used all kinds of sources and learned a lot about Tibetan name-giving. Had we not gone through this process, our kids’ names would not have so much personal history in them. And since your children are the most precious thing in your life, you absolutely want to make sure they receive the most beautiful names so that everyone who comes into contact with your children in life will love and cherish them.

There are a few basic points however, we should be aware of when opting for the do-it-yourself approach:  

For one, ignore the line “Tibetans usually only go by one name” which you often see in Western media reports. Whoever put that bee into the bonnet didn’t have a clue. Have you ever met a Tibetan with only one name or are you one of them? – See!  I bet there is no single Tibetan in the whole of Tibet nor abroad that goes only by one name.

Apart from the family name, Tibetans traditionally have two first names and, as a rule, these two must add up in combination since conceptually they are treated as one entity. Take for example a typical name duo like Tenzin Norbu. The name which carries the main meaning is always in the second place. The first-placed name is a qualifying attribute. “Tenzin” means “defender of the faith” and “Norbu” means “treasure”. Thus, the meaning of the name is something like “faith-defending treasure”. You want to be aware of this custom: Make sure your names make sense together and are not just two beautiful names randomly put next to each other.

Another special feature of Tibetan names is that most names are gender-neutral and can be used for boys and girls – but only as “standalones”. I am not sure what the linguistic term is but I’ve seen “binomials” (Lat. bi = two, nomial = name) to refer to this type of gender-neutral names. My gut feeling is they account for more than half of all “typical” Tibetan names. Examples include Tashi, Nyima, Dawa, Karma, Lhakpa, Norbu, Tenzin, Tsering, Tseten.

It’s only the specific combination of a gender-neutral name with a typically male or female name that determines whether a name is perceived to be for a boy or a girl.

Typically female include Lhamo, Dolma, Yangchen, Dolkar or Yudon. Generally names ending with – mo and –ma are grammatically feminine. A typically male name would be Dorje. There must be more but I can’t think of any off the top of my head:--)

Based on these three name categories, the following combinations are possible:

1.     Binomial + Binomial = boy (Tashi Dawa)
2.     Binomial + male name = boy (Nima Dorje)
3.     Female name + binomial = boy (Dolma Tsering, Lhamo Kyab)
4.     Binomial + female name = girl (Tsering Dolma, Karma Lhamo)
5.     Female + female name = girl (Yangchen Lhamo)
6.     Male name + female name = girl (Dorje Yudon)

Combinations 3 and 6 may be confusing but when you remember the rule that it’s always the second name which carries the weight and the first name is the attribute, it all becomes logical. Note also that the same two names can change their gender depending on the sequence: “Dolma Tsering” in line 3 is a guy but “Tsering Dolma” in line 4 is a girl. Again, the name in second place determines the gender. Yes, Tsering is actually gender-neutral but only as a theoretical standalone. In practice however, first names always come in twos and in this case, a binomial is treated as masculine when it appears in second place, that’s the practice.

Central Tibetan males usually don’t have feminine names like “Dolma” and “Lhamo” as part of their name as in line 3. These name combinations are an Eastern Tibetan specialty. A prominent example is the current Dalai Lama whose birth name was Lhamo Dondup before he was discovered and enthroned as “Tenzin Gyatso”.

Okay, now you have enough background to go about creating your own baby names. There are several approaches. Try them all out and if you can think of more, please share them for the benefit of all.

Merge two conventional names into one cool new name
It’s a Lhasan custom to take two first names and then merge them into one. So Tenzin Norbu becomes Tennor or Tsering Lhamo becomes Tselha. Note that a Tibetan name is usually made up of two syllables. So with two first names you get four syllables to work with. Collect all the names you can find and combine the syllables with each other, until you find a combination that not only has a reasonable meaning, but also sounds great. Usually people fuse the first syllable of each name, but you can also take the first syllable of the first name and fuse it with the second syllable of the second name if that sounds better, that’s also customary.

Proceed systematically. Play through all varieties using Excel. Check the sound, check the meaning. To take an example from my list: Da-wa merged with Lha-mo gives you Dalha meaning “moon goddess”, looking cool, sounding great, easy to pronounce, a divine name for a beautiful baby-girl.

Derive a cool name from an experience that inspired you
In a Buddhist teaching that lasted for several days from morning till evening, I happened to sit near a Buryat boy by the name of Ananda. He was maybe eight years old and sat peacefully throughout the entire sessions. I was impressed. If I ever had a boy, “Ananda” would be his name. Not only was it the name of one of Lord Buddha’s disciples, it also had a beautiful meaning: “The one loved by everyone”. The Tibetan equivalent was Kunga but that didn’t interest me.

Another name I loved for boys was Yaden. Now that’s definitely not Tibetan. It’s not even from anywhere near Tibet. But there was this naughty, blond boy at my Dharma centre: An astute and cheerful kid. Even if the name looked Yiddish, I wouldn’t care as long as it could be pronounced by a native speaker. But it does sound Tibetan just like Palden, Gaden and so forth, my partner insisted, which is one of the main reasons why he liked it nevertheless. And it could also be a place name, he said. For me the name was simply “neo-Tibetan”, a new Tibetan name because I chose to make it a part of my culture. - Is this preposterous? I don’t think so. I think it’s empowering. It’s my culture after all, it’s most certainly my kid, and totally my decision. And so one of my favourite name combinations for boys became Yaden Ananda or “the one loved by everyone (hailing from) Yaden”.

And now you: Which experience inspired you?

Try a regional variation of a conventional Tibetan name
If you’re bored with the traditional names, try to give them a regional twist and they may become attractive again. Take for example the name Sherab (“wisdom”). It sounds dangerously close to English “shut up” when pronounced in High Tibetan. But with an Eastern accent and spelled Shiro it no longer sound like an offence and looks cool too. Or take the name Kelsang also spelled Kesang or Kalsang (“who sang”?) which means “good aeon”: Regional variations include Kazon, Kezon, and even Karon which may look and sound cooler. Try out various names and fit them into your Western language context. Do they make sense?

Unlike with Tibetan place names where a clear-cut system to transcribe them properly into English and also Chinese is absolutely necessary and highly desirable, writing a Tibetan personal name is different. Here I believe, we can have the artistic freedom of how to spell a name because names have become an expression of individuality and personal preference and the baby is basically your “extension”, so you decide.

Discover regional name specialties
There are also local names not so known to the mainstream. Ask around and collect. Funny ones we came across during the brainstorming phase included Lotue and Polue. Probably nick names and perhaps for twin brothers :--)

Choetso (“Dharma lake”) seems to be popular for girls in Kham. Frequent combinations are Choetso Dolma or Sonam Choetso and so forth.

In Amdo, Kyab (“protect”) or Tso (“lake”) and Kyi (“happy”) are frequent for the name in the second place. The latter group is also the exception to the four-syllable rule in Tibetan first names where you have people with three-syllable names such as Dukar Tso or Menlha Kyab or Jamyang Kyi.

In Kham, some people add the suffix –ga (“beloved” or “sweetheart”) to their kid’s name. This pet name often sticks with the person for life. So for example a kid named Lobsang becomes Loga or a girl named Dechen (“fortunate”) would become Dega. A famous historical person with such a name was Rabga Pandatsang, a 20th century Tibetan reformer. With –ga names you have ample possibilities again to come up with a good name. The ending might sound girlish in English but in Tibetan, it’s neutral. Use Excel to exhaust all combinations.

Another thing they do in Kham is to create a nickname by adding the letter “A” as a prefix. Take “A” and combine that with the first or second syllable of a regular name, for example Palden, in which case you then get Aden. I quite like it. 

Why “A” in the first place? I guess because the sound is all-encompassing making the "A" the “best” letter of the Tibetan alphabet giving it a holy ring. It's also one of the first sound babies can produce :--)

"The fully enlightened one arises from A; A is the best of all characters, a holy letter with great meaning arisen from within and unborn, free of words, the highest cause for all expression, well elucidating all words." 
From Arya Manjushri Nama Sangiti

My guess is that the “Horseman In The Snow”, Nyarong Aten, whose life-story was retold by Jamyang Norbu, also has such a merged name with “A”. Perhaps “A” combined with -ten from “Tupten” or “Rabten” or “Loten” or something to that effect. 

Even though this type of names with “A” at the beginning is more on the rustic side, you may still find a good sound combination. These names are literally the Alpha and the Omega:--) Do the Excel Sheet!

Historical personalities as inspiration
Some prefer famous names for their children, especially for boys, such as Gesar or Siddharta, Mila(-repa) or Songtsen and even Choegyal (Dharma King) and of course Sangay (“Buddha”). In the West too there is a tradition to name children after famous personalities. With Jesús the Spaniards even have their equivalent of our Sangay:--) Look up Tibetan history books and flip through the index for person names if you’re into this type of names.

If you can conceive of giving your child the name of a Tibetan place, a mountain or a lake, take a guidebook on Tibet and go through the index. Gyurme Dorje’s “Tibet Handbook” is old but as far as names go, the author made an effort to provide the Tibetan original for all places on the entire plateau and not just the Autonomous Region. It’s therefore a good reference. Remember Welcome To Babylon though where place name are completely messed up and double-check the spelling before you really decide on a toponym.

Names with religious connotation
Some Tibetan names have a religious connotation. Personally I love Ganden (“full of joy”) or pronounced a bit rougher around the edges with an eastern accent “Gaden”, but the name didn’t make it through the finals when we were picking our children’s names because I found it “too Gelugpa”.

Kunga is associated with the Sakya order due to its founding fathers carrying that name. Pema is associated with the Nyingma order because of Padmasambhava and Sherab is a Bon name because of its founder. But all this is just me acting hypersensitive. You don’t have to care two figs about these considerations, just go for it, if you like one of these names. It’s really all about personal preference.

Some Don’ts
Since we have this pesky problem of demarcation with China, it’s advisable to avoid names that quickly look Chinky when written with Latin letters. Especially names containing –ang and –ung are absolute no-gos. Avoid names like Wangdrag, Ngawang; Yangchen, Deyang; Norsang, Sangmo; Yungdrug, Bhuchung and so forth.

Personally I would also never pick a girl’s name containing -kyi such as Dekyi, Lhakyi, Kyizom etc. which can sound sissy and shrill. Imagine calling your kid home from the playground: Deeeeeekyeeeee! Have mercy on your neighbours :--)

I would also advise against picking a name containing a Rata which is a sound most Western languages can’t accurately reproduce. Of course some of the most popular names like Drolma and Trashi actually contain that little “r” but the spelling and pronunciation were simplified to fit in, which then make the names sound really odd to a native speaker – as a deterrent, just think of Phurbu T. Namgyal who blares “Champa Döööööma-la” into his microphone sounding as if he had a massive speech impediment.

Dealing with an unusual name from a Tibetan perspective
Even our parents may frown at first when you inform them about your child’s modern name. Be prepared to explain well. 

Among foreign names, Indic ones tend to have a higher social acceptance simply because the Buddha was Indian. So if you decided to go for a Sanskrit name, you could invoke the Buddha connection by pointing out the name is Choekay (“Dharma langague”). If you can give the Tibetan equivalent in addition, that’s even better. People will be able to create a connection and accept more easily.

If you opt for a completely foreign name, it is key that the name is pronounceable. Hurdle one is overcome when native speakers can say the name with ease and understand the meaning. Have a short and easy explanation ready.

Last but not least your kid: Whatever crazy, modern, “untibetan” name you may give your child, as long as you as the parent can ensure that your child retains the ability to communicate in Tibetan, almost anything goes. That’s the good news and the bottom line: As long as the essence is safeguarded, the packaging is secondary.

Sounds like a fair deal to me. So let’s be bold and let’s pick the names we adore. 

Happy baby-names hunting and a big hug to all Tibetan babies out there :--)
Mountain Phoenix

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