I’ve always enjoyed learning about the meanings of names, and living in Kazakhstan is no disappointment. Traditionally, Kazakh parents invited relatives to a besik toi party for a new baby. After gathering around the cradle, an honored guest or relative would be invited to name the child. Without consulting with the parents, the person would decide on a name, and whisper into the infant’s ears three times: your name is… your name is… your name is… and then the child was officially named.
Although a modern besik toi might take place in an urban banquet hall rather than a yurt, Kazakh names are still closely connected to the lived world and to the Kazakh language. Below are some of my favorites, as I understand them:
Aigerim is very popular. It’s said that the famous Kazakh poet, Abai, cried out “Ai! Kerim!” when he met his favorite wife, or something like “Hey! Beautiful!”
Karlygash – a swallow
Zhibek – silk
Altynay – golden moon
Ayakoz – beautiful eyes
Akerke – white mischief-child. (An erke bala is a spoiled or well-loved child.)
Akbota – white baby-camel
Mahabbat – love
Meyirzhan – kind soul
Samal – breeze
Tansholpan – morning star
Umit – hope
Ulbolsin – and if all these girls have you wishing for a boy, “may the next one be a boy” is a pretty direct request to the fates.
Chinggis – naming your child after Genghis Khan surely bodes well for the future.
Nursultan (“light prince”) – the current president’s name, also promises a bright future.
Aitmukhammed – “Mohammed says.” I’m not sure exactly what he says, but the name is striking.
Balta – an ax
Arystan – a lion
Burkit – an eagle
Kanat – wings
Yernur – manly light
Yerkhan – manly king
Adilet – just, fair
Kuanish – happiness
Miras – heritage, inheritance
Satipaldy (“we bought this one”) – used after an earlier child dies; we’ve already paid our dues….
Serikbolat (“companion of steel”) – Does this sound like the cover of a romance novel, or what?
As a child in America, I loved reading books like 10523 Names for your Baby and selecting my favorite meanings. Melissa is a bee? Renee means reborn? Ethan means steadfast? Jonathan is gift of god? Excellent!
But this didn’t catch on with my peers, probably because the meaning of these words are only familiar to our Greek or Latin ancestors. When you hear Celia, do you think Caelum (Latin for the heavens) or Cecil (Latin for blind)?
I thought not.
But when a Kazakh hears Ulbolsin (“boy-be-may you”), the meaning is pretty clear. This is a wide-eyed little girl in front of you, but the parents still hope in their hearts for a boy. Words like Kanat (“wings”) and Zhibek (“silk”) are used both as names and as daily words. Their use is more familiar, more immediate. And all of this makes living in Kazakhstan a joy for the person who studies names – it’s striking to meet someone new, and instantly know what their name means and a bit of what their parents were hoping for them, just because you know the language.
About the authorCelia