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 were all wondering as to how anyone could name themselves after a lowly rat. Years later, I was pretty embarrassed at my ignorance 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 a Mallu way of communicating ‘Sandy’ or ‘Alexander’, he would have probably cocked up.
Come to think of it, even several hard core Keralites aren’t aware of the etymology of their neighbour’s surnames. I knew a guy called Eapen. I used to tell him 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 learnt that Varghese owed its existence to George. If that’s true then how come there are guys with the name ‘George Varghese’?
‘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’ - 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 jimbly can’t figure out the Mallus, I say!