What’s in a Turkish Name?

The fraught and funny world of Turkish nomenclature

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What’s in a Turkish Name?
A shop keeper watches people pass by in the Grand Bazaar/2016/Turkey/Chris McGrath/Getty Images

When his daughter was born in 1982, Cemalettin, a Turkish Islamist, insisted on giving her the name Sümeyye, to honor Islam’s first martyr, Sumayyah bint Khabbat. But in the oppressive environment of the military dictatorship that followed the 1980 coup, a civil servant refused to register the Arabic-rooted name because it wasn’t Turkish.

Exasperated, and knowing full well that most Turkish names, then as now, have Arabic roots, Cemalettin asked the woman, “What’s your name?”

“Makbule,” she answered.

“Ah-ha, your name is also Arabic!” he said.

A long argument ensued, and after threatening to send Cemalettin to court, the official finally relented and registered the name. But today Sümeyye, a graduate student, wishes her dad had chosen a different name.

“I’m not at all happy with my name. Recently, it carries a lot of political undertones,” she said.

Sümeyye considers herself conservative and wears a headscarf, but she’s not a government supporter, and she shares her name with the daughter of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The name is often chosen by his supporters and various stripes of political Islamists.

“When people hear my name, they label me straight away. I want a little mystery. I want to be normal, to blend in with the crowd like everybody else. And in Turkey especially, names carry a lot of meaning.”

In Turkey, everything tends to be heavily politicized, from facial hair to television series, colors, music, tattoos, and beverages, and choosing names to express a political or religious identity is common. One blatant example was a couple in Sivas who named their triplets Recep, Tayyip and Erdoğan.

“Modern Turkish identity, modern Turkish culture are so much political creations,” said Sevan Nişanyan, who created an online etymological dictionary of names in Turkey recently published as a book. “Automatically it turns all language, and especially place names and personal names, as well as the kind of vocabulary you use in (everyday life) into a political matter.”

In Dersim, a mostly Kurdish Alevi region in Turkey’s east where leftist movements are strong, names such as Özgür (freedom), Eylem (protest), or Direnç (resistance) are common. During a recent trip there, I met a woman whose name is Evrim (evolution) and whose sister’s name is Devrim (revolution). As one man put it, “We give them names of the revolutions we couldn’t have.”

Some names are aspirational, as one heartbreaking recent anecdote shows. One of the 109 victims of a terrorist bombing in Ankara in 2015 was named Sevgi (love). Her son, Barış (peace) later said that “our names aren’t just words,” explaining that his mother had given him that name to bring peace to her country.

“That type of naming definitely (expresses) a deep faith in the name, and it’s an act of resistance or hope … where you want to manifest something, and it connects the child with a broader movement or people,” said Dr. Meltem Türköz, who has studied first and last names and their relationship to nation building in Turkey. “I think of naming as an act. It’s an action taken on an individual to make them into something.”

But demonstrating political affiliation is just one aspect of Turkish names. Türköz says names tell the whole story of the country’s complex society. “When you look at Turkish names, it opens up all of the different dynamics of history, societal cleavages, understandings of class and gender, (and) political expectations.”

In Ottoman times, aside from the many non-Muslim and non-Turkish communities, people mostly chose Arabic names with religious connotations. By the 19th century, as political groups started adopting modernist and humanist values, personal names, still largely with Arabic roots, started to reflect this — Zeki (smart), Fikret (to think), Kemal (perfection, integrity), Nuri (light), Ziya (light), Enver (bright), Cahit (hardworking).

After the Young Turk Revolution in 1908, when a group of young reformists forced Sultan Abdülhamid II to adopt a constitution, secular names reflecting enlightenment values became even more popular. Many of the Young Turks themselves gave their children names such as İnsan (human), Sevda (love), Hürriyet (liberty) and Azade (free).

Many parents across the empire named their children after the Young Turk leaders, including the dashing Enver Paşa, soon to become the minister of war. Two of those children grew up to be Enver Hoxha, future dictator of Albania, and Anwar Sadat, future president of Egypt.

As a cohort that emerged from the Young Turks, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, built and ruled the Turkish republic in 1923, their movement used Turkish nationalism and Turkic mythology to try to unite their still-diverse peoples. They attempted, with mixed results, to “purify” the Turkish language by creating Turkic-inspired words to replace the thousands of Arabic and Persian ones. Thousands of first and last names were manufactured in the 1920s and 1930s and published in popular guidebooks. Mostly urban, educated classes chose these names, sometimes celebrated with special name-changing ceremonies, and even today, many given names can have a class-bound dynamic.

As a newspaper reporter in the 1930s explained, “The names given to our newborns especially must be in pure Turkish. As Mehmeds and Alis die, Bozkurts (grey wolf) and Alps (an old Turkic title meaning brave or warrior) should be born and increase in number.”

Many gave their children names with Turkish or Turkic roots, such as Orhan (great leader), Turgut (name of a Mongolian tribe), or Turan (a historical region in Central Asia). Others were derived from birds of prey used as names by historical Turkic commanders and leaders, such as Doğan (falcon), Tuğrul (a mythological bird and name of the founder of the Seljuk Empire), or Çağrı (a kind of falcon, and an early leader of the Seljuks).

New names were even created using limitless combinations of prefixes and suffixes. For example, “er” (man, soldier) was added to Doğan to form Erdoğan as a popular first or last name. “Al” (red) was combined with “tan” (dawn) to create Altan.

Others, sometimes inspired by the shamanistic practices of pre-Islamic Turkic tribes, chose names inspired from nature, which are ubiquitous today, such as Deniz (sea), Kaya (stone), Toprak (soil), Bulut (cloud), Volkan (volcano), Yıldız (star), Güneş (sun), or Yağmur (rain). There are several names related to the moon (ay), such as Aykut (blissful moon), Mehtap (moonlight), or Sonay (last moon). In the Aegean region, many people who work on the land give their daughters names like Üzüm (grape), Kiraz (cherry), and Erik (greengage plum). Biologist Çağla (unripe almond) was the firstborn in her family, and this inspired her name. “It’s the very first fruit that blossoms in spring, and we call it the harbinger of summer,” she said.

Parents often give their children names that are either conceptually or linguistically thematic, such as giving siblings the names cloud and rain. My wife’s name is Özgecan (özge = unique, can = soul), and her brother is Doğacan (doğa = nature).

When something nasty befalls an infant, a cursed name is often blamed, and a new one is sometimes chosen. For instance, Rahim, an industrial engineer, was named after his mother’s father, but some of her brothers also named their sons Rahim. After two of them died and one got very sick, his family sacrificed an animal and changed the sick boy’s name. “Rahim is one of God’s names. My family said this name was a heavy burden on children, and that’s why they died. I’ve also experienced quite a lot of accidents, but I’ve somehow survived,” Rahim said.

His mother also lost her first two children, and people told her she had a nazar, or evil eye, cursing her. She was advised to go to a shrine in their village, say a prayer, and name her next child with one of the names in the shrine, which she did.

The parent will usually show love to their children by saying, ‘My ugly child,’

Sometimes special names, referred to as apotropaic, are chosen to ward off evil spirits or bad luck. Satılmış (sold) is occasionally chosen to indicate that the child has already been bestowed to God and isn’t available to Azrael, the angel of death. Other parents choose intentionally “ugly” names to keep malicious spirits away. “The parent will usually show love to their children by saying, ‘My ugly child,’” said Türköz. Other names are chosen as a kind of birth control to discourage an additional pregnancy, such as Yeter (enough), İmdat (emergency), or Dursun (let it stop).

The latest naming practice reflects the rise of the religious conservative class in the Erdoğan era, according to Nişanyan. “Names that sound like Arabic, or a word or fragment of a word taken from the Quran, but not a traditional Islamic name.” One newly popular example is Aleyna (the name of a famous singer), which comes from an Arabic preposition meaning “to us.”

People from ethnic minority backgrounds have a much harder time expressing their identities through naming. The 1934 Surname Law forbade foreign or tribal surnames, excluding the officially recognized minorities (Greeks, Armenians, and Jews). The law didn’t apply to given names, but there were campaigns, and a great deal of pressure, to Turkify first names, too, and many minorities not only gave their children Turkish names but changed their own. “The various minorities, especially those left in the provinces, have come under very serious pressure, have feared for their safety and future, and have therefore done everything to camouflage themselves, to disappear from view,” said Nişanyan, who is of Armenian heritage.

In 1972, a new law was passed forbidding names that went against national culture, customs, and moral norms, to be interpreted and enforced by registration officials. In 2003, the terms “national culture” and “Turkish customs and traditions” were dropped from the law.

A recent incident illustrated both the pressure against minorities and the politicization of naming. In response to a motion from the U.S. Congress recognizing the mass slaughter of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 as genocide, as most historians do, a politician from one of Turkey’s nationalist parties encouraged everyone to name their children Enver, Talat, and Cemal, the architects of the massacre.

In such a climate, many people from minority backgrounds end up using two names — a non-Turkish one in their daily lives and a Turkish one for official documents. Those who keep their non-Turkish or non-Sunni names often complain of being treated like foreigners and being discriminated against in hiring practices, particularly in the civil service.

“My father was so scared by 1964 (which saw mass violence between Turks and Greeks in Cyprus) that he started speaking only Turkish to me and I almost forgot my native language,” said a translator of Greek background who was christened Efstratios but registered with the Turkish name Can. “It was really dangerous to speak Greek outside of the home. Turkish kids used to beat us up just for fun.”

A young woman of Kurdish background who works at the Diyarbakır Institute for Political and Social Research goes by the Kurdish name Rozerîn. But when she was born in Mardin in 1995, the registration official refused to grant her the name and instead chose Zerrin, a Turkish name (ironically with Farsi roots) instead.

“Sometimes when I tell this story, people say, ‘Don’t be sad, Zerrin is also a nice name.’ Even if Zerrin were the most beautiful name in the world, the state gave it to me to deny my Kurdishness. To me, it’s like a swear word,” she said.

Before the 1980 coup, it was possible but sometimes difficult to register Kurdish names, but afterward it became virtually impossible.

Before the 1980 coup, it was possible but sometimes difficult to register Kurdish names, but afterward it became virtually impossible. In the early 2000s, the government passed modest reforms lifting some restrictions on Kurdish culture. Kurdish names became more popular, and in 2001, the militant nationalist Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) called on Kurds to express their cultural identity through their names. As a result, there were renewed government crackdowns, and in the same year, Diyarbakır’s gendarmerie requested the state prosecutor to rescind 600 children’s Kurdish names and replace them with Turkish equivalents.

Rozerîn has considered changing her official name, but this is no easy task in Turkey, especially for a Kurdish name. Anyone changing their first name must demonstrate a “just cause” before a judge, backed up by two witnesses, with a population registrar and public prosecutor advising the judge. This may be especially hard for Rozerîn now, with an intensifying crackdown against anyone associated with the Kurdish nationalist movement and an increasingly inhospitable climate toward all kinds of marginalized groups.

With Erdoğan stoking a homogenizing religious-nationalist culture war to distract from a lurching economy, many who don’t fit within the government’s pious Sunni Turkish ideal feel marginalized. All sides continue to burrow further into their respective factions, and naming practices will likely remain one of the most basic and contested expressions of identity in Turkey.

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