USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘name origin’

The Origin of Adjorlolo

Context: When I told my roommate about how I was collecting folklore, he offered to talk about some of the stories he’d heard over the course of his life.

BackgroundMy roommate comes from a mixed-race family, one side of which originates from the Ivory Coast of Africa.

Dialogue: It is said, that my great-great-grandfather, who lived inn Ghana, who was the first man to be called Adjorlolo, um, had sixteen wives, and… I’ve heard between eighty-four and ninety-six kids.

Analysis: This one is pretty straightforward in terms of being a simple piece of folklore about a family’s origins. I found it interesting that the number of offspring from the first Adjorlolo was debated amongst the family. Also interesting was the fact that this was only the great-great-grandfather, which leads only so far back in time. A really good example of how a family’s history can be lost to time quicker than expected, to the degree that legends of eighty-something children and sixteen wives can spring up and become rooted in the family’s history by the time its fifth generation comes around.


How the McIsaac Clan Came to Be

Context: Gathered from one of my roommates once he found out about my collection project.

Background: My roommate comes from “a long lineage of Scottish kings and clan leaders of a certain group of isles.”

Dialogue: Donald McIsaac… was the, progenitor, the originator… the first dude, named McIsaac, um… and, he— So the backstory, basically, I learned this from my dad, he would tell this to my sister and me, his dad would tell it to him, I don’t know how far back it goes, maybe it stopped at Grandpa, but he always told us that this is, like, a story passed down through their family. Um, and, basically, uh, in Scotland, there was a war between two clans, the McDonalds and the Campbells. There was no McIsaac clan. Uh, these two clans were at war, and one day, uh, a group of Campbells’ bandits, um… They weren’t fixing for a nice helping of warm soup, they were, they were, bandits from Scotland, um… not cartoon characters from soup commercials… Um, they caught this guy named Isaac McDonald, and, Isaac McDonald was like, “N0nononono, guys, you don’t wanna kill me, or steal any of my stuff, I’m not a McDonald. I am not Donald-” Wait, uh- “I am not Isaac McDonald, I am Donald McIsaac, huh?” And they were like, “OH, kay! Sorry to bother you, run along!”

And that was how the McIsaac clan came to be, he ran along and started a family, etcetera, and, and… They just escaped persecution by just saying their name was McIsaac and not McDonald.

Analysis: I almost put this in the Humor category because of how much this plays out like a Monty Python sketch. It’s almost crazy to think that a solution so simple would work, but based on the story told, the feud between the two clans was more because of their names than because of anything the actual people with those names had done before. Cool to compare this with the other name origin legend I collected for this project, too, and how the differences in the legends surrounding the names illustrate what was important to the cultures those families belonged to: one focused on the progeny of the family, and the other focused on the conflicts between different families.



Original script/version:

“I am named Robbin after the birds that were singing when I was born.”

“I heard this first from my mother when I was very little, probably about 5 or six. Although we were living in Texas at the time, I was born in Colorado. I was born after a very cold, severe winter. My mother told me that she had named me Robbin because of the first birds that came out during the first break in the weather. And that’s why I’m named Robbin!”

Robbin told me she did not remember where exactly she heard this story first, although she thinks it was during a family gathering. She didn’t believe there was a lot behind the story other than she was born in the spring about the time the birds were becoming active again.

The robin could represent several things. Birds are often considered free and light-hearted animals. My grandmother could have associated this image of a bird with how she wanted her daughter to grow up. Robins also have a beautiful song, many mothers wish their daughters to be good singers when they get older.

In some places, it is very acceptable to look outside and name a child Willow or Sunshine, while in other places names must come from ancient traditions or past heroes. American names tend to be grandfathered down, names like Samuel, Joseph, Christopher; These are all names that came from forefathers. The fact that my grandmother chose to pick a more nature oriented name may say something about where she was living or what she felt.


Story – China

How My Grandfather’s Middle Name Came to Be (the Hong Mountain)

“My grandfather’s middle name is Hong. It is a prestigious name, it seems, after the Hong Mountain in the village of WuXi. The story goes that a close blood relative of a Chinese emperor was buried there; his tombstone standing alone on this mountain overlooking the village. This lonely man was the direct heir to the emperor’s throne. He, however, didn’t want to rule the Chinese empire. He wanted to be free of imperial duties so he could be a free man. He left the imperial palace and wandered off as far as he could. He ended up in the village of WuXi and entered a temple. There he became ill and was taken care of by the village people.

The emperor dispatched search parties all over the empire looking for his last relative. One of these search parties led by one of the emperor’s close ambassadors arrived at WuXi, after hearing news about a strange sick man, whose identity no one knew of, showing up at this village. Upon the search party’s arrival, the ambassador went straight to see this unidentified man. He immediately recognized the heir to the empire and sent out for the imperial doctors. Unfortunately, the illness was in such an advanced stage that no Chinese medicine or medical expertise could have helped. The heir to the throne died in this village. Before his death, he made his last wish. He wished to be buried in this village and not to be brought back to the imperial palace.

The village people wanted to honor this guest. They gave him a respectful and proper burial. They chose the highest site on the Hong Mountain where no one has ever been buried before and made a tombstone fit for a member of the imperial family.

That’s where my grandfather got his middle name.” –Lee Lee Wong


This legend is an example of ethnic folklore as manifested in a middle name. Every name stands for something different, whether it be a personal quality or in this case, the history of an emperor’s descendent. In the traditional Chinese culture, one’s middle name carries just as much value as the first name. A typical Chinese name reads in the order of last, middle, and first name.  Choosing a name in the Chinese culture relies heavily on the name’s underlying history and connotations. Perhaps my great grandfather’s parents gave him that name to honor the story of the emperor’s descendent. The story’s themes create the name’s significance, which include individualism and self-discovery. These were probably traits my great grandfather’s parents wanted to instill in him.

It is common for the Chinese to tell stories about the origins of a surname or middle name. Culturally, the Chinese honor their ancestors and look to the past for answers to the present. Unlike American culture, which is forward-facing in the social and cultural context, Chinese culture is reliant on past events and stories. A great deal of attention is paid to the surname, which can say a lot about a person’s character and background.

My mom learned about this story from her father. She unfortunately cannot write in Chinese as well as she can speak the language, which is why I could not document this story in its original language, Cantonese. She told me that her grandfather’s name is something he and our family should be proud of and has essentially become a part of our heritage. The name ties our family to royalty and reflects hopes for grand accomplishments in life. The name’s imperial traits include wisdom, culture, richness, and a long legacy of family ties. While my mother didn’t know him very well, she said he loved to read and learn which instill the name with even more meaning. My grandfather takes great pleasure in sharing stories of this kind because he believes the name’s significance will continue to run in our family and bring us good fortune.