17 June 2004
Advice on Mongolian surnames
For more than 80 years, everyone in Mongolia was on a first-name basis (the communists had banned family names). Within a few decades ancestral names were forgotten altogether and Mongolians used only a single given name. Nine thousand women ended up with the same name, Altantsetseg, meaning "golden flower."
Mongolia is now an urbanising democracy and the one-name system is far too confusing, so the government introduced a new law and then a system of citizenship cards and finally a deadline, requiring everyone to have surnames.
Borjigin, the tribal name of Genghis Khan, has become the most popular name in the country. It means "master of the blue wolf," a reference to Mongolia's creation myth.
"Everyone wants the name Borjigin, as if they have some connection to Genghis Khan," said Serjee Besud, director of Mongolia's state library and a leading researcher on surnames.
"It's like a fashion. But it has no meaning if everyone has the same name. It's like having no name at all."
Mr. Besud has spent years poring over the dusty archives of the state library to compile a book of possible surnames for the nameless. His book, called Advice on Mongolian Surnames, provides maps and lists of historically used surnames in each region of the country.
The book also suggests other ways to choose a surname. Some people choose the name of a mountain or river in their ancestral region. Others prefer the name of an ancestral occupation: Blacksmith, Herdsman or Writer. Some names are linked to clans: White Camel or Black-and-White Horse. And some names have more obscure origins. One surname listed in the book, perhaps less fashionable today, is Seven Drunk Men.
Paraphrased from an article in The Globe and Mail