The Mennonite Name Game

Old Colony Mennonites are a curious bunch in that they raise huge numbers of children while limiting themselves to a few select names to call them by. My Aunt Kathy and Uncle Bill had eleven sons: John, Willy, Pete, Abe, Dave, Isaac, Jake, Ben, Henry, Frank and Dan. As close as I can figure, they used up more than half of the names available to them – Corny, George, Aaron, Herman, Anton, Diedrich, Hans and Andy are all that’s left.

My friend was born Susanna Martens. When she was a teenager, she changed it to Suzen for fear of drowning in a sea of Susans, Susies Sues and Züssas, but she didn’t have it as bad as her four older brothers Jake and John. Their dad was a young widower and father to Jake, John and Liz when he met their mom, likewise widowed and mother to Helen, Jake and John, resulting in the overlap. Together, they happily grafted the braid with a Mary, Abe, Tina, Annie, Aggie, Susanna, and tied it neatly with a Martin.

This dearth of names makes it nearly impossible to distinguish one Pete or one Margaret from another Pete or johnny-automatic-coffee-and-pastryMargaret in conversation unless you add their last names. It’s easier if Pete marries Margaret because then you can say Pete ‘n’ Margaret and most people will know who you mean. Depending on the weather and availability of Manitoban knack sot (Low German for “sunflower seeds”) at any given social gathering, it’s unlikely you’ll encounter more than two Pete ‘n’ Margaret at the same faspa desch.

If you’re like Sarah Funk though, who wanted to marry Corny Wiebe but lost him to Eva Hildebrandt, people will always refer to you by first and last name to tell you apart from Sarah Reddecopp, Sarah Miller and Sarah Blatz who all work the same shift as you at the tomato cannery. You will be Sarah Funk everywhere other than your immediate family gathering, or worse, Funken Sush (The Funk’s daughter, Sarah), because if you can’t land a husband, you obviously haven’t matured into a separate entity from your parents and never will. This rule applies to everyone unmarried, male and female alike.

You’re title in society is no better. You’re not a single man or woman; you’re an “oola jung” (old boy) or “oola me’jal” (old girl), labels that carry subtle overtones of stunted maturity and social retardation. But since Eva was lucky enough to marry Corny, she gets “sche” appended to her new last name, which is pronounced shə, like the sound in “book”.  She is now Mumkje Knaltz Wiebsche (Mrs. Cornelius Wiebe), to the delight of the Hildebrandts if the Wiebes own a lucrative bucklejohn contract or cheese factory, and to the mortification of Funken Sush. After fifteen years of marriage, I still wrestle my pride at giving up my last name to become Mumkje Wallsche. Driedgers are rare as Mennonite surnames go, and when you find them, they’re mostly tall and good-looking. I preen a little when an old-timer at church or the frozen food aisle stops and hails me as Driedjasch Tien (The Driedger’s Tina). I can’t help it.  It’s hard to melt into obscurity with the Walls who number more than a hundred just in the Aylmer – Tillsonburg Canpages.

This shortage of names complicates other matters too. Announcing a death that’s occurred in the wider Mennonite community is never as simple as saying, “John Krahn died.” A hush falls as every head in the room turns to look at the speaker. “You mean my Schvoawa in Gnadenthal?” says Ben Guenther, rising from a game of Daum Brat.  “Or my Grootfoda in Tamaulipas??” cries Margaretha Zacharias nee Krahn, a borscht spoon frozen halfway to her lips. An inquest ensues to identify the deceased. This is achieved by tracing the lineage of every known John Krahn from his birthplace in Mexico to his migration from Saskatchewan, over the Russian steppes to the Chortitza River and clear back to Prussia. If Ben’s brother-in-souplaw and Margaretha’s grandpa prove exempt, shoulders slump in relief (presumably) and games and borscht resume.

Some people leave conservative churches to join more modern Mennonite sects while their family is still growing. The children’s names start out strong: Abrahams, Helenas and Johans march out into the world in quick succession before petering out in Tims and Rosies. Still other second-generation Canadians modify their own names in an effort to assimilate; Agathas become Angies, Cornys are Cors and tousled, barefoot Johnnys evolve overnight into coiffed and pretty Jons.

Nicknames are another means of telling one Friesen from another but you have to be careful to hear them correctly. I’d long heard tales about Stäla Friesen (a “stäla” is a thief or robber). I figured it marked him as a petty thief among his neighbours. Only a month ago did I learn that he was in fact Steila Friesen (“steil” means steep or upright), so named because his house in Mexico featured a steeply pitched roof in a neighborhood of flat roofs. I’ve never known what his real name was.

My Grandma Fehr always called my Grandpa “Heeya” (say it like you’re executing a karate chop with the accent on the first syllable), which means “Dear” or “Darling” but is only proper to say to your spouse. You don’t snuggle your favourite niece or nephew and call them Heeya…do not do it.

Other older couples call each other “Oola” (pronounced Owlah), which means “old one” but sounds affectionate when they say it, like, “You’re an old fart but I love you anyway.”

The scary ones are those who never call each other anything at all, except “mien Maun” or “miene Frü” (my man or my wife) when they’re obliged to mention them to other people. But this indicates a universal problem rather than anything inherently Mennonite.  Because we love and fret and dream and balk instead trusting God just like everybody does. Every John, Dick and Mary of us.

johnny-automatic-5-8-bushel-basket

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20 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Trudy Wiebe on October 14, 2015 at 5:51 pm

    Tina, I love this☺ especially your reference to Grandma Fehr. I was an adult before I realized that “heeya” was an endearment and not an insult! I think of Grandma often and still miss our visits dearly.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Angie C on October 15, 2015 at 7:56 pm

    When I was a kid my mom told me that there are two ways to pronounce Oola. If the one being referred to is a woman, it’s pronounced owlah, but if the recipient is a man, then it’s pronounced owluh.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Anonymous on October 15, 2015 at 8:17 pm

    The olah is masculine and the owluh is feminine.

    Reply

  4. I’ve been told too, that “oola” is masculine and “ooluh” is feminine. Which seems weird to me because more female names than males names end with an “a” sound – Anna, Agatha, Tina, Martha, etc.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Angie C on October 15, 2015 at 10:19 pm

    Oops, got it backwards. It was a long time ago when my mother told me this.

    Reply

  6. In my Mennonite culture, “Heeyah” meant, “Hey, you!” {to get someone’s attention}.

    Reply

    • Really, so you could just say it to anyone? It would be interesting to find out the origin of the word and what it was intended to mean.

      Now I’m thinking of all the people I could call “Heeyah” today and the resulting looks on their faces. 😉

      Reply

  7. Very fun read! (Especially coming from a family where my Grandparents had 3 Davids–first two died in infancy but the persisted until one survived–and two Trudy’s…) My Grandma also called Grandpa ‘Heeyah’ and only a few months ago I learned what it meant! (I knew she adored him, but never understood the term). We would have been raised with ‘oola’ for masculine and ‘ooli’–with short ‘i’ sound–for feminine. And yes, ‘old fart but love you anyway’ about sums it up! Thanks for a laugh and a trip back in time!

    Reply

    • You’re welcome, Trudy. 🙂

      Your grandparents’ experience sounds like that of the Martens family I mentioned who had two Jakes and Johns. They wanted a Cornelius but both times they named a baby that, he died. There was talk of trying it on the last one but by that time, they were unwilling to chance it; hence the Martin.

      Reply

      • That’s very interesting! The significance of names is fascinating! I also have two brothers named Henry, one being a half brother who passed away in infancy before dad married mom. So I guess this whole thing is very common.

        Reply

  8. I speak no low German but would give my eyeteeth to be able to! I identify strongly with what you’ve written, although I think our Mennonite history in Alberta is a little less entrenched and more easily forgotten then Mennonite history in Manitoba. 🙂 An interesting bit of trivia: my mom would call us all “oola naes” (“old nose”, someone old and nosy) when we were being too curious about something. Picturesque language!

    Reply

    • As children, my siblings and I were allowed to speak English to each other but only Low German to Mom and Dad. They wanted us to be fluent in it but more importantly, it was how they commanded respect. To address them in English was the equivalent of lipping off or being rude. Now I’m grateful for that rule because without it, I doubt I could speak much Low German today.

      Reply

  9. Posted by Elizabeth on October 16, 2015 at 9:55 pm

    My cousin shared a link to your blog and I have laughed and laughed for hours reading your blog! You are an excellent writer! love all your stories of Mennonite ways.

    Reply

  10. Posted by Hilda on October 19, 2015 at 12:23 pm

    I can totally identify with the Mennonite Name Game! When my parents named me “Hilda” their community went into shock! They felt so sorry for me – I was given a cows name! Interestingly enough, as one matures (!) in life, the Mennonite Name Game becomes much more important to one – not naming any names of course!

    Reply

    • Interestingly, the livestock in the darp where my mother grew up was given Mennonite people names, and Bible names to boot – Peter, David and such. You’d think they would have thought that was sacrilegious. 🙂

      Reply

  11. Oh, I love it. Having an Aunt Mary married to Uncle Cornie on both sides of the family often made for hilarious conversation. As did having 2 Uncle Johns, 2 Uncle Henrys and 2 Jakes (one uncle and one my Dad). Great fun! I was fortunate enough to speak plattdeutsch before I started school, but it is rusty for sure. When my parents named my brother Jason, no one knew what to do with that name…..I suppose it was a form of comfort to name the same. I married a man with a Norwegian father and a Mennonite mother….my grandmother was horrified to hear I was marrying an Engalander until she heard his mother was a Russlander, which was sort of okay.

    Reply

    • We likewise had an Aunt Helen married to an Uncle Dave on both sides of the family.
      We solved one problem by using different words for “aunt”. Aunt Helen on Mom’s side of the family is “Taunte Leen”. Aunt Helen on Dad’s side is “Leenjkemum”. The “Onkel Duft” dilemma was more complicated – as far as I know, that’s the only German word for “uncle”.

      Reply

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