What’s in a Name?

Something that has always intrigued me as I traveled in various countries is the meaning of the name of towns, cities, rivers and areas. Often we don’t bother to understand their meaning. For example, over several years I have lived in Connecticut – which is a word in the Algonquin language for “place of the long river.”

Piroque on the Tsiribihina River.
Apparently is river is actually crossable!
In the same language, Massachusetts means “at the great blue hill,” referring to a place southwest of present day Boston. In the Sioux language, Mississippi means “big river” and Missouri means “river where one needs a canoe.”

Bishop Donald Pelletier sent me some reflections on the names of various places in Madagascar:

“To give a word a negative meaning in the Malagasy language, the word “tsi” is used. A number of towns, villages, rivers and locations are given a negative name using this “tsi.”

“At times it is easy to understand why a negative connotation would be given, while at other times the exact reason for doing so isn’t really clear. The largest river in this area is the Tsiribihina – meaning “not crossable” – probably because of the large number of crocodiles inhabiting its river and banks.


“The town of Tsimaloto – “Not-dirty” – really lives up to its name, for there is crystal clear water that gushes from a dark cave. We can understand why the town is named “Not-dirty” because of the water that flows there.

But the town of Tsimafana – meaning “Not-hot” – is an example that challenges one’s understanding. In reality it is just as hot in Tsimafana (Not-hot) as in any other town of the area! It is certainly not cold!

In the background is Bongolava Mountain which
– with reason – meant “old-people-cannot-climb-it.”
Over the years, Missionaries have made long, tiring trips to Tsimazava – meaning “No-light” – and one could easily understand that such a lost and isolated village should be named “No-light.” Recently the fathers began revisiting Tsimazava (No-light). With the people, they thought it would be better to call it Soamazava – (Good-light). With a new Catholic community that prays there every Sunday, the light of faith does shine in the darkness. I don’t think we can officially change the name of the town but at least the church will be called Soamazava, “Good-light.”

Years ago we actually changed the name of the place called Tsiafakantitra – meaning “Old-people-cannot-climb-here” – because on one August day I climbed there to prove that an old person can make it to the top! This high hill – where we will make the Shrine to Our Lady of La Salette on the western slopes of the Bongolava Mountain – is accessible for even the elderly to climb, albeit at a slower pace than the youngsters. So it is now called Afakantitra –“Old-people-can-climb-it.” However, we are not thinking of changing the names of all the towns.

In Ankavandra, there is a town called Tsiafapapango – “a-hawk-cannot-reach-this-high.” Every time I fly out of Anfavandra, I hold my breath until the plane climbs over that summit! No, I’m not about to compete with the hawks!”


The town of Tsiafapapango, meaning

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