by R.M. Glasse

(Reprint used with the permission of the publisher Ethnology, Department of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh; Ethnology 26(3):201-208; 1987).

In The Savage Mind Levi-Strauss (1966) discusses the general principles of a theory of names, with particular concern for individual and group names, the rules of their bestowal and transmission, and the links between human names and the classification of the animal world. He (Levi-Strauss 1966: 181) sums up his position in the following terms: What we have here are thus two extreme types of proper name between which there are a whole series of intermediate cases. At one extreme, the name is the identifying mark, which, by the application of a rule, establishes that the individual who is named is a member of a preordained class… At the other extreme, the name is a free creation on the part of the individual who gives the name and expresses a transitory and subjective state of his own by means of the person he names. But can one be said to be really naming in either case? The choice seems only to be between identifying someone else by assigning him to a class, or, under cover of giving him a name, identifying oneself through him. One therefore never names: one classes someone else if the name is given to him in virtue of his characteristics and one classes oneself if, in the belief that one need not follow a rule, one names someone else ‘freely’, that is in virtue of characteristics of one’s own. And most commonly one does both at the same time. We shall see that both of these processes are at work among the Huli of Southern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea. The Huli number around 60,000 and most of them live in the basin formed by the Tagari River, its tributaries, and the adjoining lands. Like most Highlanders, they cultivate sweet potatoes as a staple crop and breed pigs. First contacted in 1936, today the Huli have given up organized warfare and the majority have been converted to or born into Christianity. The Huli language is the principal form of communication in Tari and Komo sub-provinces and the majority tongue in Koroba and Magarima. Perhaps a third of the Koroba are bilingual, speaking both Huli and Duna, while at Magarima many Huli speakers also know one or more Enga dialects. This essay describes the use and bestowal of (1) personal names, (2) agnatic surnames or patronyms, (3) parish names, and (4) ground or territorial names. It also discusses the names of pigs and dogs.

Working primarily with male informants, I collected a sample of that are more or less in common use. As in English, each name may be classified as male, female, or gender neutral. Informants claimed that 59 percent of the total were meaningful or had reference, while the remainder were simply names with no overt connotation.

Table I
Classification of Huli Personal Names

Male FemaleEither SexTotals
Names with meaning or reference38 8 248
Names without meaning1218 434
Totals5026 682

Although the chi square test suggests that male names . The predominantly male informants. As a subordinate category, the names of women are more likely to be judged as “meaningless” (hence insignificant) by men than their own names. More important, Table 1 shows Huli names are usually gender tags with 93 percent of the sample being unambiguously male or female.

Table 2

Types of Meaningful Names

ClassMale FemaleEitherTotals
Verbal Forms16622
Botanical Nomen77
Faunal Nomen 617
Insect Nomen11
Place Names1124
Material Things22

Analysis of the male names is revealing. Forty-two percent of the total (N=38) are derived from verbal forms. For example, Handobe means “you must see”, Minabe, “you catch him/it”, and so on. (For details, see Appendix 1.) Next in importance are names derived from natural species; animals, birds and insects. These account for thirty-six percent of the male sample. This association between men and zoological forms may well be an aspect of male identification with forest or wilderness, the realm of pure thought, free of polluting female presence (Glasse 1974). The name Haroli, incidentally, derives from ignity haroli, literally, “boy who hides” (i.e., in the forest), a member of the now defunct bachelor’s seclusion cult. Unfortunately, my sample of meaningful female names is too small (N=draw any conclusions.

The Giving of Names

As in many societies, the bestowal of a name on an infant is the prerogative of the parents. During the latter months of her pregnancy, a woman will often discuss prospective names with her husband. In many instances they agree on one male and one female name for the unborn child. In the past, a shy paraprima might be too inhibited to raise the question with her still rather reserved husband. In this event, the women who attend the birth (usually one or two) might suggest names and the mother chooses from among them. After the delivery, the husband learns of the chosen name and usually accepts it. For births of subsequent children, however, consultation is the norm. In some instances, a husband insists on giving names to his sons that contain the same final syllable. This form of partial posterior alliteration is a father’s whim. It sounds good when their names are called in sequence during a pork distribution. Occasionally, parents bestow two names on a child, although only one becomes widely used.

Names are generally given for life, although some exceptions occur. If one twin dies, the other may change his/her name (and indeed place of residence) to avoid the danger of falling victim to the same evil fate. Sometimes a person may be given a kaimini, a name that derives from some aspect of his physical appearance, usually of a negative character.  A man with reddish skin (undesirable) may be dubbed Honabi; a boy with large eyes, Bullimakowte (literally, bull/cow eyes) revealing the inroads of Tok Pisin (Melanesian Pidgin) into the Huli language. Occasionally, two individuals (usually of the same sex) who share a common experience may adopt food names; for example, two men who collect pandanus nuts together may call each other Palu (pandanus nut) to commemorate the experience. The use of food names, however, is limited to the pair; they do not use them on public occasions or when strangers are present. Food names, like our pet names, are essentially for private use. They fall in Levi-Strauss’s second category.

In general, people avoid the use of personal names on public occasions or when strangers are present. Instead, they employ kin terms if possible or group names like “men of Ambaru (parish),” thus avoiding stress on the individual. In some social situations the use of personal names is virtually taboo.  A wife refers to her husband by the kin term (agalini) but he does not reciprocate or even use her personal name. The kin term for wife (one) has too much suggestion of sexuality to be used, especially if others may hear it spoken. Instead, he calls her simply woman (wali) or, better still, uses a teknonym such as mother-of-so-and-so, referring to their first-born child. This is the least embarrassing way; it refers to the issue of their union, rather than her spousal status. A woman too will use the same teknonym when speaking to or calling her husband. So far as names are concerned, the most difficult situation arises with a new bride, especially during the period prior to consummating the match — a period that before could last up to nine months. No child-based teknonym is available, her personal name is extremely taboo, and the kin term “wife” is unthinkable. The bride exists in a kind of social limbo so far as her husband is concerned. Fortunately, his kin can at least address her as sister-in-law or daughter-in-law; for them she exists as a person, although formality must be observed. A recent groom tries to avoid situations where he might have to address his wife publicly. He not only resists speaking her name, he resists speaking to her completely if at all possible. His embarrassment diminishes with the passage of time; after the birth of her first child the restriction tends to lapse. As mentioned above, a person’s affines may not be called by a personal name; to do so is insulting and shames both parties, especially if the breach involves a mother-in-law of either spouse. These relationships are saturated with respect; only kin terms should be employed.

In the past, when a man killed an enemy during a battle the use of the victim’s name had to be avoided. To speak the dead man’s name could attract his vengeful ghost. The danger diminished once the killer performed lustration rites freeing him from the bloodguilt of his act. It is worth noting that this is just the opposite of the Orokaiva custom; here the killer appropriates the name of his victim, thereby acquiring the latter’s ivo, or spirit essence. Alternatively, he may bestow the captured name on one of his offspring (Schwimmer 1973: 78). Perhaps the crucial element here may be that Orokaiva practiced cannibalism, consuming the flesh of their enemies. Thus incorporating a person’s name would be little different from incorporating his flesh. Huli, by contrast, never consumed enemy dead (or anyone else for that matter) nor took their names.

Cryptonyms, or secret names, usually reciprocal, are used by a few individuals, most often men. These covert or restricted names are spoken only in privacy. Like food names, they are meant to commemorate some shared experience. The use of penthonyms or “sorrow names” is more difficult to ascertain (Strathern 1970). A penthonym is a name that makes an oblique reference to the death of a kinsmen. Among the Daribi, for example, the name Sau (ravine) “refers to the death of (a friend’s) mother’s sister, for the entrails of the pigs killed on that occasion were thrown into a ravine” (Wagner 1972: 89). I believe penthonyms occur among the Huli but I lack the data to demonstrate it. What certainly does occur is the use of eponyms from parish genealogies or the transfer of a dead child’s name to a sibling born after the death. Both cases are somewhat difficult to document, for ancestral names may be given to commemorate a specific ancestor or simply because they are part of the name stock. In the case of children’s names, if the death and naming of the successor child took place long ago the event may simply be forgotten.

Agnatic Surnames

Appendix 2 lists 77 parish names (although a small number distant parish sections whose segementary position was not informants). All these names are apparently eponyms from male ancestor of each parish. Parish sections are similarly named, section descended from a female may be designated by the name her brothers, thus giving the genealogy an agnatic appearance. In personal name(s), everyone possesses an agnatic surname or patronym, regardless of whether he or she belongs to the group in question.  Hence, while an individual may be affiliated with several parishes simultaneously or successful, his or her agnatic identity is fixed and immutable.  The stability if agnatic status is protected by a rule of patrilineal exogamy.  No matter where they may live or how alien they may be to each other, two people bearing the same agnatic surname may not wed. I have never found a breach if this rule.

These patronyms should not be confused with parish names.  In no case (see Appendix 2) are they identical, although in a few instances they sound derivative.  In several instances, parishes appear to possess the same agnatic surname.  This may be the result of confusion about whether remote groups are parishes or parish sections but I believe this is not always the case.  In a few examples, two parishes that have fissioned relatively recently continue to employ the same surname but not the same parish name.  In one or two examples the possession of the same name may be fortuitous, especially when their territories are far apart.

Agnatic  surnames  are  employed  when  many  people  are  present  on ceremonial occasions.  While a number of people may have the same personal name, it is rare to find individuals whose surnames are also identical.  When a man makes a public prestation, usually of cooked pork, he first announces the surname of the recipient and then his personal name.  This avoids the embarrassment of raised expectations on the part of others with the same personal name.

So far as I know, only Huli make use of agnatic surnames.  I interpret this as a principle of identity in a wide-ranging cognatic system (Glasse 1968). One may or may not belong to one’s agnatic parish but the agnatic name does not change; residence may be fluid, shifting, impermanent, but a patronym allegedly is immutable.

Animal and Territorial Names

Only some domesticated animals are named. A woman who cares gives it a name when it is fully grown; this may refer to its some other physical characteristic. Pig names are not gender tags only the owner and caretaker, and perhaps their immediate neighbors, may know them. Dogs formerly were not named but now Huli follow European practice and often use English or pidgin names. Cows and cats are unnamed. All land used for hunting or cultivation is named. It bears the parish name of those who claim it but also has a local toponym, allowing fairly precise reference. To pinpoint land even further, one may refer to a specific person’s garden or the location of some natural feature or historic event that occurred there. I have not investigated the source of land names in detail.


Huli names conform pretty much to Levi-Strauss’s generalization. names are ordinarily chosen from a pre-existing stock, although new name is coined to commemorate an occasion or to emphasize some perceived characteristic of the new-born. Stock names group individuals into classes, while special names of various kinds emphasize the closeness of the individuals who employ them. These special names are rather like kin terms they are nearly always reciprocal. They differ from kin that they are appropriately used on private, rather than, public occasions.

Appendix 1

Names With or Without Explicit Meaning

Examples of male names with no explicit meaning or known reference:

Marabe, Angobe, Ango, Angoyai, Amago, Lendebe, Agilo, Teabe, Alibe, Aliria, Mongobe, Antane.

Examples of male names with reference or meaning:

Angi: ancestor, leaf of a tree

Malingi: leaf used in cooking (earth oven)

Kobe: is it bad

Kobaya: to miss target

Eganda: birds nest Ega: bird

Handobe: you must see

Arua: name of river and name of bird

Minabe: you must catch him/it Pagana: species of cus-cus

Tiah: species of possum

Andogia: species of possum

Pakaya: kind of grasshopper

Kebaya: you hold digging stick Palia: to sleep

Undiabu: name of place near Tagari River

Tabe: charred

Muli: species of tree; also pidgin usage lemon

Akibe: are you asking

Pule: I will do it

Paya: to hit; also name of leaf used in earth oven

Pogaya: he shot him/it with bow and arrow

Timu: arrow

Yabe: you must carry

Alupa: edible, leafy plant

Hedobe: burn it

Tiba: dirty water

Paliya: he slept

Haroli: member of bachelors association

Homoko: wealthy man

Hongone: shoot of a plant

Mundu: tobacco

Harne: to like

falu: rain

faba: to tie things together /bamboo knife

findini: on the ground

Andigi: to grow (of plants only)

Togo: to become rotten/bridge

Female names with no explicit meaning or reference:

lbanda, Papua, Kuli, Kabili, Hoyali, Piri, timbai, Pentai, Lumba, Tagume, lbai, Egai, Yali, Yalima, Tebili, Tandame, Mugume, Igime.

Female names with meaning or reference:

Kau: to taste sour

Payuali: species of bird

Mangabi: its not interesting

fugu: to cry

Wayabiwali: women of Wayabi territory

Mule: I will give

Appendix 2

Parish Names and Corresponding Agnate Surnames

ParishAgnate SurnameParishAgnate Surname
 Lombehala Huguma Ambaru  Heliwa
YelumuTibiPiKuba  adi


Glasse, R. M. 1968. Huli of Papua. Mouton, Paris, and The Hague.

Glasse, R. M. 1974. Le masque de la Volupte. L’Homme 14: 79-86.

Levi-Strauss, C. 1966. The Savage Mind. Chicago.

Schwimmer, E. 1973. Exchange in the Social Structure of the Orokaiva. New York.

Strathern, A. 1970. Wiru Penthonyms. Bijdragen 1.

Wagner, R. 1972. Habu. Chicago

(Photo courtesy Trans NiuGini Tours)

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