About names… and me

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

The Bard was right, of course – and yet… was he?

Is a name just a label – or is it a personal identification, part of who one is to oneself and to the world? How much are you identified by your name or names, or by names, nicknames, labels, or gibes by which others identify you? Do you have a private name known only to yourself, your family, and other intimates, separate from or in addition to whatever other monikers may be applied to you?

For me, there isn’t a simple answer to this question – not that I’ve posed a simple question. The same is often true in life, for people, places, objects, symbols… almost anything you can think of.

As an example, look at the symbol pictured above. I know it as the Valknut (Old Norse for “Hero’s Knot“) from my study of my Norse heritage. It’s also known variously as a Trefoil KnotTrinity Knot, or Triquetra (Latin for three-cornered), among many other names, and is recognized as a symbol for the Norse god Odin, the Holy Trinity, the Wiccan Triple Goddess, the Three Realms of existence (Earth, Sky, and Sea), or the interconnected Mind, Body, and Soul… and many others. I carved this one from a small piece of oak to use for coin flipping; the reverse side is plain. What would you call it?

Now to the point of this post: my names and other things I’ve been called…  and why I chose the name EndaBrukh for this blog.

My original name, the first thing I was called by my mother, was Skipper. Of course, there’s a story behind this. My parents spent 7 years building a Tahiti ketch, a wonderful sailboat designed for single-handed round-the-world voyages. My dad named her Thora (a Swedish nickname for Viktoria), after his mother, who died when he was 7 years old. Thora was launched the year before I was, in Lake Michigan, during WWII. So when she first saw me, my mother called me “the little Skipper.”

Before long, Skipper became Skip. My brother & his family are the only people who still refer to me as Skipper; just about anyone else who knew me as a kid or through my family has always called me Skip.

One of my first heavy shocks in life was when I learned that I wasn’t really Skip – or rather, that I had another name. When my mother took me to the first day of Kindergarten, she told me that my real name was Bruce. I immediately hated the name; it wasn’t me! Eventually I learned how my parents chose my name, and my younger brother’s as well. Since our last name is a long, uncommon one, my mother wanted us to have short, single-syllable first names. So for brevity’s sake, I’m Bruce, and my brother is Paul.

No consideration of meaning went into the choice of our names. Of course, it’s not common for English-speaking Americans to be given names with meaning, at least not as common as in other cultures, where people’s names are current words in their language, with clear meanings. Having lived among people whose names were given for particular reasons, with specific meanings, I have felt somewhat cheated, although of course my original name, Skip, has a very clear and personal meaning, but I think one’s name should represent something, or be descriptive of the person.

Be that as it may, I was called Bruce all through school, as well as during my years in the Army. While not happy about it, I lived with it. I would have been called Nerd by my grammar school classmates, except that that name wasn’t in use at that time. I was called Weirdo and numerous other such names, however – and The Organism by at least one classmate in prep school, primarily because I spent so much time in the biology lab taking care of the hamsters and doing extra-curricular dissections.

I studied Russian for two years in prep school and two more at university. The first two years were a pilot program in total immersion audio-lingual Russian, and we were all given Russian names for the class. In most cases they either were the Russian equivalent of our actual names, or something close to it. As Bruce isn’t used in Russian, I became Борис (Boris), a name which I kept among a few close college friends.

After my senior year in the university, I entered the Service at the end of September 1966, and after basic training, I spent the whole of 1967 at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey California studying Arabic. Once again we were given names in class, and since there was no Arabic name similar to mine, I was called حسن (Hassan).

After completing the 47-week course at Monterey and a month-long leave over the holidays, I and many of my classmates were posted to Kagnew Station in Asmara, capital of Eritrea, which then was a province of Ethiopia rather than the independent nation it is now. Since I had majored in archaeology at the university, I contacted the Ethiopian Institute of Archaeology and arranged to take part in some important excavations at several sites over the five years that I spent there, both while in the Army and after being given special permission by both governments to remain there after my discharge.

The name Bruce had a sort of fortuitous connection with Ethiopia, since a Scotsman named James Bruce was famed as the first European to discover the source of the Blue Nile in 1770. Ethiopians & Eritreans, among many other cultures in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere, don’t have family names, but instead have their given name followed by a “patronymic” or father’s name, and frequently preceded by titles or honorifics. For example, Leul (Prince) Ras (roughly equivalent to Duke) Mangasha Seyum was the son of Ras Seyum Mangasha, the grandson of Ras Mangasha Yohannes, and the great grandson of Atse (Emperor) Yohannes IV. I had the opportunity to meet Leul Ras Mangasha during my years in Ethiopia, whose illustrious ancestor Yohannes (seen below next to James Bruce) was killed defending Ethiopia against invading Mahdist forces from Sudan in 1889. Many of the people I met were familiar with the story of James Bruce, but having an imperfect understanding of our naming conventions, some would ask if I were related to him because we shared the name Bruce.

The official language of Ethiopia is Amharic, but the language spoken in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia is Tigrinya. Both are Semitic languages, cousins of Arabic, although their writing system is unique. While they are both more distinct from Arabic than Italian and Spanish are from French, Tigrinya sounds a great deal like Arabic and has many similar words. I quickly found a friend who could teach me the basics, and then I dove into the language, and before long was pretty fluent.It didn’t taken me long to realize that Tigrinya speakers had trouble pronouncing my name. It usually came out more like boo-roos, since the consonant pair “br” followed by “s” was a difficult combination. My teacher gave me a Tigrinya name that sounded enough like mine to work: Brukh, related to the Arabic Barak and the Hebrew Barukh, meaning “blessed.”

In the polite traditional culture of Abyssinia (ancient name for the land that now comprises Eritrea and Ethiopia), only very close friends or family members would address one another without a title of some sort, and being considered a guest in their country, and on top of that a supposedly rich American who had made the effort to learn their language, culture, and history, I was generally afforded the title Ato, which means what Mr. used to in English one or two centuries ago: Master, or Sir (not a title of knighthood in this case, but an honorific). So I was known by many people in villages, towns, and cities as Ato Brukh.

Toward the end of my military time I began writing a series of feature articles for the Kagnew Gazelle, the base newspaper, which I continued writing until I returned to the States. Before long I acquired a byline for my column, one that recalled a famous British scholar and soldier of WWI: Bruce of Ethiopia.

After leaving Asmara for the States, I moved back in with my parents for a couple of years before setting out on my own, so naturally I became Skip again. As my departure wasn’t as happy as I would have hoped, and my dreams of returning after getting a graduate degree in archaeology were dashed (I’ll have more to say about all this in future posts), I was doubly glad to retire the name Bruce, which I had left behind me in Abyssinia.

We now jump forward to the mid-80s, when I got my first computer, an Apple //c. I was living in Boston, and joined the venerable Boston Computer Society, which was one of the first two computer clubs invited to beta test a new online service. I had no experience with what was to become the Internet, but bought a speedy 1200 baud modem and signed up, thereby becoming one of the first 500 testers of AppleLink Personal Edition, a joint project of Apple and Quantum now better known as America Online, or AOL.

For the past several years I had been researching my Scandinavian heritage, Viking history and culture, and the Old Norse language, as well as Swedish (which I used on a trip to my ancestral country). My first screen name on AOL was SkipD1, but I added several others which became separate personae, including: Harbard (GreyBeard) and Gangleri (Wanderer), which were bynames for the Norse god Odin, but also descriptive of me;  FroggieG, based on the puppet character Froggy the Gremlin from the old Buster Brown Show, later known as Andy’s Gang; SkipaDduda. bestowed on me by a jokester; and DinniSkipr, a spoonerism I coined as a whimsical reference to my preferred form of swimming.

You didn’t think I was going to show you a picture of me dinnyskipping, did you?

I did promise to explain why this blog is called EndaBrukh. It’s been a long journey, but we’re near the end, I assure you.

Let’s jump ahead a few years. I had met a woman on AOL, left Boston to move in with her in the Washington D.C. area, and then a few months later moved with her to Little Rock Arkansas, where we stayed together for about eight years before deciding that our friendship was more important than our relationship. Back on my own, I’ve had a number of different jobs and extracurricular activities, including keeping animals of all sorts and being involved in lots of projects in one way or another connected to computing and the Internet.

A few years ago I discovered a virtual online world called Second Life. Users create an avatar and interact with other people from all over the world, playing, working, designing, and studying… virtually anything that you can do in real life.

I created my avatar in the image of an Abyssinian man – the alter-ego I had left behind in Asmara. Obviously his name would be Brukh, but what title to add? I considered AtoBrukh, which was what I was called throughout large parts of Eritrea and neighboring Tigray province in Ethiopia, but decided to leave him at rest and create a true alter-ego. I wanted him to be a figure of some authority, so I named him AbaBrukh. Aba is a title given to a priest or elder. While I didn’t plan to make him an actual priest, I felt that someone with such a background would be educated, knowledgeable, dignified, yet worldly, just the sort of image I wanted to portray, although I did occasionally dress him in priestly robes for special occasions, such as Orthodox Christmas.

My ultimate goal on Second Life (often called SL), was to create my own living museum, a Virtual Abyssinia where I could restore some of the buildings from the archaeological sites where I had worked years before to their original condition, in a 3D format that would permit people to enter and experience them and the life of the people who lived there at various times over the past 4000 years or so. I actually was able to accomplish part of the goal before financial pressures forced me to give it up. I hope to be able to resume at some point in the future once I can find funding.

In the meantime, I am commemorating that project with this blog, which I have given the name first used in my Virtual Abyssinia: EndaBrukh – which simply means “Brukh’s Place.”