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On the cultures beat: Somalis find out what's in a name

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH
  • Star Tribune
  • March 27, 2012 - 10:23 PM

Last week I wrote a story about a group of Somali poets including one who goes by his nickname, Abdi Phenomenal.

The unusual nickname got me thinking about all the other local Somalis I've encountered who have colorful nicknames.

There's "Happy" Khalif, the upbeat barber at the oldest Somali mall in Minneapolis.

And "Halloween," a video producer and aspiring actor who looks, well, kind of scary.

I'm not sure how the whole nickname thing got started in Somali culture, but some say it was a matter of necessity.

"There are so many 'Mohameds,'" explained Abdirahman Mukhtar, the outreach liaison for the Hennepin County Library system.

Ditto for the Abdis.

Somali nicknames are distinctive. In fact, some only know a person by his or her nickname.

The first name of the owner of a popular Somali restaurant in town is Osman, and in naming the place after himself, he chose to use his flattering nickname.

So instead of "Osman's," the restaurant is called "Qoraxlow," meaning "handsome."

Somali nicknames usually describe a physical feature. For example, people with baby faces are given the nickname "yare," which means "small," a reference to looking young.

Sometimes, the nickname is something that would be considered derogatory in the dominant culture. For example, a stuttering child may be called "shigshigaaye," meaning "stutter" in Somali.

And while members of the older generation have nicknames in the Somali language, those who grew up here have new nicknames -- ones that reflect their American upbringing.

Mukhtar rattled off a few he's heard: Machiavelli, Mo (short for Mohammed) and Biggie (for someone who's fat).

"One thing I find," he said, "is that someone will give you that nickname one day and it will stick with you forever."

Maybe that's why, so far, he has avoided getting one.

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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