What’s in a name

Happy MannIn the US, we don’t notice names that have meaning as long as they are common names, especially girls names. So Hope, Faith and Rose are seen as normal. In fact, we might not even think about their meaning when we say them. But give a child a name that has meaning that is not usual, and people raise their eyebrows. I was amused by this Canadian election campaign sign for a candidate for the WildRose party. Yes, his name was Happy Mann. He did not win, so was Happy happy after all?

The Bible is full of names that are odd from our perspective. On the same day, Eli the High Priest died, his two sons were killed in battle, and one of their wives gave birth. She named the boy Ichabod – literally “Glory Gone” to mark the tragic events. The naming that tops them all, though, is when the prophet Isaiah named is son Maher-shalal-hash-baz which the Good News Bible translates as “Quick-Loot-Fast-Plunder”. Can you imagine the introductions?

This is my fiancé, Quick-Loot-Fast-Plunder
Hi, I’m Quick-Loot-Fast-Plunder and I’m applying for a job as a security guard

Child naming practices in parts of Africa where I have lived are sometimes strange to my American sensibilities. In some places a child’s first name is the day they were born on.

President of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan

President of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan

So I have known a good number of Friday’s including a great Nigerian colleague, Danjuma (meaning Friday) Gambo. Here in Ghana, Ashantis can give a child up to 10 names, including one for the day of the week. Lots of names are names of hope or of blessing. You will meet lots of people here in Ghana named Naana, which means Chief. Oh, and you will meet some named Chief and a few named Prince. The president of Nigeria is a man with a wonderful handle – Goodluck Jonathan.

But some do not hesitate to give names of calamity and despair, just like the biblical Glory-Gone and Quick-Loot-Fast-Plunder. A child born in times of famine and be given that as a name.

Nessiel Nodjibogoto

Nessiel Nodjibogoto

My favorite is the name of my dear Chadian friend Nessiel Nodjibogoto. Nessiel’s mother carried her first 3 pregnancies to term, but the babies were stillborn or died shortly after birth. Nessiel was her forth and she named him “He won’t last” which is the meaning of Nessiel in her language, Ngambaye.

Many years later Nessiel was going to a meeting outside of Chad. He went to see his now aged mother before leaving. In the course of the conversation she said to him: “You have given me grandchildren. We should consider changing your name!” But Nessiel told her that he wanted to keep his name. He said that some might call his development efforts in Chad, one of the poorest countries, “It won’t get done”. He likes the reminder, he told his mother, that those who say negative things are not always right.

Divine Munukum, one of my Ghanaian colleagues

Divine Munukum, one of my Ghanaian colleagues

Naana Nkrumah, one of my Ghanaian colleagues

Naana Nkrumah, one of my Ghanaian colleagues

500 2000 3000 then 2000 again


There are perhaps as many as 500 languages in the world. At least that’s what Wycliffe’s founder William Cameron Townsend thought when he started the organization in the 1930s. The number increased to 1,000. Then by the time I joined in the 1970s, it was over 2000. By then, Wycliffe had published a book entitled Two Thousand Tongues to Go.

Gradually, the number kept increasing. Why? Well, we kept discovering more languages. In the 1990s that stopped. Oh, we still might find a new language here or there, but nothing like the thousands being discovered in the middle of the 20th century. One of the little-heralded scientific achievements of that period was the cataloging of all the languages of the world, largely achieved by people interested in translating the Bible into more languages.

As the number of known languages increased – eventually to over 6,900 – so did the number without a translation of the Bible, reaching 3,000 in the 1990s – a far cry from the estimated 500 of only 60 years earlier.

But even as the number of languages stabilized around 6,900, the number still needing a translation was only decreasing by 25 per year – translation work was starting in about 25 languages every year. Imagine trying to save $3,000 by adding $25 to a cookie jar once a year. Even stalwart supporters of translating the Bible into all languages wondered if it was doable or worthwhile.

Enter John Watters. He had an idea called Vision 2025 which called for starting translation in all languages by 2025. A nice motivational goal, I thought, even if it can’t be done.

Well, Wycliffe just released the latest statistics. You can see them here. The number of languages without the Bible has dropped to less than 2,000 for the first time since we knew how many languages there are! Better, the rate of starting translation in more languages has increased way beyond 25 per year. The current pace has translation in the last language starting in the 2030s. Of course, that requires that giving, going and praying continue at the same pace. On the other hand, if God’s people were to pick up the pace a bit, 2025 is very possible.

This means that my children will see the last translation started and probably finished! Time is running out to be part of this historic moment. Don’t show up at the end of the world, see how proud our God is of those he asked to be involved and regret that you didn’t invest some prayer, money or time in this great thing God is doing.

Hackles up

Years ago in southwestern Burkina Faso, I was walking down a path near some houses when a little puppy came out, having heard us passing by. He looked to be only 10-12 weeks old. At that age they are cute, and this one was no exception.

I was not taken by his cuteness, but rather by the fact that his hackles were up, his snout was twisted into a no-nonsense snarl accompanied by a genuine adult growls and snaps. It was really quite comical, except I did think that he might try to put those needle-like puppy teeth into me. Also, rabies is not uncommon in that area.

His owner came out and shooed him off. So I asked about the bizarre behavior. Strangeness was not limited to the puppy’s antics. I learned that a few weeks earlier, the puppy had run out to bark at a passing moped on that same path, become entangled in its chain and had his abdomen ripped open. His inventive owner scooped him up with this intestines protruding and took him down to the local shoe repairman (there was no veterinarian) who sowed him up. In a recovery worthy of the most outrageous come-from-behind win in sports, the little guy recovered.

But, explained the man whose scandalously inspired action had saved the puppy’s life, now it attacks anything that comes down that path. Understandable. I never returned which was probably a good thing. I did not want my passing by there to again raise those hackles when the canine features under them possessed full adult capabilities.


On November 11, 1914, Eugene Nida was born in Oklahoma City. He was to have more impact on Bible translation than any other person in the 20th century.

Eugene Nida

After graduating from the University of California, he was exposed to Bible translation at Camp Wycliffe, a training program for Bible translators run by the founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators. He stayed in Bible translation, but worked with the American Bible Society. However, he became a founding member of Wycliffe Bible Translators when it was formed a few years later.

If you read the Bible, or hear it read from the pulpit, you have probably encountered Eugene Nida. This is because Nida pioneered the theory of translation which is used, even if in modified form, in many modern translations. The principles of that theory have guided Bible translators across the world in making translations that are understandable to people in the most varied languages and cultures.

More than a theorist, he wrote practical books about communicating the Gospel across cultures. He also developed practical techniques. For example, he developed a method of breaking words down into components of meaning. The word bachelor can be broken down into the components male + unmarried. This method is widely used to find the best translation when doing the very first translation into a language. It is particularly useful for translating key terms such as faith, sin and salvation. Methods he pioneered lead to translations which better conveyed the true meaning of the text, avoiding problems such as that of I John 5:12 in the Luganda translation which many take to mean that a person who dies without a male child will not have eternal life. If you are on Facebook, see this described by Enoch Wandera.

My reading of I Cor 12:28 is that God gives specially gifted people to his church.

First, God chose some people to be apostles and prophets and teachers for the church. But he also chose some to work miracles or heal the sick or help others or be leaders or speak different kinds of languages.

There was an explosion in Bible translation in the 20th century. The number of languages with some translation in print went from about 500 to over 2200 during that century – rate of a new language every three weeks! And that was when Nida graduated suma cum laude from university, went on to get a doctorate in linguistics and entered the field of Bible translation. Thousands of missionary translators were fanning out across the globe and the Bible . They needed training and some guiding principles. his writing, teaching and theories provided that. I believe that he clearly was God’s gift to his church to support the rapid expansion of Bible translation. His gifted life is yet another sign that God is creating an unprecedented, worldwide push to translate the Bible into all languages. While Nida’s story is not exciting, without it many of the exciting stories of Bible translation would not have happened.

Dr. Nida passed away in 2011.

If you liked this, you might also like Who would have guessed?, Not just anyone can translate, or Another kind of KP.


Young man weaving Kente cloth

When we lived in Burkina Faso we were introduced to strip weaving. Using simple looms, hand-made out of branches and strips of home-cured leather, men wove beautiful strips of cloth which are then sewn together to make cloth. Weaving, it turns out, is a man’s job in Burkina Faso. The cotton is dyed before weaving, and the intricacy of the design depends on the skill of the weaver. I still have a garment made by a man who won third place in a national weaving contest. It is a beautiful combination of blue, black, silver and white.

Here in Ghana, there is a very special kind of strip-woven cloth called Kente (pronounced ken-tay). It contrasts other strip woven cloth in Africa by its vivid colors and geometric shapes. A room full of Kente cloth can be a bit overwhelming.

Kente cloth shop near Kumasi

Traditionally, Kente cloth was only worn by the members of the royal court. The weavers worked for the king. Now days, it is freely available. You can buy it at the airport as well as in many markets. But for the really good stuff, you need to go to the source. I had the opportunity to visit the town which is home to the weavers for the royal court. We visited a small shop stuffed with the brightly colored fabric while a young man sat at a traditional loom in the street outside making even more.

Nawuri Chiefs in Kente Cloth

Nawuri Chiefs in Kente Cloth

The most common use of the cloth is as men’s wear. A large piece is draped in a specific way over the left shoulder leaving the right shoulder bare. I’ve tried it. I learned that I need a lot more practice before I try wearing it in public! The men who wear it all the time make it look so easy. The men in the photo wearing kente are traditional cheifs among the Nawuri people of Ghana’s Volta Region.

If you liked this, you might also like Cloth and Meaning, Festooned with Signs, Fancy Caskets. or Mobile Colors.