Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Names and Meanings

Last Saturday evening my husband Clem and I held a reception with twenty five guests in our home for Bill Schulz, the president and CEO  of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, or UUSC. Schulz was previously the executive director of Amnesty International.

President and CEO UUSC

Bill Schulz

He preached the next day at our Unitarian church. He talked about names and how harmful they can be. “It’s difficult to get beyond thinking of people in categories – Muslim, old, terrorist, or illegal immigrant,” he said. [Yet] the names we apply to others do not wipe out the claim of others to be treated with human decency. We need to see the human faces behind the labels.” I agree. Labelling is not helpful.

Hauwa Ibrahim, the Nigerian lawyer I talked about in my last post, said the same thing in an  interview posted on Steve Clapp’s blog.  She said Boko Haram has gone off track with the kidnapping. But she adds “We don’t consider any people bad. We consider their actions bad. The moment you start calling people names, you lose the ability to work with them. So we say that the actions are terrorism, but we don’t call the people terrorists. The moment you label someone, you lose the ability to create a common structure that enables different people to work together peacefully to create positive change.”

I saw an article today that said the presidential committee on the kidnapping, the one Ibrahim is taking part in, has held its first meeting in Nigeria’ s capital Abuja. I’m sure you wish them success, as I do.

Nigerian Names With Meanings, My Name With None

On Sunday my friend and singing colleague Berta asked me how to say my last name, Onyemelukwe. I said it for her slowly. After she repeated it a couple of times, she asked what it meant. I explained and then realized I should tell you too. I’ll give you a very short Igbo lesson with the name.

Igbo warrior dancing

Sunday Alamba’s photo Igbo warior dance

Onye means a person or someone. The third syllable and fourth syllables melu are the past tense of the verb ‘do’. So the first four syllables of the name mean that the person did something. A little imagination is needed for the last syllable – kwe. It means speak, agree, or proclaim. Taken together the whole name implies a person who took some action, like going to battle, and then returned to boast about it. At least that’s how my husband explains it!

The Igbo language has three tonal levels, high, mid and low. Without the tones, the syllables are hard to understand. Our name is low high mid mid high. If I knew how to put an audio clip here for you I’d let you hear it. Our younger son Sam is coming to visit in a few days and he probably knows how to do that.

I just found this clever lesson in Igbo on YouTube. I’m sharing it so you can get a sense of the different tones. You might want to listen to the first minute.

We gave our children Igbo names. Many parents of our generation did the same. Some of the most popular Igbo girls’ names include our daughter’s – Ijeoma, which means go in safety or go well. A similar popular name – Ifeoma, my sister-in-law-s name – means something good. You have probably figured out that the ‘oma’ at the end connotes good or well. Akaoma is the name of one of our cousins’ daughters – the literal meaning is ‘the hand is good.’ I asked her in a Facebook message how she interprets her name and she said it means ‘fortune.’ It would surely be good fortune!  And the last Igbo name I’ll mention is Chidimma. You remember that Chi means God? The ‘mma’ at the end is a version of ‘oma’ or good. There’s a verb in the middle; the name means God is good.

Silver spoon

Engraved silver spoon

My own name, Catherine, was given to me because my mother had a younger sister Catherine who died as a child. I have a small silver spoon engraved with Catherine; I believe it was a baby gifts for her. I couldn’t make the engraving show in the photo, but I promise, it’s there! I think someone on my father’s side of the family also had that name. But I’ve never known the meaning. I looked at the website that explained the meaning of the Yoruba names for me, but it didn’t give a meaning for Catherine.

Do you know the meaning or family history of your name?

Author: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, blogger, speaker. Born in New York, grew up in mid west United States, lived in Nigeria for 24 years, back in U.S. since 1986. Advocate for racial justice.


  1. Pingback: Names and Photos With Meaning | Catherine Onyemelukwe

  2. Thanks, Catherine, for reminding us not to categorize and stereotype people. It’s all too easy when a crisis occurs and vulnerable people, like children, are in danger.

  3. Liked your UU and AI friend’s message. Calling people names is a way of pushing people and groups away. Also liked your name pronouncing lesson. Brought back memories of struggling with tonal Igbo language, but I think I remembered enough to get somewhat the right emphasis on yours. Lowell

    • Thanks, Lowell. I’m glad you liked everything! I’m curious about your name, Lowell – any background you’d be willing to share?

      • I am named after a good friend of my father that he knew at Harvard Business School. I met him once when he came to a church service I lead. Then about 10 years ago, by chance at a dinner party I met his son. We have become good friends. He is a remarkable person. If his father was anything like him, I am moved to be named “Lowell!”

  4. I read this post with new interest having recently been to Africa. You explain things so well, Catherine. Thank you for your clarity. BTW, I clicked on the photo of the spoon which enlarges it substantially–so that I can see the engraving.