When the Portuguese set out on their mission to convert the local population to Christianity in the sixteenth century, they offered first class citizenship to the converts. My ancestors had the choice of retaining their Hindu religion or becoming Catholic. Although their attachment to Hinduism was strong, they gave in. With all the privileges that were offered by the Portuguese, I suppose it became a case of the spirit being weak, and the flesh willing.
Now, when the converts got their new names at baptism, they were told that they would also have to switch to a Portuguese surname. Not having much of a choice, most of them reportedly picked the last name of a Portuguese dignitary at the time, or a member of the military who would have been assigned to maintain law and order in the village. Thus, most Catholics in each village ended up with identical surnames even if they were not related. This, of course, caused an identity problem. So the villagers of Saligão gave each household a nickname that characterized a feature that was unique to the occupants of a household. The nicknames were not only colourful, but they reflected rural Goa’s charming sense of humour.
Our family nickname was Couth (rhymes with “both”) – a word that didn’t feature in the local dialect. So, the nickname evolved into a legal surname. It was the only exception in the village, as far as I know. Here are a few of the many other nicknames, and their English translation. I know the origin of some of the nicknames, but the stories behind others will have to be left to the readers’ imagination.
Bot Modi – broken toe. The owner had a malformed big toe that stuck out at a right angle to the other toes on her right foot. Other nicknames that described a physical deformity were Kan Katró – cut ear, and Fujão – Chicken pox.
Physical characteristics earned some families their nicknames such as Cauló – Crow, the nickname given to the family because of their dark skin. The householders that earned the nickname Goró Cul’ló – White Crab, were wide-eyed and fair-skinned. And their cousins Cauó Cul’ló – Black Crab, were also wide-eyed, but with a darker skin. Pingló – Blonde, was the nickname given to the household with light-coloured hair.
Some families got nicknamed after animals, birds and fish presumably because of their perceived resemblance to their non-human counterparts. There was Bokdó – Goat, Tal’ló – Sardine, Combó – Rooster, Bebó – Toad, Mankó – Frog, Dukor – Pig, Koló – Fox, Vagió – Tiger, and Sonsó – Rabbit.
Personality traits also played a part in earning families a nickname, such as Sourac – Hot Curry, Saibin – the Blessed Virgin, Godgodó – Thunder, and Kochró – Trash.
The deportment of some villagers didn’t go unnoticed either. There was Dandó – Rod, Raza – King, Girgiró – Propellar, Bodvó – Angel, and Deunsar – Devil.
Villagers who had a profession got known by the business in which they were involved, such as Chepekan – Hatter, Fulkan – Florist, Delegad – Lawyer, Dishtikan – Remover of ‘evil eye’, Arshekan – Glazier, Alekar – Ginger Man, Fogó – Firecracker, Menkar – Candle Maker, Madkar – Tree Doctor, Modki – Clay Pot, Aboló – Red Jasmine, Bendó – Okra, and Karém – Dried Fish.
My maternal grandfather was called Munkutó – Firewood, because he’d use a chunk of firewood to chase away the kids whose game of marbles disturbed his siesta.
Among the other inexplicable nicknames were Bendró – Tree Parasite, Pokó – Empty, and Porque – ‘Why’ in Portuguese.
There are a few other nicknames that wouldn’t get past the censors in print although they were used quite freely – and without malice – by the villagers.
A nickname was never treated with derision. Instead, it was prized as a symbol of a family’s recognition and acceptance as an entrenched member of the village community. And it’s what distinguishes the villager of Saligão from any other Goan with a similar surname.