About that name

07 Aug

Many of you have asked about the name, Nyan Thomas. “What’s Nyan mean?” “Who is he named after?” and most common, at least on my side of the family: “How the heck do you pronounce that?” Here, a primer:

We decided early on that our son would have both a Burmese name and a Western name, and that he’d take my last name. (Hyphens are cool and all, and I’m certainly in favor of gender equality, but sometimes ease of use just wins out.) Beatrice would get to decide the Burmese name, and I’d get to decide the Western.

I settled very quickly on “Kinnick” as the Western name. Okay, it was a joke at first – my hometown college football team plays at Kinnick Stadium, not far from my boyhood home, and it’s pretty much equivalent to the Taj Mahal or Westminster Abbey among Iowans. But I started to kinda like it for real.

Nile Kinnick, see, was a scholar, an athlete, and a war hero of sorts. He was the grandson of a turn-of-the-(last)-century governor of Iowa, a smart young man and athletic talent who attended the University of Iowa in the 1930s and was a standout student as well as football star, even winning the Heisman Trophy. After graduating,  he put a professional football career on hold so he could attend law school. (Aside: he was also a baseball player, and in fact was drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers after graduation. But he put off that, too.) As World War II loomed, Kinnick enlisted in the Naval Air Reserves. But sadly, he died in a plane crash off of Venezuela in 1943, at age 24.

Thirty-some years later, he had a stadium named after him.  And, nearly 40 years after that, he would have a beautiful boy named after him. Or so I sorta hoped. The name, in my mind, stood for all great things: wisdom, effort, physical well-being, scholastics, bravery, honor – in a word, character. It also was a nod to my Iowan roots.

Unfortunately, in Beatrice’s mind, it symbolized a silly, slow-paced, incomprehensible game consisting of steroided men bumping into each other, all while playing a sport that is called “football” but clearly isn’t “football” because it’s not soccer. The name “Kinnick” also reminded her (and anyone English, she feared) of a Welsh politician named Neil Kinnock, who was, I am told, a not-very-effective British opposition leader in the late 1980s and early 90s. He also has the dubious distinction of being the man whose speech a young(er) Joe Biden once plagiarized, a poor choice that forced him out of the 1988 presidential campaign.

Plus she thought the name “Kinnick” was just dumb.

You gotta pick your battles, and I decided wisely that a victory on “Kininck” would probably be pyrrhic at best. (Plus, really, Beatrice was right.) So for his Western name, we decided on… well, you know what we decided on. More on that in a bit. But first things first, and first names first: Nyan.

In Burmese tradition, newborns are given a name that start with a syllable associated with the day of the week on which they were born. Beatrice’ Burmese name, for example, is Htaik Htar (pronounced “tay-tar”) – that hard T sound signifying that she was born on a Saturday. Anyone who is Burmese and whose name starts with that sound was very likely born on a Saturday as well.

Obviously we didn’t know what day our son would be born, but when he arrived on a Tuesday, it was preordained that his name would start with a “Nya” sound. (The “nya” syllable, for all my ethno-linguist readers, is the 10th consonant in the Burmese alphabet (there are 33 in all.)

From there, we consulted with Beatrice’s father, who suggested a couple of names. Beatrice decided – and I very much concurred – that Nyan would be perfect. As Beatrice says: “The word ‘nyan’ means wisdom, knowledge, intellect. When used as a name, it has connotations of the name bearer being a genius, very smart, an intellectual.” No pressure, right?

She goes on: “Nyan is also a K. family name; it’s the familiar name for my father and was chosen by my paternal grandfather as a familial name.”

So that’s Nyan: wisdom. And also giving proper respect to her father and other ancestors.

As for the Western name: way back in the early 1600s, a young man was living in the wonderfully named village of Chew Magna in western England, near Bristol and southern Wales. He came from a family of miners but apparently made a living as some sort of arms dealer to the royal family. In 1629, at the age of 21 – less than a decade after the Mayflower, and for reasons unknown – this young man sailed for the New World. Suffice it to say that he was a success: among his accomplishments was founding the still-extant Connecticut towns of Stonington and New London. His other accomplishments include a lineage with direct descendants that include my father, me, and now my son. His name was Thomas Minor, and as he was a leader, an explorer, someone who did great things in his life, and an ancestor, we thought it would be a very fitting name for our son.

(So no, he was not named after the island of St. Thomas, where I spent a few formative years, but that does make for a nice coincidence.)

The other entries on my short list the day we headed for the hospital were James – a crisp, regal sounding name, and also the name of several ancestors – and Nathaniel, in honor of Nathaniel Palmer, another direct descendent of Thomas Minor who was an 18th Century sailor and explorer; he was the first to step foot on some parts of Antarctica and by age 22, that continent’s Palmer Land, and the Palmer Archipelago, had been named after him. (By age 22…) Naming our son Nathaniel, though, would have meant both of our son’s names started with the letter N, and that wouldn’t do. And between Thomas and James, well, Thomas just had more resonance.

And finally: how the heck do you pronounce Nyan? It does take some getting used to, for a Westerner. It’s one syllable – that is, it does NOT rhyme with “Ryan.” It’s hard to write out, but it’s like the word “yon” but with a quick hit of an N sound before that. Or, if you’re a foodie, perhaps, it’s like the Indian bread, naan, but with a quick hit of a Y sound after the N sound.

Beatrice says the word, and the name, are “uniquely Burmese; it is hard for non-Burmese speakers to pronounce. To pronounce Nyan, position your tongue as to say the letter ‘n,’ then place it very high and hard against the middle of the roof of the mouth to say the ‘yan’ part of the name… And if that’s too difficult, just use Thomas!!”

We figure we’ll let the kid decide for himself what he wants to be called among his peers when he gets old enough. For now, we alternate between calling him Nyan or even Nyan Thomas. Like the name of this blog.

And finally finally: at least one astute reader caught a mention, in an earlier post, of us calling our son LG. The explanation: when Beatrice was pregnant, that’s what we called him. It started before we knew the gender, and stood for ‘little guy’ or ‘little girl.’ Then, when we learned he was a he, LG meant ‘little guy.’  It’s quick and easy to say, and I’ll admit I’ve referred to him as such a few times – and even said it to the boy. Old habits die hard.

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Posted by on August 7, 2011 in Uncategorized


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