What’s in a Name?

by Tabitha Kidwell

When I was in high school and the internet was basically brand new, I typed in http://www.tabitha.com to see what it was (come on, you did the same, right?). I was surprised to see that it was a logistics and shipping company in Jakarta, Indonesia. I thought that was weird. Now, I pass that shipping company every time I take a taxi to or from the Jakarta airport. I think that is even weirder.

This doesn’t mean that Tabitha is a common name here. Not whatsoever. When I say my name, people give me a confused look that makes me think I don’t know my own name. I’ve gotten misspellings like Capita, Sabina, Zabita, and even if they get close, they have no idea where to put the H: tabitah, tabhita, thabita, tahbita. All this confusion has lead me to typically use my friend Jackie’s name when ordering drinks, reserving a table, etc. But even that doesn’t always work:


Sometimes my last name is even a problem, like on the new calendar for the school I work at:

I'll take that as a compliment

I’ll take that as a compliment

In general, names are used a little differently in Indonesia. In books and articles about Indonesians, you’ll often see the cliché “…who, like many Indonesians, goes only by one name”. Yes, some Indonesians go by only one name. But even more go by 3 or 4. The issue is that Indonesian names don’t conform western ideas about names. There are no first names or last names. There are no family names. Women don’t take their husband’s name at marriage. Kids don’t take their father’s names. Officially, the entire name, whether one or five words, is what is put on documents, announcements, class lists, posters, etc. The western habit of skipping the middle name seems a little odd. Nicknames might come from anywhere in the name, like my students Muchammed Fatmi Latif (just Latif), Indisa Dwi Ciptaputri (just Disa), or Fatihah Fajar Sari (just Ika… I don’t know why, either). This system prompted one of my friends to start calling me “beet” from “Ta-Bee-ta.” Some students use different parts of their names for different parts of their lives, like an Elizabeth who is Beth at home and Liz at school. But some students seem willing to go by anything. I always ask what I can call them on the first day of class, and many say “up to you, miss.” And I always say “no, up to YOU! It’s YOUR name,” and they pick one part for me. I’ve wondered if this apathy about one’s own name might be come back to the collectivistic culture: if individuality isn’t prized, individual names are less important. But that is almost certainly simplistic given the many complicated issues floating around names here. So, while I’m here, I’ll respond to Tab, Bit, Julia, Capita, etc… as long as it’s not Chucky.

One Comment to “What’s in a Name?”

  1. Haha.. Really love this post miss 😀
    Like me too, my name is Nurul Kamilah, but my friends call me “Unuy”.
    I think that “panggilan sayang”, or just for the easy way to call someone name 🙂

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