WHAT’S IN A NAME? THE MARSHALL ISLANDS EDITION

I don’t know about you, but I find place names immensely fascinating. I am always curious what the words we see on a map or signposts mean. And that curiosity has led me to some very interesting findings, which I am about to share with you today. Because I am learning Marshallese, I just have to start with the Marshall Islands.

Ailinginae Atoll (Marshallese: Aelōn̄in Ae)

The Marshallese name of the atoll comes from the words “aelōn̄” = “atoll, island” + “ae” = “current” and is translated as “island of current”.

Ailinglaplap Atoll (Marshallese: Aelōn̄ļapļap)

“Aelōn̄ļapļap” translates as “greatest atoll” or “large atoll” and derives from the words “aelōn̄” = “atoll, island” + “ļapļap” (superlative suffix). According to Wikipedia, it was so named because the greatest Marshallese legends had been created there.

Arno Atoll (Marshallese: Arņo)

“Arņo” is a combination of two words: “ar” = “lagoon side, lagoon beach” + “ņo” = “wave”, so the name can be translated as “lagoon wave”.

Bikini Atoll (Marshallese: Pikinni)

The name “Pikinni” is translated as “surface of coconuts” or “land of coconuts”. It is said to have come from words “pik” = “surface, layer” + “ni” = “coconut, coconut tree”.

Bokak Atoll (Marshallese: Bokaak or Bok-ak)

Marshallese-English Online Dictionary states that the name means “frigate bird” (from the word “ak” = “frigate bird”).

Ebon Atoll (Marshallese: Epoon)

The name of the atoll is believed to have come from the words “iep waan”, which supposedly is a type of basket the atoll is thought to be shaped like.

Enewetak (also spelled: Eniwetok) Atoll (Marshallese: Ānewetak)

Some sources say “Ānewetak” means “an island that moves”. The name may have come from the words “āne” = ‘island’ + “wātok” = “come”.

Jaluit Atoll (Marshallese: Jālwōj or Jālooj)

The Marshallese name translates as “facing you” or “facing beauty” and comes from the words “jāl” = “facing, to face” + “wōj” = “beautiful”.

Kwajalein Atoll (Marshallese: Kuwajleen)

Marshallese-English Online Dictionary claims that the name derives from the words “waj” = “towards you” + “leen” = “its fruit”. We can read on the website: “legend says that after a typhoon its only fruit was flowers which the people took to the chief as the only available tribute”.

Lae Atoll

In the Marshallese language “ļae” means “calm and smooth (of water)”.

Majuro Atoll (Marshallese: Mājro)

The name “Mājro” is said to have come from the words “māj” = “a small opening” + “ruo” = “two”, so it can be translated as “two openings”.

Maloelap Atoll (Marshallese: M̧aļoeļap)

M̧aļoeļap means “large lagoon” (“m̧aļo” = “lagoon” + “eļap” = “a lot of”).

Mejit (Marshallese: Mājej or Mājeej)

The name comes from the words “māj” = “a small opening” + “ej” (formant in place names meaning “upper, eastern”).

Knox Atoll (Marshallese: Ņadikdik)

According to Marshallese-English Online Dictionary “Ņadikdik” means “small shoal” (from the word “dik” = “small”).

Namdrik (also spelled: Namorik) Atoll (Marshallese: Nam̧dik)

The name of the atoll is translated as “small secondary lagoon”. Marshallese-English Online Dictionary gives this definition of the word “nam̧”: “secondary lagoon; pool of sea water with a beach surrounded by mangrove trees and other vegetation as part of an islet”. The word “dik” means “small”.

Namu Atoll (Marshallese: Nam̧o)

Some sources state that the meaning of this atoll is “secondary lagoon” (from the word “nam̧”).

Rongerik (also spelled Rongdrik) Atoll (Marshallese: Ron̄dik)

The name is translated as “small hoop” and is said to have come from the words “ron̄” = “hoop” + “dik” = “small”.

Rongelap Atoll (Marshallese: Ron̄ļap)

“Ron̄ļap” translates as “big hoop” and is said to have come from the words “ron̄” = “hoop” + “ļap” = “a lot, much”.

Toke (also spelled Taka) Atoll (Marshallese: Tōkā)

According to Marshallese-English Online Dictionary, the word “tōkā” means  “strip of reef” or “long reef between two islets”.

Ujae Atoll (Marshallese: Ujae or Wūjae)

The name comes from the words “ae” = “current” + “wūj” (formant in place names meaning “rough” (of weather, currents, etc.)) and translates as “rough currents”.

Ujelang Atoll (Marshallese: Wūjlan̄)

“Wūjlan̄” is said to have come from the words “wūj” (formant in place names meaning “rough” (of weather, currents, etc.)) + “lan̄” = “storm, heaven, sky”. It is translated as “rough, cloudy sky”.

Utirik (also spelled Utrik) Atoll (Marshallese: Utrōk)

“Utrōk” is a combination of two words: “ut” = “flower, plant” + “rōk” = “south, southward, southern”. It can thus be translated as “southern flower”.

Wotje Atoll (Marshallese: Wōjjā)

According to Marshallese-English Online Dictionary, “Wōjjā” means “land on which one can overeat”. The name is said to have come from the word “jejāāk”, which the aforementioned dictionary translates as “overeat on fruitful land”.


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