New year, new language, new “What’s In A Name” edition. This time, I want to focus on Kiribati – a wonderful country a lot of people have never heard of (How is that even possible?). That’s why today I will try to decipher the meanings of some of the islands and atolls – and I already know that it won’t be an easy thing to do.


The name of the country is actually the local pronunciation of the English word “Gilberts”. It is important to remember that “Kiribati” should be pronounced “Kiribass”, as “ti” makes an “ss” sound in the Gilbertese language.


According to the “Kiribati For Travellers” website, the name of the Abaiang Atoll, which is situated north of the capital island – Tarawa, traditionally means “land in the north”.


The name of this famous atoll translates as “land of the bright moon”.


The island was formerly known as “Ananuka” which is said to mean “the middle of it” (Aranuka is located in the middle of Kiribati).


The name “Banaba” (correct spelling “Bwanaba”) means “hollow land”.


The word “beru” means “gecko” or “lizard” in the Kiribati language.


“Butaritari” means “scent of the sea” (“taari” = “sea”).


The name “Kiritimati” is a straightforward respelling of the English word “Christmas”.


The literal meaning of the name of this atoll is “almost seen on the horizon”.


The name “Onotoa” is said to be a combination of two words: “onoti”, which means “unique” and “toara”, which means “single” or “pairless”. However, there is also another version that says the literal translation of “Onotoa” is “six giants”.


“Tamana” can be translated as “his / her father”. However, in some myths “Tamana” means “a stronghold, or strong place, or original settlement”.


According to a legend presented in the “North Tarawa Social and Economic Report 2008”, Tarawa was the earth when the land, ocean, and sky had not been cleaved yet by Nareau the First (the creator deity in the mythology of the Gilbert Islands). Thus after calling the sky “karawa” and the ocean “marawa”, he called the piece of rock that “Riiki” (another god that Nareau found) had stood upon when he lifted up the sky as, “Tarawa”.


“Tabiteuea” – formerly Drummond’s Island – can be translated into English as “land of no chiefs” or “no chiefs allowed”. The island is originally known as Tabu-te-Uea, which literally means “kings are forbidden”.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find more information regarding the names of the rest of the islands of Kiribati. It seems that the beautiful country as well as its beautiful language remain a mystery yet to be explored. Who knows, maybe in the distant (or not-so-distant) future I will manage to unravel the secrets behind the names. I would love to do that, as toponyms (place names) are an important part of the geographical and cultural environment – they represent not only the history of the place but also the ways of being of its inhabitants.

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