A Comparative Perspective On
A Common Nigerian Name


Peter P. Ekeh

Date: Tue, 11 Jan 2000 17:08:28 -0500
From: Urhobo Historical Society <UrhoboHistory@waado.org>
To: Urhobo Historical Society <Members@waado.org>

With the hardening of ethnic boundaries in modern Nigeria, there is a growing questioning of the uses of names and their origins in our times. Little thought has been given to the idea that before colonial times, person-names and place-names as well as object-names were widespread across ethnic lines. Take the word ekpeti. It appears in various forms and pronunciations in the following languages: Isoko-Urhobo, Benin, Itsekiri, Yoruba, Igbo, Ukwuani (different from Igbo in naming patterns) and in several other languages in southern and northern Nigeria. In all of these languages, it means “box.” What is its origin? We may never know. It is probably unwise for any group to rush to lay claim to its origin – unless it proffers a good amount of reasoning, not mere assertions. To take another example: consider the Benin and Urhobo word for market, eki. See how close it is to the Igbo word for market-day, eke. Was one borrowed from the other? It is naive for anyone to rush to easy assertions in such matters.

Linguists were astounded in the early decades of the last century when they discovered vast similarities in the languages of southern Africa and those in the Benue-Cameroon area, thousands of miles away, spreading indeed to central and eastern Africa. That led them to the famous Bantu migration hypothesis which postulates that series of migrations that began in the Chad-Benue region, and that covered many centuries, had imposed a common Bantu culture, including a linguistic pattern, on much of sub-Saharan Africa. In matters like this, it is best to assert hypotheses rather than doctrines. This is because we can only guess at the truth.

In the realm of widespread uses of person-names, none appears to be more frequent in various southern Nigerian ethnic groups than Okoro. It is a traditional Isoko-Urhobo name which was quite common in precolonial times. It was also common in Igbo culture. Because of the habit of nicknaming ethnic groups during colonial times, Okoro has become closely associated with the Igbos. It is nowadays some times unfairly and incorrectly treated as an exclusive Igbo name. Beyond the Isoko-Urhobo and Igbo ethnic complexes, the name  Okoro exists in Ijaw and Itsekiri languages. What is intriguing in all these uses of the term Okoro is that it is consistently a male name.

Remarkably, the presence of this name is thin in Benin and other Edoid cultures, besides the most ancient Edoid fragments of Isoko and Urhobo. The recent claim by Oghogho Agidigbi, and its ready acceptance by Dr. Ademola Iyi-Eweka, that Okoro is a term of reference and deference to royal princes in Benin culture, should be balanced by the view held by Hilary Evbayiro that the Benin term is “Okorho,” not “Okoro.” But even that suggests a linguistic kinship between this rare Benin usage and its more ample uses in other ethnic groups of southern Nigeria. The abundance of Okoro in Urhobo-Isoko culture and its thinness in Benin culture and the Edoid cultures of northern Edo (Ishan, Owan, Etsako) will allow me to offer one explanatory hypothesis for the uses of Okoro in Urhobo-Isoko culture. It is also striking that the Yoruba, with whose culture Benin has shared many common themes, including the designation of the King as Oba, have no record of Okoro in their vast array of names.

The Uses of Ókoro in Urhobo-Isoko Culture

It is important that we offer a description of the depth and range of uses of Okoro in Urhobo culture. Nigerian languages are largely tonal, with inflections designating meanings in several instances. Urhobos and Isokos pronounce the common term Okoro remarkably differently from the manner by which Igbos pronounce it. In common, the last "o" is muted in the way both groups pronounce the name. But whereas Isoko-Urhobos accent the first "O", thus Ó-koro, rendering the second "o" mute, the Igbo accent the second "o", thus Okóro. (Actually, in Urhobo-Isoko, there is a pause between the first "O" and the "k" in Okoro, thus prolonging the "O",  whereas in the Igbo pronunciation there is a rush.) However, the similarities in these groups' uses of Okoro far outweigh these tonal differences.

First, in both ethnic groups the term is used for males only. In fact, in Urhobo it is a generic term that has the equivalent meaning of "gentleman" -- a male who appears respectable but whose acquaintance is a little distant. An Urhobo elder would respectfully relate to another man who appears responsible by addressing him as "Ókoro." Although it is becoming less common, Ókoro was a very common name in the generations of Urhobo males before colonial rule took hold in Urhoboland from the mid 1890s.

There is a second similarity in  the uses of this common name in Urhobo-Isoko and Igbo cultures. In both of them, the term Okoro serves as a foundation for compound names -- as "John" does in the English language: thus, "Johnson" and "Littlejohn". It is a prefix for many Igbo names: "Okorafor," "Okoronkwo," etc. In Isoko-Urhobo, Ókoro serves as the suffix for the most generic name in these cultures: "Umukoro." By their nature, common names lose their verbal meanings. "Umukoro" is so Urhobo and Isoko, the bearers of these cultures rarely inquire about its meaning. In origin, it appears to connote the English counterpart of "Johnny," indicating young Ókoro.

There are two aspects of the uses of Ókoro and "Umukoro" in Isoko and Urhobo cultures that deserve to be emphasized. First, these names are ancient in these cultures. In modern times, Isoko and Urhobo names have grown apart. But there are important commonalties, most prominently represented by "Umukoro." The basis for claiming that Ókoro and "Umukoro" have ancient vintage flows from the fact that many Urhobo sub-groups have traditions of migration from Isoko. These shared names date from those distant centuries of long ago.

There is a second aspect of the Ókoro complex of names that distinguishes its uses in  Isoko-Urhobo cultures. This is that it has a female counterpart: "Ôkôkô." Just as Ókoro serves as a foundation for the compound name of "Umukoro," so "Ôkôkô" serves as the foundation of the compound name "Umukôkô," which is the female equivalent of "Umukoro." Again, "Umukôkô" is an ancient name in Isoko-Urhobo culture. A responsible woman is addressed as "Ôkôkô" in the same way as a responsible man is addressed as Ókoro.

It is striking that these two classical Isoko-Urhobo names are not popular ones among those given to Urhobo and Isoko young ones in modern times, particularly among the influential class of Western-educated Urhobos and Isokos. However, they continue to count among the less Western-educated Urhobos and Isokos as first names. But they are clearly not as widespread as their age would suggest.

Where Do These Names Come From --
Ókoro, Umukoro, Ôkôkô, and Umukôkô?

In a real sense, these four terms form a complex of names that are as old as Urhobo and Isoko cultures. It is therefore  rather daring to ask the following question. From where do these names originate? If they are such olden names, then we should expect that they relate to the times when Isoko-Urhobos migrated from the lands of the Ogisos. That was over seven centuries ago. Urhobos and Isokos left the lands that are now called Benin when they were quite elementary in their social organizations. These lands acquired their new appellations of "Benin" and "Edo" after the demise of the Ogiso dynasty. That is why "Benin" and "Edo" do not exist in Urhobo language which continues to refer to modern Benins with the term they took away from the days of the Ogisos, namely Aka. (Remarkably, Udo is the term that Urhobos are used to in their folktales, obviously suggesting its existence and importance in the era of the Ogisos.) Indeed, these names of Benin and Edo were given by the Kings of the dynasty of the Obas that replaced the Ogisos. In Urhobo folk imagination, Ogiso counted for much, while the newer dynasty of the Obas was a lot more alien. On the other hand, Ishans, Owans, and Etsakos migrated from the lands of the Obas, when the terms Benin and Edo were already in use. For them, modern Kings of the Oba dynasty are supreme.

A dynastic change is traumatic for any culture, and is usually marked by considerable hostility from the newer ascendant dynasty towards the failed and defunct dynasty. That is what happened in Great Britain with the transition from the Tudors to the Stuarts. In Benin, the change appears to be a lot more dramatic. Much was done to erase the legacy of the Ogisos from Benin culture over which the triumphant Obas presided. Indeed, but for the Urhobos and Isokos, the legacy of the Ogisos would largely be unrecognizable in modern times.

One should assume, legitimately, that the new Oba dynasty sought to enhance its hold on Benin culture by controlling its political institutions. If, indeed, "Okoro" (or "Okorho") was a term of importance and endearment in the general public that reminded Benins of the Ogisos, it could be endangered. I offer the view that the name "Okoro" decayed from usage in Benin lands as a result of the dynastic change from the Ogisos to the Obas. In other words, Ókoro has survived among the Urhobos and Isokos from ancient times, dating back to the Ogisos, while it is now a piece of cultural atavism in Benin culture. How else does one account for the fact that Ókoro, with its derivative Umukoro, remained dominant in ancient Urhobo and Isoko while disappearing from Benin and the newer Edoid fragments of Ishan, Owan, and Etsako? It should be noted that Urhobos and Isokos continue to hold many names in common with the Benins, obviously names that survived from the days of the Ogisos. Consider such names as Idiemudia, Agbogidi, or Awhinawhi, which apparently survived from the pre-Benin era of the Ogisos. Their common uses in Benin and Urhobo contrasts sharply with the apparent disappearance of Ókoro from Benin culture and its continuing importance in Isoko and Urhobo cultures.

I should hasten to add that this is only an hypothesis, offering a plausible explanation for a cultural puzzle in Edoid cultural studies.

Peter Ekeh
State University of New York at Buffalo
January 11, 2000