In Yoruba Names “Ọlá” Does Not Always Mean “Wealth” – Kola Tubosun

Yoruba siblings - Dayo Agboola Photography - Feature

One common stereotype about Yorùbá names is that they, on the surface, always seem obsessed with wealth. It is incompatible with the truth, of course, but examples are usually provided easily to show how almost any verb combined with the word for “wealth” will almost always generate a Yorùbá name.

My name is “Kọ́lá” (full name Kọ́láwọlé), a very good example of this instance. There are others: Bọ́lá, Ṣọlá, Tọ́lá, Nọ́lá, Fọlá, Dọlá, Gbọlá.

The problem, however, is that the “ọlá” in Yorùbá names do not all mean the same thing. In the case of “Kọ́láwọlé”, I can provide a curt interpretation as “(He who) bring(s) wealth into the house” but that doesn’t say all that the name embodies. In any case, the “ọlá” in the name is more than nominal wealth. It is prominence, it is dignity, it is nobility, it is public acclaim.

A man referred to as “Ọlọ́lá” is not just rich, he is a notable public figure with admirable nobility. If money were to be the distinguishing factor, he would be called “Olówó” instead. There is another appellation given to properly highlight material wealth. That is Ọlọ́là. This ọlà (note the difference in the tonal marking) also encompasses success, but highlights it above individual character or nobility.

Therefore a name like Adégbọlá would be better interpreted either as  “We have arrived to receive wealth” or “The crown/royalty has received nobility/prominence.” The context, or the family story, will decide which one is appropriate in each instance. A name like Ọláńrewájú, however, brings a different problem. Same with Ọláwálé. Here, the root “ọlá” is being given a subject role in which it is forced to be more than wealth or nobility. It becomes a person! A Dictionary of Yorùbá Personal Names by Adébóyè Babalọlá and Olúgbóyèga Àlàbá defines both, respectively, as “The head of this noble family is progressing” and “The new member of our noble family has come home.” In both cases, Ọlá is a living being, represented by this newly-born child.

In other instances, Ọlá means “blessing” or “grace”. And isn’t that interesting? The sentence “Ọlá Ọlọ́run ni mo jẹ” means “I’ve benefited from the grace of God.” In this case, it is not wealth or nobility at all. What the name is saying is that if not for the presence/grace/help of God, the child wouldn’t have been born. Now, this doesn’t mean that it couldn’t also mean the wealth of God, but that would be a simplistic reading indeed.

This interpretation would explain names like Ọláìyá (“the benefit/grace of mother”), Ọláòkun (“the benefit of the ocean – or foreign travel”) or Ọláolúwa (born by “the grace/benefit of God”).

african-child - Picture by PixarBay
African Child – Picture by PixarBay

Earlier this year, an expectant inter-ethnic couple (Yorùbá wife; Igbo husband) wrote to us asking for help in picking out a name for their firstborn child. They were open to anything, especially names that could be easily pronounced by both parents. But they had a caveat: the name shouldn’t have “ọlá” in it. Why? Because it connoted wealth. They wanted names that focused instead on celebrating the child; not something that would seem so superficial and focused on material gains. They eventually settled for “Tiwanìfẹ́” (Ours is love/loving) which is a beautiful name. But had they settled for “Tiwalọlá” (ours is grace/nobility/wealth), it would also have been equally as delightful, especially because the “wealth” here refers to the child and nothing else.

Perhaps it is what is lost in the translation. When we say “wealth” in Yorùbá, we are not always referring to money or material wealth (that would be ọlà). That “wealth” referred in “ọlá” is something more: human potential, largeness of heart, generosity of spirit (and of materials, yes), nobility, dignity, and grace. That is why what a child like “Kọ́lá” brings into the house in “Kọ́láwọlé” is more than just a temporary (or even measurable) treasure.

 Article originally found on Yoruba Names Blog by Kola Tubosun

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