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On Misnomers: Or Is A Rose By Any Other Name Still A Rose?
By Eddie Osborne
Posted September 1, 2012

    A never-ending source of amazement to me is the apparently widespread tendency of some to use terms which misname their referents; that is, the persons or things the terms are intended to denote. In some instances, though, such misnaming may have a linguistic rationale. Take, for example, Jamaican speakers of the basilect, or deep level, form of Creole, who use "hand" to refer to the part of the body extending from the fingers to the shoulder, and "foot" to refer to the part of the lower extremity extending from the toes to the upper thigh. Here the use of a single word to refer to the entire extremity can be explained by the fact that Jamaican Creole is derived in part from certain of those West African languages in which the words for hand and foot have broader semantic range than do their English counterparts. An understanding of Jamaican Creole's relationship to African source languages in which the words for hand and foot encompass a greater part of the body, therefore, makes it easier to understand why some Jamaicans use them thus. 
    In some instances, though, the use of misnomers in referring to people or objects may be a manifestation of a sense of cultural superiority, an example of a case of a limited frame of reference, or both, as when a non-African refers to the West African kora harp-lute or similar string instrument as an "African guitar" (a misnomer of a kind unlikely to be applied to, say, the Indian sitar or the Japanese koto). In other instances misnomers occur in popular speech and in print because, even when people know better, they see their use as being no big deal. In still other instances misnomers occur because of long-standing confusion over their use. 

    Long-standing confusion certainly has been the case with gourds and calabashes. That some people have difficulty distinguishing between gourds and calabashes, and use the terms interchangeably, is understandable, however. The fruits resemble each other in shape and size, and both are employed in a great many crafts. Although in some instances one can be substituted for the other -- particularly in the making of containers for food, milk, and water -- gourds tend to be favored as resonators for musical instruments such as xylophones, musical bows, and certain harps and lutes.
    The similarity in appearance and application notwithstanding, gourds and calabashes differ in several important ways. For one, the two main gourd types -- the small, thin-walled ornamentals and the large hard-shell Lagenaria -- are vine-growing plants of the Cucurbitaceae family and are related to pumpkins, squashes, cucumbers and melons. Another significant difference is that gourds occur not only in the north and south temperate climatic zones but also in the subtropical and tropical regions around the world.
Calabashes, on the other hand, are the fruit of the calabash tree (Crescentia cujete, a member of the bigonia family), which grows only in the tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, Asia, and the Americas (from Mexico to South America, in the Caribbean, and in southern Florida). Unlike many other trees, whose fruit grow from the tips of branches, the fruit of the calabash tree grow directly from the trunk and limbs. Calabashes also differ from gourds in that they tend to have thinner shells, which are considerably harder and less porous than those of gourds. Their hardness makes calabashes ideally suited for fashioning utilitarian items, such as bowls, cups and even functional art objects such as purses, and less so for musical instruments; however, they often are used to make rattles, such as the maracas, widely used in Latin American musical genres, and their Haitian counterpart, the tcha-tcha
    One reason for the confusion over the use of the words gourd and calabash can be found in their etymologies. According to some researchers, the word calabash is derived from the Arabic qar'a yabisa, itself from Persian (Farsi) kharabuz, said to designate various large melons. Over time, the word was adopted into French as calabasse, into Spanish as calabaza, into Catalan as carabaça, and into English as calabash. The word gourd, for its part, is said to have entered English via a Norman French form, given variously as curdecourde and  courge, which itself is thought to have been a corruption of the Latin word cucurbita ("Calabash," Wikipedia: 8-30-2012). Subsequently, when Europeans arrived in the New World some 500 years ago, they found the inhabitants putting calabashes to various uses. Confusing the fruit with the gourd, with which they already were familiar, the newcomers began applying the name of one to the other, creating a lexical confusion which continues to this day, in popular speech as well as in dictionaries and other publications. 

Various types of harvested gourds at grower Elaine Hayes'
Morven, Georgia, operation, the Gourd Pile.


    A similar instance of confusion can be seen in the use of the name of the netted gourd rattle of the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria and neighboring Benin. In speech and in print, the instrument's name is rendered variously as shekereshekereeshakerayshakeree, etc.; however, in Yoruba it is spelled șèkèrè. Here the diacritical mark (i.e., the dot) underneath the s gives it an sh sound, and the grave accent over the vowels in the word (è) give them an eh sound; thus, the correct pronunciation of the rattle is sheh-keh-reh. To illustrate further, consider the Afro-British singer-songwriter Sade (the daughter of a Nigerian father and an English mother), whose full name is Helen Folașade Adu. Rather than being pronounced Sah-deh or Sahd, as might be supposed from the spelling, her middle name, meaning "honor confers your crown" actually is pronounced Sha-deh (Stevick and Aremu 1963: viii, xi; "Sade," Wikipedia: 8-27-2012). 



Thumb Piano​                          
    Then there's the case of the African musical instrument often referred to erroneously as a "thumb piano," "thumb harp," "finger piano," "thumb drum," and so forth, because it is held in the hands and played by the thumbs and sometimes an index finger. No doubt one of the reasons such misnomers persist in popular speech is because of the existence of a wide variety of indigenous African names and little agreement on which best serves as a generic name for the instrument. Among those names that have been advanced as a generic term are mbira (used by the Mashona people of Zimbabwe to cover several instrument sub-types), sanza (the name of the instrument among the Marungu people of the Congo), and kalimba (a name based on an instrument type found in southeastern Africa and popularized by the late South African musicologist Hugh Tracey in the 1960s). Neither of these names has gained universal acceptance, however, apparently because of a concern that adopting one would elevate it to a position of primacy over the others.   
    The problem in agreeing on a generic name for the instrument is analogous to the situation in post-independence India, Nigeria, and Kenya when the question arose as to which indigenous language should be adopted as the national language of those countries. In India, for example, the country's rulers solved the problem by opting for English, the colonial language, to avoid favoring any one of the regional languages over the others. Similarly, when Nigeria and Kenya gained their independence, English was adopted as the national language in those countries for precisely the same reasons.
    As a solution to the problem of identifying an appropriate generic name for the instrument, musicologists have proposed what they see as ethnic-neutral ones. Some, for example, have argued for the instrument's classification as a lamellaphone (from Latin lamella, meaning "scale"). Others have countered that the instrument might more accurately be classed as a linguaphone (from Latin lingua, "tongue" and Greek phonos, "sound") because of its tongue-like keys. As it stands, though, the jury still is out on this one    


    Yet another musical instrument whose name has a long history of erroneous usage is the gourd-resonated frame xylophone of the Mandé-speaking peoples of Guinea, Mali, The Gambia, Côte d'Ivoire, and neighbouring countries of West Africa. The misnomer is in widespread use in West Africa, Europe and the Americas, where it is rendered variously as balafon, balafone, and balaphone. This is because, as often happened during the age of exploration, the first European who heard the xylophone being played apparently mistook what he heard being said about the instrument to be its name in the local Mandé language. It was this misunderstanding which caused the visitor to recorded the instrument's name as something like ballafeu, a form which over time evolved into balafon. As my long-time collaborator, the late scholar and multi-linguist Mouhamadou Ouattara, has pointed out (1991), the term balafon actually refers to the act of playing the instrument -- being derived from Bamana, Djula and Maninka (kabalafò, which means "(to) make the bala speak" -- and is a compound of bala, the instrument's name, and , meaning variously "to say," "to speak," "music," "to play an instrument" (Charry 2000:1; "Balafon," Wikipedia: 8-11-2012); therefore, bala is the correct name for the instrument. A further point of clarification: The similarity of  in sound and meaning to the Greek-derived suffix phone ("sound") appears to be coincidental.



    Like balafon, the word griot, used as a generic term to refer to certain West African musicians, praise singers and oral historians, is in widespread use in West Africa, Europe, the United States, and beyond. One of the reasons for this is that griot is an ethnic-neutral term which facilitates discussion among the various linguistic groups in West Africa as well as among peoples in countries outside of Africa. This is important point because each African society in which these wordsmiths are found has its own equivalent term (and oftentimes several, more specific ones) for griot. Take, for example, the widespread Mandé-speaking peoples. Among the Bamana, Djula and Maninka speakers of the northern and central Mandé areas the indigenous word is jeli; among the Mandinka speakers of the western and southern Mandé areas the word is jali; and among the Soninké it is geseré or jaaré. Other local terms for griot include jeseré, among the Songhay; géwél, among the Wolof; gawlo, among the Fulbe; and marok'i, among the Hausa (Hale 1997:251, 1998:10; Charry 2000: 91). 
    Even so, the use of griot has its critics. Some scholars, African and non-African alike, object to the use of griot as a descriptor because, they argue, it is too general to cover the specific kinds of wordsmiths in a given society. Others frown on the use of griot because they believe that it is not of African origin as no present-day form of the word exists in any West African language (Hale 1997:250). Not that there haven't been attempts to discover an African source language. Some ethnomusicologists, for example, have proposed the Wolof géwél and the Fulbe gawlo, among others, as possible sources. Other researchers have advanced European terms such as the Portuguese criado, loosely translated as "servant," and  guiriot, its French transliteration, as the source of the term.
    Whatever the origin of griot, it is because of its perceived shortcomings that a number of Africanists have sounded a call for the term's retirement, advocating the use of the Bamana, Djula and Maninka term jeli (jali in Mandinka, the Senegambian dialect of Mandé) as its replacement. The rationale behind the proposal of jeli is not only that it is more precise but also that Mandé-speaking wordsmiths are found in a number of West African countries -- Mali, Guinea, The Gambia, Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, and Burkina Faso -- most of which once were part of the Mali Empire. Besides, although not all of the peoples currently resident in this vast area are Mandé, the Mandé cultural influence is predominant (Hale 1997:270).
    Whether jeli eventually will gain universal acceptance as a replacement for griot remains to be seen. After all, the word griot, like some of the others so far discussed, has become accepted, if not institutionalized, in everyday speech and in print. My feeling, though, is that if this term, or any of the others, fulfills the purpose of clearly identifying the person of thing to which it refers, it should be retained; if not, then, we should consider rejecting it out of hand and replacing it with a more accurate term.  


Berliner, Paul. The Soul of Mbira: Music and Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1993.
"Calabash." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. 8-30-2012. Retrieved 8-31-2012.
Charry, Eric. Mande Music: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa. Chicago. The University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Hale, Thomas A. Griots and Griottes: Masters of Words and Music. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998.
_____. "From the Griot of Roots to the Roots of Griot: A New Look at the Origins of a Controversial African Term for Bard," 249-278.
   12-2-1997: 249-78. Accessed 8-25-2012. 
Heiser, Charles B., Jr. The Gourd Book. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.
Jansen, Jan. The Griot's Craft: An Essay on Oral Tradition and Diplomacy. Piscataway, NJ: LIT Verlag (Distributed in North America by Transaction Publishers), 2000.
Maxwell, Heather A. "West Africa: When the Xylophone Speaks." In Turn Up the Volume: A Celebration of African Music, ed. Dje Dje, Jacqueline Cogdell. Los
           Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1999, 58-67.
Mordecai, Carolyn. Gourd Craft: Growing, Designing, and Decorating Ornamental and Hardshell Gourds. New York: Crown Publishers, 1989.
Ouattara, Mouhamadou. Personal communication, 1991.
"Sade Adu." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. 8-30-2012. Accessed 8-31-2012.
Stevick, Earl W. and Olaleye Aremu. Yoruba Basic Course. Washington, D.C.: Foreign Service Institute, 1963.
Welman, Mienkie. "Lagenaria sicararia (Mol.) Standl." .htm. n.d. Accessed 8-31-2012.
Wood, Peter H. "The Calabash Estate: Gourds in African American Life and Thought." African Impact on the material culture of the Americas: a conference 
          presented by Diggs Gallery at Winston-Salem State University, Old Salem, The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winston-Salem, NC (166): 1-16.