Saligao nicknames

by Mel D’Souza

When the Portuguese set out on their mission to convert the local population in Goa to Christianity in the sixteenth century, they offered first class citizenship to the converts. My ancestors in Goa had the choice of retaining their Hindu religion or becoming Catholic. Although their attachment to Hinduism was strong, they gave in. With all the privileges that were offered by the Portuguese, I suppose it became a case of the spirit being weak, and the flesh willing.

Feast of nicknames in Saligao. Sketch by Mel D'Souza ©

Feast of nicknames in Saligao. Sketch by Mel D'Souza ©

Now, when the converts got their new Christian names at baptism, they were told that they would also have to switch to a Portuguese surname. Not having much of a choice, most of them reportedly picked the last name of a Portuguese dignitary at the time, or a member of the military who would have been assigned to maintain law and order in the village. Thus, most Catholics in each village in Goa ended up with identical Goan surnames even if they were not related. This, of course, caused an identity problem. So the villagers of Saligao gave each household a nickname that characterised a feature that was unique to the occupants of that household so that their Goan surnames would not cause confusion. The nicknames were not only colourful, but they reflected rural Goa’s charming sense of humour.

Our family nickname was Couth (rhymes with “both”) – a word that didn’t feature in the local dialect. So, the nickname evolved into a legal surname. It was the only exception in the village, as far as I know. Here are a few of the many other nicknames used in lieu of the Goan surnames, and their English translation. I know the origin of some of the nicknames prevalent in our village in Goa, but the stories behind others will have to be left to your imagination.

Bot Modi – broken toe. The owner had a malformed big toe that stuck out at a right angle to the other toes on her right foot. Other nicknames that described a physical deformity were Kan Katro – cut ear, and Fujão – Chicken pox.

Physical characteristics earned some families their nicknames such as Caulo – Crow, the nickname given to the family because of their dark skin. The householders that earned the nickname Goro Cullo - White Crab, were wide-eyed and fair-skinned. And their cousins Cauo Cullo – Black Crab, were also wide-eyed, but with a darker skin. Pinglo – Blonde, was the nickname given to the household with light-coloured hair.

Disregarding their official goan surnames, some families in this typical Goan village got nicknamed after animals, birds and fish presumably because of their perceived resemblance to their non-human counterparts. There was Bokdo – Goat, Tallo – Sardine, Combo – Rooster,  Bébo – Toad, Manko – Frog, Dukor – Pig, Kolo – Fox, Vagio – Tiger, and Sonso – Rabbit.

Personality traits also played a part in earning families a nickname, such as Sourac – Hot Curry, Saibin – the Blessed Virgin, Godgodo – Thunder, and Kochro – Trash.

The deportment of some villagers didn’t go unnoticed either. There was Dando - Rod, Raza – King, Girgiro – Propeller, Bodvo – Angel, and Deunsar – Devil.

Villagers who had a profession got known by the business in which they were involved, such as Chepekan – Hatter, Fulkan – Florist, Delegad – Lawyer, Dishtikan – Remover of ‘evil eye’, Arshekan – Glazier, Alekar – Ginger Man, Fogo – Firecracker, Menkar – Candle Maker, Madkar – Tree Doctor, Ladko – Young (Hindu) boy, Abolo – Red Jasmine, Bendo – Okra, and Karem - Dried Fish.

My maternal grandfather was called Munkuto – Firewood, because he’d use a chunk of firewood to chase away the kids whose game of marbles disturbed his siesta.

Among the other inexplicable nicknames were Bendro – Tree Parasite, Poko – Empty and Porque – ‘Why’ in Portuguese.

There are a few other nicknames that wouldn’t be appropriate to use on a family website, although they were used quite freely — and without malice — by the villagers.

A nickname in the villages of Goa was never treated with derision. Instead, it was prized as a symbol of a family’s recognition and acceptance as an entrenched member of the village community. And it’s what distinguishes the villager of Saligao from any other Goan with a similar surname.

[This item is from the book Feasts, Feni and Firecrackers by Mel D'Souza. His e-mail is mel.dsouza at]


1. Rowena D’Souza, a distant cousin, living in Gaithersburg, Maryland, USA came up with the answer to my family nickname in Goa. When researching the origins of the nickname “Couth”, her late father Edwin D’Souza-Koth (my second cousin), had told her that Saligao used to be a trading centre for agricultural produce moving between Goa and Belgaum on the Deccan Plateau, and that one of our ancestors was a ‘Kuth’, a commissioner of customs, when the Portuguese began evangelising the district of Bardez in 1560. In the ensuing years, the trading patterns changed, but the title ‘Kuth’ became our family nickname and subsequently got rounded out to ‘Couth’.

2. Fr Nascimento Mascarenhas also tells about a curious aspect of our Portuguese surnames. Saligao was a predominantly Hindu Brahmin village, and it took a while before the entire village could be persuaded to convert to Catholicism. During this period, there were instances where a man would convert to the Catholic religion and acquire a Portuguese surname. Several years later, his brother would decide to change religions, and would also acquire a Portuguese surname, but not necessarily the same as his brother’s. Consequently, there were some families in the village with different surnames although they were from the same family tree.

3. FEAST OF NAMES is a whimsical scene I drew just over 25 years ago depicting a few villagers of Saligao in the form of their family nicknames at the bandstand on the Mae de Deus feast day of our Saligao Church.

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