The name of the game…

by Ronnie Hoyle

SOMETIMES it is difficult to figure out how a place got its’ name in the Philippines, and a lot of explanations are lost in the mists of time. Sometimes, the original language has changed or been adapted by local usage and it is hard to follow the trail back to its’ origins.

Most of the languages in the southern half of the Philippines have a Bahasa Indonesian base, which stems from the Malay of Borneo and the old Kawi script used in Bali and Java, but those in themselves followed the trail from India where Sanskrit originated thousands of years ago…before the language began its’ journey around the Bay of Bengal and its’ subsequent island-hopping tour.

Chinese flowed in from the other direction and, on top of that, Spanish was superimposed in the Philippines by the invading colonists and, later still, English started making its’ mark from America. All that is without any Polynesian influence stirring up the already-boiling cauldron.

Mishearing of strange pronunciations and dialects, and then writing it phonetically, adds to the confusion in many instances, as does misunderstanding of what was actually being talked about. Take the name of our island, Panglao, for instance. So the story goes, a Spanish missionary was trying to talk to a local on the island back in the 17th Century and pointed to the ground in front of the native, asking what it was called in his language. The missionary thought he was asking for the local name of the island.

The native glanced down to where the missionary was pointing and the only thing he saw was the woven bamboo fish basket hanging loosely in his hand: he did not think about what he was standing on…for that was just land. “Panggaw,” he replied, because that was what he was holding; so misunderstanding, confusion, inaccurate hearing and different languages may have inadvertently given the island the name of a fish trap!

It might have been the same couple who were responsible for what seems to be the misnaming of the main island of Bohol just a short distance away, for the island was inhabited at the time by the Bo-ol tribe who lived at what is now Bo-ol, a district of Tagbilaran: Spanish mishearing of the aspiration in the language of the local people seems to have turned it into an ‘H.’
Getting to the roots of the island of Balicasag may prove more difficult, since it could come from several languages. The first part may be Bahasa since ‘Bali’ simply means island, while ‘casa’ means house in Spanish...Balicasa means ‘island of the house,’ while a ‘casag’ could probably mean a large or long house, since many Filipinos still live in communal long houses in remote areas, and have done for generations.

Another explanation, accepting Bali from Bahasa, is that ‘casag’ is the word for a small crab in Visayan, so Balicasag becomes ‘island of the small crabs’ - a not unnatural explanation as the island does produce a lot of small crabs which are cooked for the fiesta every July 25...and the Tagalog word for a small crab is ‘alimasag.’
In either case, it would not be unnatural for Balicasag to be a sort of island fortress of indigenous people who did not want to be disturbed by either the Spanish invaders or the Muslim pirates from the south and who lived off the crabs and fish caught around the island, and at the same time lived in a communal long house for mutual protection.
A lot of place-names stem from a particular activity in the locality, or a prominent feature, and towards the inappropriately-named Chocolate Hills (because they are green for more than 90 percent of the year!) we have Loboc. It was already a settlement when the Spanish arrived and the area around it was the wet rice growing district of the island, and had been for generations past.
At harvest time, the rice was brought into the settlement to separate the valuable rice kernel from the chaff by pounding it with a wooden pole working inside a wooden or stone bowl, the local version of the pestle and mortar – it was called a ‘loboc’ and still is: you can find many of them in local antiques shops nowadays because rice is now separated mechanically.

The circular island of Pamilacan just off Alona Beach got its name from the ‘pilak’ - a type of giant fishing hook - that fishermen in days gone by used to catch whale sharks by diving on their backs and driving home the hook by hand, while the beach at Alona has a more modern origin: it came from a 1980s Philippine film star called Alona Allegre who was starring as a mermaid in a film being made on the beach.

Instead of going to Tawala Seaside, as it was called then, the local lads shouted ‘Let’s go see Alona’ - well, she was one of the hottest ‘bold’ stars of the time and a glimpse was enough to set the guys pulses racing – and the name stuck.

For Cebu, the story is that when the Spanish arrived the seas were so shallow in what is now the reclamation and dockside areas that the invaders had to wade ashore from their anchored boats on the edge of what was then the reef, which made them look as if they were doing a Jesus Christ miracle and actually walking on water.
The Visayan word for ‘walking on water’ is Sugbo, although the city’s first Spanish name was actually San Miguel - and the brewery and the beer hadn’t even arrived from Spain then, either!