Miag-ao Stories

Miagao’s barangay names and the science of Etymology

Jonathan R. Matias
Sulu Garden, Miagao, Iloilo
October 24, 2015



Allanah Jaleel Lorella


Here is a word one does not see every day. Among the many ’eccentric hobbies’ of my youth was etymology [from Greek etymon meaning “true sense” and logia meaning “the study of”] — the study of the origins of words. Returning to Miag-ao in 2013 after 13 blog-Miagao_Map_with_Roads_and_Labelsyears of being in another continent got me started in etymology once again. This time I was fascinated with the origins of Miag-ao’s barangay names. For a ‘foreigner’ like me who could not speak Kinaray-a, these names sounded so exotic, so unique. I decided to find out the origins of the names of all 119 barangays of Miag-ao.

But, let me digress a little and talk about etymology.

Etymology is the history of a word. How the word came into being, where it came from and how it has changed its meaning and even its spelling over a long period of time [1]. That fascination about etymology was a short period of my life at the time when the personal computer was yet to be invented and the library was the only place to find esoteric information. When I used to talk about how life was in the 70’s, my daughters — Tina, Kathy and Kim – when they were young would laugh and say that I was talking about the ‘dinosaur years’ again. I suppose etymology was the kind of hobby by those considered as “nerds,” a term for a person who is intellectually knowledgeable or bright, but socially inept. Even the word “nerd” has a history. It evolved from the word “nert” which itself is an alteration of the word “nut,” the American slang for crazy, from the 1950 Dr. Seuss book entitled “If I Ran the Zoo.”

The New York Public Library, New York City

The New York Public Library, New York City

I must had been very nerdy back then (and definitely anti-social) as I would not mind taking the hour-long subway ride from the edge of Queensborough to Manhattan just to go to the city’s biggest library. That was the New York Public Library on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, more famous for the sculpture of two lions at the entrance. There I would find my secret world of ancient maps, old books, rare manuscripts and millions of other things.

Words often evolve from its original meanings. Some are often added to other languages where the spelling and meaning are then often transformed into a different application. A good example is the American slang word “boondocks.” The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “rough, remote or isolated country.” The word originated during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902). Invading American soldiers adapted the Philippine Tagalog language word “bundok” which meant a “mountain “into the English language version as “boondocks.” boondocksAmerican soldiers spent years in the boondocks chasing Filipino Revolutionary troops. The word again re-emerged during World War II as “boondockers” which referred to “shoes suited for rough terrain.” In 1944 the US Army officially used the slang word to refer to field boots. The words boondocks and boondockers remain in current usage in North America, evolving from the Tagalog word meaning mountain, then into a slang American word to describe a remote terrain and finally into combat boots [2]. That’s etymology for you!

Just to illustrate more about the nerdy world of etymology, let me bore you some more with my two other favorite words—salary and serendipity.

Salary is always referred to as the remuneration we expect to get for rendering work for others. It is an English word that evolved from the Old French “salaire” which evolved from the Latin “salarium” meaning salt-money. In ancient Rome, the Roman legionnaire or soldier was paid with an allowance for the purchase of salt (“sal” in Latin) —a commodity more valuable than coins 2,000+ years ago. Salt was the ‘universal’ mode of payment in the Roman Army because they are stationed from as far away as the island of Britain to Parthia in the Middle East. The English word “salad” was derived from the ancient Roman preference of salting their leafy vegetables.

My favorite word is serendipity which means a “pleasant surprise” or finding something special by accident. In ancient times, Serendip was the original name of the island country of Ceylon across from the Indian subcontinent (now called Sri Lanka). Serendip was discovered by sailors simply by accident too. The explanation in Wikipedia described it better than I could [3]:

It was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754. In a letter he wrote to a friend Walpole explained an unexpected discovery he had made by reference to a Persian fairy tale, “The Three Princes of Serendip.” The princes, he told his correspondent, were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of”. The name stems from Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka (aka Ceylon), from Tamil Ceralamdivu, Sanskrit Simhaladvipa and Arabic Sarandīp (سرندیپ). Parts of Sri Lanka were under the rule of Tamil kings for extended periods of time in history. Kings of Kerala, India (Cheranadu), were called Ceran Kings and divu, tivu or dheep, which means island. The island belonging to the Chera King was called Cherandeep, hence Sarandib by Arab traders.

Etymology is history. A hobby considered eccentric by most people, but it did often come with many surprises. It did not last long as an interest for me. The complexities of life and the responsibilities of adulthood had overtaken my nerdy pursuits. And, maybe I also stopped being a nerd. I think that my few years in the US Army might have cured the nerdiness. I had forgotten all about etymology until I came to Miag-ao. My initial period of residence in Miag-ao was between 1995 and 1999. Life was busy. Occasionally I would meet people from Miag-ao who would mention that they were from Igpuro or Tigmalapad. I would always wonder what those barangay names meant. It wasn’t until I was back again in 2013 that I became seriously interested in knowing.

In the last two years, I have spent quite a bit of my free time to go further away from the town center and into the mountains. Each barangay I came to, I would ask the elders about the origins of the name and would write it down in a notebook. But, to date, I have seen less than 1/4th of Miag-aos’s 119 barangays and life is starting to get complicated again. To the rescue is Elias N. Failagao’s book “History of Miagao.” Elias identified the origins of the names in his narrative of the history of each barangay [5]. Back in 1979 when the book came into print, the word barangay was not yet in popular use despite the 1974 proclamation by then dictator, President Ferdinand Marcos, to convert the word barrio into barangay. Most people in the 70’s still preferred the Spanish word barrio until after the 1986 EDSA Revolution. The 1987 Constitution re-affirmed the conversion of the word barrio into barangay. I mentioned this tidbit here because Failagao used barrio in his reference for each village. And, I don’t want you to think it is our typographical error.

For those readers who are not familiar with the Filipino language the word barangay originally referred to an ancient, pre-Hispanic boat used by various tribes for trading, raiding or moving from place to place. The largest relic of such a boat unearthed in Butuan in the island of Mindanao measured 25 meters and could transport about 400 persons—the equivalent population of a large village. Hence, the word barangay is used to refer to a boat or a village. Antonio Figafetta, the historian who sailed with the Conquistadors led by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, called these boats ‘balanghai,’ using the Latin version. The details about the boat came from Francisco Ignacio Alcina’s manuscript which described life in the archipelago in 1668 for the Spanish King. To read more about the barangay, please see the excerpt from an article I wrote in 1998 in the Notes section after this article.

The balanghai. Watercolor painting by Noe Trayvilla in 1998. From the JR Matias Collection, New York.

The balanghai. Watercolor painting by Noe Trayvilla in 1998. From the JR Matias Collection, New York.

Why bother learning about the etymology of each barangay?

For me, this was an academic exercise when I have some free time and not pulling out weeds in my capacity as the ‘unofficial gardener’ in Sulu Garden. But in a broader sense, our national consciousness (and we Filipinos in general have low appreciation of our national identity) should get a head start from knowing the very basics of our own dialects, the value of ethnic names and the origins of our people. What can be more basic than the smallest unit of our society—the barangay.

E Failagao History of Miagao-coverFailagao’s book, to me, is a unique compendium, an encyclopedia of old Miag-ao and the keeper of our old history. I was told that he spent 10 years of his life to compile the stories that made up this book. I don’t know of any other town that has their own history book, yet so few in Miag-ao cared to read it. There must be just a few books left in town by now after 36 years from its first publication. The publishing company, La Editorial, had ceased to exist and all the remaining books I have seen were frayed, damaged by time, typhoons and by termites too. But, the greatest cause of damage comes from disinterest.

Origins of the barangays

Here is the list of barangay names extracted verbatim from Failagao’s book. For most Miagawanons, the origins of these names would be a surprise. Many are named after creeks and rivers (example, Mat-y, Narat-an and Naulid); some from the quality of the soil (example, Cagbang, Pudpud and Tigmarabo); many more named after plants (example, Bacauan, Alimodias and Igbita); and some named after people who made an impact on the lives of the local residents (such as Saring, Frantilla and Tatoy). Brgy. Valencia was named by Tan Pedro Monteclaro after his best friend. Some of our villages predated the Spanish period (such as Ilog-Ilog, Igpuro, Kirayan and Tigamaga. Others are named after a bird (such as Igdalaquit) and even a snail (such as Damilisan). Putrido, according to one version, was named after a rice cake vendor—Puto ni Rido. Not to be out-done, Banuyao was named after a ‘tuba’ gatherer named Banoy. Did you know that Maninila and Bagumbayan were named by Tagalogs who settled in Miag-ao? Or a barangay like Narorogan was named because someone fell off a cliff? There are other barangays whose names were derived from more noble origins, like from one of the gods of Panay (Brgy. Bolocaue) or a fight with bandits that was won (Brgy. Indag-an) or from a hunting weapon (Brgy. Igcabidio).

There are a few barangays for which Failagao did not have an idea about their origins. Some seemed obvious enough and might not need explanation (such as Sapa, Tacas and Ubos). Perhaps, there might still be old folks in those barangays that might know and can update our list later on. More interesting is that there are 13 barangays that start with ‘Ig” and 6 that start with “Tig.” I have yet to find out what the prefix Ig and Tig meant, if there is true meaning other than a coincidence. One commonality—these places required long, arduous, uphill hikes from poblacion back in the years when there were no real roads going up there. So when I heard a barangay name that started with ‘Ig” I would automatically visualize it as being so far away and hard to reach –sort of being out there in the “boondocks.” Not so anymore as new roads are being built into these mountains along with more and more power lines.

Allanah Jaleel Lorella and I compiled this list because we thought it would be a more convenient, ready reference guide for everyone in Miag-ao, both young and old. Allanah is a 14 year old, 9th year high school student from St. Louise de Marillac School of Miagao, who had to read and painstakingly compile this list with me. Hopefully, this exercise in etymology does not turn her into a nerdy one like me back when I was 14.

Miag-ao history starts with the barangay and what a more fitting way to start appreciating our local history by learning about the origins of our barangays, especially when 2016 will be the Tri-Centennial of the founding of Miag-ao.

Origin of Barangays in Miagao-1

Origin of Barangays in Miagao-2

Origin of Barangays in Miagao-3

Origin of Barangays in Miagao-4

Origin of Barangays in Miagao-5

Origin of Barangays in Miagao-6

Origin of Barangays in Miagao-7

Origin of Barangays in Miagao-8

Origin of Barangays in Miagao-9

Origin of Barangays in Miagao-10

Origin of Barangays in Miagao-11

Origin of Barangays in Miagao-12

Origin of Barangays in Miagao-13

Origin of Barangays in Miagao-14


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etymology
[2] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=boondocks
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salt
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serendipity
[5] Failagao, EN (1979). History of Miagao. La Editorial, Inc. (Iloilo City, Iloilo, Philippines). pp 364


About the Barangay

Below is an excerpt of the article written for a company brochure in 1998 as part of the future plans of rebuilding a balanghai in the same method and details as the ancient boat. 1998 was the Centennial of Philippine Independence and also the Year of the Ocean.

Folktales handed down from generations tell of entire communities migrating from distant lands to settle in our islands aboard a legendary ship called the balanghai. And, upon landing in their new found land, the voyagers continued to carry on the traditions of their homeland. The legendary adventure of the ten Bornean datus, led by Datu Puti, and their settlement of Aninipay (now called Panay Island) in the Visayas spoke well of our maritime heritage in the past. The advent of the Spanish era in the 16th century destroyed much of our seafaring legacies and with it much of our cultural identity as a people.

What is a Balanghai?

The term balanghai came originally from the Italian spelling of Antonio Pigafetta’s 16th century writings about the barangay. What we knew about the balanghai came from Francisco Ignacio Alcina’s manuscript which described life in the archipelago in 1668 for the Spanish King. In it, he described the balanghai as a 15 meter long plank built wooden boat propelled through the sea with a square sail on a tripod mast. Its rowers numbering 10 to 20 men sit on platforms along the outriggers (2 to 3 rows on each side). These ancient mariners paddle from “sunrise to sunset” at high speeds in unison to the songs and chants about heroes and their deeds. When traveling before the wind, the balanghai was said to go at a speed of 12 to 15 knots compared to the galleon’s 5 to 6.

The balanghai is not just a ship for long voyages. It is also a warship, highly maneuverable, versatile vessel best suited to the shallow waters of the archipelago.

Other than ancient writings and folk tales, there is no real proof of the balanghai’s existence. Until 1976, when by sheer luck, a Butuan City Engineer named Proceso S. Gonzales unearthed planks of an ancient boat buried in the mud. The National Museum dispatched archaeologists to the site and discovered a national treasure of several balanghai, which when carbon dated ranged in age from the 4th to the 14th centuries.

Ancient boats whose craftsmanship remain unchanged for over a thousand years, lay buried under the mud in Butuan City.

What the archaeologists have unearthed corroborates much of Alcina’s detailed descriptions of the balanghai. Having been a master shipwright himself before coming to the Philippines and have built such vessels during his travel through the Visayan islands, his writings of the balanghai have the details only an expert can describe. Unlike our more modern technique of boat-building the keel and the ribs from which the planks are fastened with nails or spikes, the construction of the balanghai involves building the planks first and then to fasten the ribs. Each plank is carved expertly from a tree with an ax and fitted edge to edge perfectly with wooden pegs–a no mean feat for a boat the size of a balanghai. Caulking was made by use of fibers and resins. Alcina’s description of the balanghai was indeed proven true by the archaeological findings in Butuan.

What makes the balanghai so important?

The balanghai, with its various names, the biniday or barangay, is not just an ancient ship. It is the term from which our basic sociopolitical unit was derived. Before the Spanish era, it refers to a community or settlement led by a monarchical chieftain, the datu, chosen for his wisdom and valor.
The renaming of this political unit into a barrio during the American conquest have symbolically subverted the Filipino psyche from an independent society into that of a conquered one.
In 1974, pursuant to Presidential Decree No. 557, the term barangay used to describe our community was again adapted. This is a reaffirmation of our national identity.

Just like the Viking ships of Scandinavia and Greece, our balanghai is a symbol of the maritime heritage of our civilization linking us with our Southeast Asian neighbors. Balanghai is a unique symbol of our ancient civilization. It is a symbol of our national unity.
For centuries, our balanghai had been a myth. Just recently, scientific facts proved this national archive genuine through archaeological expeditions. To most Filipinos, the balanghai remains a mere symbol and few understand its true value. To transform the myth and the symbol into a recognizable truth one must therefore bring the symbol into reality. To draw the balanghai from the abstract into the realm of the senses, one must bring the true balanghai to life.

–Jonathan R. Matias–

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