Named after the founders of the Adal and Ifat Sultanates in the medieval ages, Djibouti has taken various names ever since it came under the French rule. Called French Somaliland as of 1894, and then the French Territory of the Afars and Issas, in time this small country managed to acquire one of the most unique and interesting names across the world. The name ‘Djibouti‘ has ever since sparked debates about its origins among the biggest ethnic groups, Somalis Issa and the Afars.
On the 27th of June 1977, the Republic of Djibouti got its name and independence after a series of referendums. Known also as the pearl of the Gulf of Tadjourah, there are several controversial explanations about the origins of the name, with answers varying according to the ethnicity of the Djiboutian lambda.
The Somali Issa legend
According to the Somali Issas’ legend, it is thought that the name Djibouti comes from the name of a beast called ‘buti‘ (‘bear’) that used to terrorize the population. Upon its defeat – ‘jab‘ in the Somali language – after a wilful, pertinacious chase, it was said that “meeshi butida lagu jabiyey“ (“the beast was defeated”), and so they chose to name the country after this legend.
The Afar version
The Afar have two explanations for the word Djibouti. On one hand, the uplands in the Afar language take the name ‘Gabood’. Given the land’s geographical position, Arab sailors coming here would have used this word, later referring to the port as ‘Gabuut’, ‘Gabuuti’, ‘Jabuuti’. On the other hand, it is also thought that a French military who had just freshly arrived, met a woman carrying a sort of cooking pot, and asked her the name of the place while pointing out to the ground. She thought he was asking about the pot, and answered accordingly: “Yi-buuti” (“My metal cooking pot”).
The Yemeni influence
Another etymological explanation refers to the Yemeni sailors who used and still navigate the Gulf of Aden. The name Djibouti would be the plausible twist of the sentence ‘jâ-al-bût‘, which means ‘the boat has arrived’.
A land of two major ethnicities
The French got apparently confused on what name to give to this tiny land. They named it French Somaliland as an opposition to the British Somaliland, then figured out that maybe a name that incorporated both the Issa and Afar was the best option to adopt for social and political peace, before they finally withdrew their forces in 1977 to let Djibouti decide its own destiny.