Mr. Mbah

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The following article on an Australian website has a slip-up in the handling of an honorific in Indonesian / Javanese:

"Official Indonesian documentation has verified Mbah Gotho was born in 1870, making him the oldest person in the world" (SBS News, 8/31/16)


At the reported age of 145, Mbah Gotho from the Indonesian island of Java could be the oldest person on the planet but he is not interested in celebrating.

“I only want to die,” he told Indonesian television station Liputan 6 in August in Sragen in Central Java.

… Mr Mbah said he has had a tombstone ready since 1992.

As we can see from this quotation, the article is about a Mbah Gotho, who is also called Sodimejo. It seems that, like many Indonesians, he only has the one name (Gotho), and the "Mbah" is a common honorific for elderly men, approximating to "grandfather".  Here we need help from those who know Indonesian / Javanese, because some online dictionaries and translation services define "mbah" as "grandfather" and others define it as "champion; leader".

The writer/translator refers to him throughout the body of the article as "Mr Mbah", i.e., "Mr. Grandfather".

This article in the Independent doesn't make that mistake and has a 31 second video that shows him to be ambulatory:

"World's oldest person discovered in Indonesia – aged 145:  Mbah Gotho has official identification showing his birth date to be December 1870"

In the voiceover of the video, you can hear the word "Mbah" pronounced in what I take to be Indonesian.  I wonder what that would look like in IPA.

Snopes article on Mbah Gotho:

"Indonesian Man Claims to Be World's Oldest at 145:  Mbah Gotho of Indonesia has an identity card that says he was born in 1870, which (if verified) would make him 145 years old and the world's oldest person — ever." (8/30/16)

And here's the Wikipedia article on him.

[Thanks to Jim Breen]


  1. Chandra said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 2:37 pm

    Interesting that the author also seems to have chosen the first word as the surname. I would have expected "Mr. Gotho", if anything. When and if Indonesian people have surnames, are they usually written first?

  2. KeithB said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 3:59 pm

    Kind of like "The La Brea Tarpits" is The The Tar Tar Pits.

  3. Bart said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 4:19 pm

    In my experience, Mbah in Javanese (not Indonesian) is an honorific for an esteemed person who has some kind of authority.
    It wouldn't be used just because a man was old or had lots of descendants. So 'Grandfather' would be a misleading translation.
    I can't think of a good English equivalent.

  4. Bart said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 4:32 pm

    Footnote. Since only one or very few people in a village are called 'Mbah', somebody may well say without ambiguity the equivalent of, eg, 'Let's go and ask the Mbah'.

  5. ohwilleke said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 5:22 pm

    FWIW, I am extremely skeptical that the 1870 birthdate is accurate.

    The previous oldest verified age of anyone has ever lived was 122 years and 164 days, while this date would be 22 years older.

    The oldest verified age of any man that has ever lived was 116 years and 54 days, which this would exceed by 29 years, and only six men in recorded history are in the top 100 of oldest people to ever live which cuts off at 114 years and 84 days.

    The possibility that a man could live a whole generation longer without anyone else in the world being verified as intermediate in age is simply not credible. More likely, the ID being used to verify his age is an adult male relative in his father's generation (perhaps a father or uncle) with the same name and similar looks, that is impossible to disprove at this remove in time. Indonesia's record keeping has not been universal or of high quality for the entirety of 145 years.

  6. John Thayer Jensen said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 5:57 pm

    In her novel 'The Big Four' (published, I think, in the 1920s), Agatha Christie has a character 'Madame Gospoja'


  7. John Thayer Jensen said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 5:58 pm


  8. Jim Breen said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 6:01 pm

    My son Simon, who tipped me off about the article, added:

    "Interestingly, his official (ID card) name is actually Sodimejo, although his birth name was Saparman (it seems Javanese custom at the time was to take on a different name when married) and he's more commonly known as Mbah Gotho ("Old Man Gotho"?)

    Gotho in turn is apparently a dialect/slang/"country" term (not known in formal Javanese) for "someone who is always excited and tend to use the muscles when walking or act" (Google translation from Indonesian, from a much more detailed article I found, so original meaning may be somewhat different!)"

  9. Jim Breen said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 6:08 pm

    When Martin Place in Sydney was turned into a pedestrian-only area in 1971 the city fathers called it "Martin Place Plaza". There was an outcry from the sorts of people who would have been LL readers had it existed then. Eventually the "Plaza" was quietly dropped.

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 6:10 pm

    John Thayer Jensen: I don't know what's possible in Russian, but you can be Mr. Master or Mr. Lord in English.

  11. John Thayer Jensen said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 7:30 pm

    Like "Major Major Major Major" :-)


  12. ryan said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 10:48 pm

    >'Grandfather' would be a misleading translation. I can't think of a good English equivalent.

    I'd vote for Lord. Mostly on the basis of the Conrad novel.

  13. Keith said,

    September 2, 2016 @ 1:25 am

    Maybe "alderman", in its original sense of "elder man".

  14. Rolig said,

    September 2, 2016 @ 7:23 am

    Then there's Avenue Road, an important street in Toronto.

  15. David Arthur said,

    September 2, 2016 @ 7:59 am

    There are actually lots of Avenue Roads in England, too. It sounds redundant, almost to the point of absurdity, but simply pre-dates the adoption of 'avenue' as a suffix for street names.

  16. SamC said,

    September 2, 2016 @ 8:25 am

    I work near a Street Road, not to be confused with a different Street Road in another nearby county:

    But more on topic, would "Elder" also be a better translation, based on the comments here?

  17. Victor Mair said,

    September 2, 2016 @ 8:30 am

    I've come across so many Boulevard Avenues that I could not begin to count them.

  18. mollymooly said,

    September 2, 2016 @ 8:36 am

    I was disappointed to learn that Townsville, Australia is named after one Robert Towns.

  19. Oliver Mundy said,

    September 2, 2016 @ 9:44 am

    More redundancies and tautologies: –

    I live on the slope of a granite ridge in Cornwall (U.K.) called 'Carn Brea', which I understand could be translated as 'Hill Hill'.

    We have all heard of 'PIN numbers' and 'ID documents', I suppose.

  20. Rodger C said,

    September 2, 2016 @ 11:17 am

    The lobo wolves chased the Episcopal bishop down Boulevard Avenue.

  21. D-AW said,

    September 2, 2016 @ 11:36 am

    There is an Avenue Road Avenue Study, commissioned to study Avenue Road (Toronto). On this and more redundancies:

  22. CuConnacht said,

    September 2, 2016 @ 2:29 pm

    There seem to be lots of Broadway Streets in the western US.

  23. Jen said,

    September 2, 2016 @ 4:05 pm

    Torpenhow is the classic Hill Hill Hill, I believe. Then there's Rubha Robhanis in Lewis, which is Point Point Point.

    (If Cornish Carn Brea is the same as Gaelic Carn a' Bhraigh, though, then it's something like the 'rocky mound of the slope' – at the risk of invoking Eskimos, the Gaels have an awful lot of words for different *kinds* of hills.)

  24. Adrian said,

    September 2, 2016 @ 4:39 pm

    Pick your favourites from

  25. Y said,

    September 2, 2016 @ 5:34 pm

    Then there are the antonyms, like Hilldale and Forest Meadow.

  26. maidhc said,

    September 2, 2016 @ 7:57 pm

    The explanation for Avenue Road very simple. A long time ago the northern boundary of Toronto was Bloor Street. There was a street in Toronto called University Avenue that ran from the waterfront up to the University of Toronto, and terminated at the city boundary on Bloor Street (where the university is). However there was a road that continued on into the country by the village of Yorkville, and it was called Avenue Road because it was a continuation of University Avenue outside the city. I guess the city of Toronto could have extended the name University Avenue when they annexed the land to the north, but they didn't.

    One corner of the U of T campus is the intersection of University Avenue and College Street.

    There is a University Avenue near where I live even though the university in question pulled up stakes and moved to another city more than 100 years ago.

    Another strange one is Federal Way, Washington, which you would think would be a street, but it is actually a town.

  27. AntC said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 1:23 am

    A street name at the opposite extreme to tautological is 'Pavement', York, (ie old York, Yorkshire, UK.)

    Note: _not_ 'The Pavement'.

  28. Hans van den Broek said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 10:45 pm

    "Mbah" in Javanese can be used for both men and women of a certain age and dignity. For many westerners who can hardly hear the aspiration at the end of the word, Mbah can be very easily confused with the word for young(er) women, mbak, of which the final "k" is a glottal stop which we also hardly recognise as a phoneme.
    By the way, I don't think it's a good idea to translate Mbah with "Lord," that would be a "Gusti", a genuine title of (high) nobility. Though I happen to be a translator (though not of Javanese/Bahasa Indonesia as a source language), I'm afraid I can't think of a catching translation of Mbah.

    Salam dari Yogya,


  29. Geoff McLarney said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 9:04 pm

    Following on maidhc, when I participated as an undergraduate in a demonstration for lower tuition fees, we all sat down in the road at the intersection of University and College, to indicate that the way things were going, it would be "the only University and College we can afford".

  30. Hans van den Broek said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 9:54 pm

    Referring to myself (nobody else ever does): I think "venerable sir/madam" might be an acceptable translation for "mbah."

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