Yoruba: What is the meaning of the word?

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Sculpture of Oduduwa, father of the Yoruba people

Historical facts and theories don't provide answers to the meaning of Yoruba.

What's in a name? In Africa and especially in Nigeria, we believe that names have deeper meanings. They are contextual and layered.

A person's name reveals the circumstances surrounding their birth.  In other cases, it represents the hopes and aspirations parents have for their kids.

The names of African countries also have meanings too. Nigeria is a mash-up of two words 'Niger' for River Niger and 'Area'. Morroco means the "Land of God". Ivory Coast is perhaps one of most descriptive names to give a country.


What about tribes? What is the meaning of the word Yoruba? A quick search on this revealed to me that the existence of the word Yoruba first showed up in the 16th century.

The scholar Ahmed Baba al Massufi used the word to describe the people of the Oyo Empire in a treatise written by him. The word Yoruba was first used to describe people from Oyo only but later on it was used to describe people who spoke the language from the latter half of the 16th century.


The word truly became formalized when Bishop Ajayi Crowther released his Yoruba dictionary. It must be said that Akú, a word used by some Europeans to describe Yoruba people. It was derived from the first words used in greeting in Nigeria (Ẹ kú àárọ? - good morning and Ẹ kú alẹ? - good evening). Akú is still used in certain parts of the world such as Sierra Leone.


What does the word mean itself? A few Yoruba heritage articles and Facebook group believe in the theory that the Yoruba word was formed from a derogatory term used by Hausa-Fulani traders to name people from the South-West.

Yoruba people were seen as tricksters and shrewd negotiators in business. Northerners allegedly started calling them  Yaribansa which supposedly means bastard. Over the years the corruption of the word Yaribansa would develop to Yoruba.

There is no proof that this theory is accurate. It should be categorized as Internet alternative facts that float on shady websites.

Maybe the meaning of Yoruba has been lost in time. This is what we do know- the scholar Ahmed Baba al Massufi was the first to use the word to describe people from Oyo people and later people who originated from the South West.

The words Omoluabi and Omo Odua is preferred by some to describe Yoruba people. They feel it properly indicates the heritage and origin of Yoruba people.


Well, the Yoruba name has stuck. Millions of people know and read about the Yoruba tribe. The meaning of the word shouldn't be a concern. Whatever the original meaning was, the name Yoruba is a brand.

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