23 September 2017

Bonbon, Bombon, Bongbong; Possible Origins of Taal Lake’s Former Name


Earlier this year, I wrote an article to help promote the Bonbon Festival, an eco-cultural event held annually in the past few years for the promotion of local art and the preservation of Taal Lake and its environment. While the more common spelling of the lake’s old name that I have encountered while studying primary documents written by Spanish chroniclers was Bombon, i.e. with an “m,” there were indeed also those who spelled Bonbon with an “n” instead.

For instance, in the 1582 document “Relacion de las Yslas Filipinas1” (Story/Narration of the Philippine Islands) by Miguel de Loarca, mention was made of “encomendero de Bonbon” (encomendero of Bonbon) and “encomiendas de Bonbon y Batangas” (encomiendas of Bonbon and Batangas).

Bonbon was by no means the only variant spelling of Bombon. In a 1630 history of the Augustinian Order written by one Fray Juan de Medina was mentioned, “A convent was established in the town of Taal. There is a lake there, generally known as the lake of Bongbong2.” In an unsigned 1649 document entitled “Early Franciscan Missions,” it was written that “tunnies3 are caught on the opposite of Casiguran and in the lake of Bong-bong…4

To better understand the discrepancies, we leave history momentarily and turn our attention to a bit of linguistics. First of all, the Spanish chroniclers who were writing down our history for us were doing so, in the case of Tagalog words and names, using Spanish letters to transcribe what were to them foreign sounds. It is possible that some writers heard “m,” other writers heard “n” and still others heard “ng.”

Next, even contemporary native Tagalog speakers are fairly liberal in interchanging the sounds “m,” “n” and “ng” in many instances. For instance, the word “bumbunan,” meaning the backside of the top of the head, can just as correctly be said as “bunbunan” by some. As another example, the phrase “kung baga,” meaning “for instance,” is often contracted into one word, “kumbaga.” Finally, the word “inbitado,” adopted from the Spanish “invitado” meaning “invited,” is frequently pronounced as “imbitado.”

It is not just these sounds that Tagalog speakers liberally interchange. We also have a tendency to interchange “e”and “i” as well as “o” and “u.” The sound “g” is also sometimes substituted with the “k,” so that the word “tigbalang,” meaning a half-man, half-horse folkloric creature, can just as correctly be pronounced as “tikbalang.” The interchanging is not universal, as all native Tagalog speakers know. There are words for which the interchanging is acceptable and others for which it is not.

To get back to the matter at hand, however, whether the name of the lake was Bombon, Bonbon or Bongbong, what was its etymology or origin? This is where it gets interesting because unless an artifact with an explanation is improbably found, one hypothesis about the name’s origin is as good as the next. For the sake of discussion, though, let us examine a few possible ones.

The “Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala5,” published in 1754 but written much earlier to enable Spanish friars to proselytize among the native Tagalogs, provides two possible sources of the lake’s name. The first is “bombon,” which is defined as “montón de ramas y palos en donde se esconde el pescado” (a lot of branches and twigs where the fishes hide).

The word’s usage as verb is provided, i.e. “pon ramas á este rio” or to place branches into the river. It seems highly likely from the definition above that the word “bombon” referred to a fish trap or the act of making a fish trap using twigs and branches. Was there a proliferation of these around the lake, enough, at any rate, for it to be named after the traps?

The same book provides a second possible source of the lake’s name: bonbon. The book defines the word as “cisterna hecha naturalmente, que conserva agua clara” or a natural cistern for preserving clear water. In the western context, a cistern would have been a large waterproof tank or receptacle for holding liquids, often rainwater, for later use.

A document written in the 1950s about Bañadero6, a lakeside barrio of Tanauan City, states that according to folklore, the barrio got its name “because of the presence of springs that afford excellent bathing places.” Where there are springs, there are also likely pools which, in a manner of speaking, are also natural cisterns. Were the lakeside spring pools called “bonbon” before the Spaniards arrived in the Philippines?

From a 1925 narration of the legend of Juanang Ilaya7 comes another word that has to be considered as a possible source of the lake’s name: bombong. The author, one Amparo Reyes, defined the “bombong” as “bamboo used for getting water,” specifically drinking water.

Meanwhile, in a history of Alitagtag8, mention was made of “a gambler’s wife who was on her way to fetch water from the distant Taal Lake.” This was the story of the legendary finding of the Holy Cross early during the Spanish era in the Philippines.

Thus, we assume that the wife was fetching water from one of the springs close to the lake, which at the time was not a lake at all but a saltwater channel connected to Balayan Bay. We assume that she and others in lakeside communities used the “bombong” to fetch water for the households, which in turn will make the word viable as a source for the lake’s name.

The lands around the lake were also likely heavily forested in pre-Hispanic times; and that among the plants that grew abundantly in these forests was the bamboo. Just so readers do not miss the connection that I am trying to establish, because of the o-u imprecision or interchangeability, “bombong” was probably pronounced as “bumbong” with the hard “u.” Yes, the “puto bumbong” is so called because the sticky rice is molded inside bamboo tubes called the “bumbong.”

The final word viable as a source of the lake’s name is not even a Tagalog word, at least not anymore in the present day. However, a prayer booklet9 first written in 1593 has shown the strong affinity between Tagalog and the Visayan languages – which incidentally belong to the same language family – and that there used to be Tagalog words which have become archaic but are still used by Visayans.

One of this is “bunbun,” which is used to this day at least in Ilonggo or Hiligaynon. A Visayan-English dictionary10 published in 1934 defines it as “detritus, soft sand or mud near or under water, slime or mire.” This is exactly the sort of soil one will find beside rivers and, as though I need to say, lakes. Because of that self-same o-u imprecision Visayans are also prone to, ask anyone from the region to say “bunbun” and the pronunciation will likely be “bonbon.”

Notes and references:
1 “Relacion de las Yslas Filipinas,” by Miguel de Loarca, written 1582, compiled as part of Blair and Robertson’s “The Philippine Islands, 1493-1803, Volume V., 1582-1583.”
2 “History of the Augustinian Order in the Philippine Islands,” by Fray Juan de Medina OSA written 1630 published 1893. From the Blair and Robertson series the Philippine Islands Volume XXIV 1625 -1629.
3 Tunnies are tuna. Wikipedia.
4 “Early Franciscan Missions,” an unsigned document written in 1649 but first published in 1895, part of the Blair and Robertson Series “The Philippine Islands Volume 35.”
5Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala,” by Juan de Noceda, Pablo Clain and Pedro de Sanlucar. First published 1754.
6History and Cultural Life of the Barrio of Bañadero,” online at the National Library of the Philippines Digital Collections.
7Magic Tales from Lipa,” by Amparo Reyes, published 1925, part of the H. Otley-Beyer Collection of the National Library of the Philippines Digital Collections.
8History and Cultural Data of Alitagtag,” online at the National Library of the Philippines Digital Collections.
9 “Doctrina Christiana: The first book printed in the Philippines, Manila, 1593. A Facsimile of the copy in the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection,” Library, Edwin Wolf, Editor. 2005.
10 “Kapulungan Binisaya-Iningles (Visayan English Dictionary),” by John Kaufmann, Iloilo 1934.

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