Chinese Corner

What’s in a name?

The case for and against weird names in China – Eveline Chao

Nominal Determinism is the notion that your name determines your destiny. The idea dates back to the times of ancient philosophy and adds a whiff of fatalism to, say, meeting a woodworker surnamed Carpenter, or reading about Amy Winehouse’s alcoholism. It also ties in to a debate in the US about whether African-Americans should avoid giving their children stereotypically “black”-sounding names like Dante or Shaneequa – names that are perceived as being typical of someone poor and black – lest they then get treated by teachers as, well, poor and black. The idea is that if children are treated like they aren’t going to do well in school, they’ll fulfill this expectation in reality.

Personally, I think people should feel free to choose any name they like (except maybe those white parents in New Jersey who named their baby “Adolf Hitler”). But I’ve always found it interesting that Asian immigrant parents in the U.S. tend to choose safe, “all-American” names for their kids, like Michael or Stephanie. (An Asian-American named Grace Lee even made a movie that touches on this phenomenon, called “The Grace Lee Project,” after noticing the prevalence of other Grace Lees out there.) Behind these names lies an instinct to help your kid assimilate quickly so they can succeed in American society.

Chinese people believe in the importance of an auspicious name.

Chinese Corner

How Not to Accidentally Call Yourself a *@#$!

Corporate naming adventures in China – Eveline Chao

The annals of international marketing are filled with tales of spectacular cross-cultural name fails – a Ford car called the Pinto, for example, which turned out to be Brazilian Portugese slang for “penis.” Coming up with no name for foreign markets can be risky too. Facebook has no Chinese name, so transliterations have sprung up organically. One of them, 非死不可 fēisǐbùkě, means “must die.”

Enter Lexicon Branding. This small company, a dozen people strong, in Sausalito, California, uses linguistics to name products. They’re famous for having named the BlackBerry, Swiffer, Febreze, Pentium, and PowerBook. Occasionally, their work involves Chinese. They sometimes develop Chinese renditions of brand names: 黑莓 hēiméi for BlackBerry, and 红五工作室 hóng wǔ gōngzuòshì for computer game company Red 5 Studios – or of services, such as 有问必答 yǒuwènbìdá for Q&A.

They also evaluate possible brand names to find out what they convey in various markets. Greg Alger, Lexicon’s in-house linguist, told me they recommended against pharmaceutical name Semtris in Cantonese-speaking markets because “it triggered a relatively strong association with 心醉時 sam tsui si, which would mean something like ‘time to get seriously drunk.’”

Chinese Corner

Classically Trained

Gladys Mac leaps into Jin Yong’s retro wuxia language

When I was in elementary school, my sister and I would stay up late on Saturday nights to watch TVB’s 1994 production of Legend of the Condor Heroes (射鵰英雄傳), based on a novel by Jin Yong, the beloved writer of wǔxiá 武俠 (martial arts) fiction who passed away last year at the age of 94. The Los Angeles branch of the Hong Kong channel aired this drama at midnight – we would watch two episodes before going to bed at 2 am, quite the commitment from the under-ten set. This drama reran a couple times in later years, and each time my sister and I would watch it as eagerly as we had the first. Sometimes it aired on weekend afternoons, and once on weekday afternoons during summer vacation. We scheduled our plans around the show in order to catch every episode. Many versions of this drama were produced in the following years, but none of them are as fun and fast paced as the 1994 version.

Chinese Corner

At Dim Sum, Don’t Forget the Tea

Rosalyn Shih tells us what to pair with the classic Cantonese cuisine

When Hong Kong locals invite you out, they never say, "Let's go for a beer." Instead they “treat you to drinking tea” (cing2 nei5 jam2 caa4 請你飲茶).What they really mean is that they’re taking you to dim sum (dim2 sam1 點心).

The Cantonese phrase jam2 caa4 飲茶 or “to drink tea” – not to be confused with the Mandarin phrase hē chá 喝茶, a euphemism for being interrogated by the police – is synonymous with having dim sum. Although Hong Kongers emulate the global cosmopolitan by preferring chilled water at Western restaurants, they still require lots of hot tea to help the BBQ pork buns go down and aid the digestion of fried spring rolls. There is probably nothing I associate more with Hong Kong than the smells of starchy tablecloths and the earthy brew of pou2 lei5 普洱 – commonly known by its Mandarin name pǔ'ěr – floating over the din of family friends enthusiastically shouting at each other across tables.

Chinese Corner

Happy New Year to Zhu

Pig out on these Lunar New Year puns – Anne Henochowicz

Lunar New Year, a.k.a. Spring Festival, a.k.a. Chinese New Year, begins today. This is an auspicious time of year for punsters – if, for instance, someone wishes you “year upon year of fish” (niánnián yǒu yú 年年有餘), that’s because “fish” ( 魚) sounds just like “abundance” (餘). Mandarin has very few phonemes (the sounds that make up words), so opportunities for punning abound. (I speak here for Mandarin only, but other varieties of Chinese have their own new year puns, and some of the Mandarin ones work in other varieties, too.)

As this year is the Year of the Pig, I’ve been signing off my emails with “I pig you a happy new year” (zhū nǐ xīnnián kuàilè 猪你新年快樂), as “pig” (zhū 猪) and the verb “to wish” (zhù 祝) are near-homophones, separated only by a tone.