Saturday, March 3, 2007

Funny names

"Let's face it. When it comes to the world of funny names, Asians take the cake" alleges a writer over at the self-proclaimed "home of yellow journalism" who, to judge from his name, one would presume is Asian-American.

And as evidence, some native English speakers have cited the surnames of such cinematic luminaries as John Woo, Sammo Hung, Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh (which is pronounced as "Yo") and Chow Yun Fat (who gets a double whammy in that "Fat" -- which many people erroneously think is his surname, and pronounce as "fat" -- sounds as funny as, and when coupled with, his real surname of "Chow").

Then there are those Hong Kong handles which have struck others as ranging from "the traditional to inventive to downright bizarre". To cite a few celebrity examples: "Fruit" for Mr. Chan the filmmaker; Mango for Ms. Wong the singer; and "Casanova" for Mr. Wong the kung fu movie actor.

Additionally, there are those surnames which ethnic Chinese speakers don't have a problem with but which many a monolingual native English speaker I know just can't seem to be able to pronounce: namely, the vowels only "Ooi" (which I have tried to explain is simply pronounced as "ooo-ee") and the vowel-less "Ng" (which I've directed friends to pronounce like "mmm", only with an "n" in front of it!).

(As an aside: A friend of my family would sometimes telephone me when I was attending boarding school in England. Whenever she did and I wasn't around, I would return to hear plaintive messages of "Mrs. N-G called" because none of my housemates -- and, for that matter, my housemaster too -- ever could pronounce her "Ng" surname! ;D)

For all this though, I'd readily contend that it's not only Asians -- and, perhaps in particular, the Chinese; this since I realize that all the examples I've furnished above are from that one ethnicity alone! -- who could be said to have funny names.

After all, it's not the Chinese who started the practice of calling their children "Martians" or "warring", "lame", "vanity" (or "worthlessness" -- or is it "meadow"?) , "sorrows", or even -- depending on the translation -- "snub-nosed" or "little hyena"! And if you're wondering what I'm going on about, the fact of the matter is that, unbeknownst to many, those happen to be the meanings of, respectively, Martin, Claudia, Abel, Dolores and Simon (all of them Western names which are fairly commonly in use to this day)!!

Furthermore, if you "translate" a name from English to another language (in a similar way as -- but converse cross-cultural direction from -- the procedure which makes Woo, Hung et al. seem so funny in English), you come across such as the problem that my American friend Lucy has told me that she has with her name over here in Hokkien-dominated Penang. For, to put it baldly, when pronounced as "loo see", Lucy turns out to mean "you die" in Hokkien...!!!

Consequently, cue conversations like the following:-

Hokkien speaker: What's your name?

Lucy: (to a Hokkien speaker): You die!

Hokkien speaker: What???!!!



just me said...

re: "...For, to put it baldly, when pronounced as "loo see", Lucy turns out to mean "you die" in Hokkien...!!!"

My mum told me that a lot of the older folks in Singapore used to have trouble with English names.

She told me these:
Michelle = Mee Siam (a local spicy noodle dish)
Lawrence = lou ning (Teochew for braise eggs)
Chalotte = chow lock (smelly ??? I'm not sure what "lock" means, will have to ask her)


GoldenRockProductions said...

I actually know friends of friends (all Hong Kongers, of course) with names such as Queenie and Apple. Of course, Hong Kong's new favorite trend is pseudo-Japanese names, like Yumiko.

YTSL said...

Hi "just me" --

"Michelle = Mee Siam (a local spicy noodle dish)"

???!!! Never made that connection myself!!! OTOH, as a kid, used to find it funny to occasionally call my mother -- who I usually call "Mummy"; incidentally, something which used to make my American friends laugh -- "Hokkien mee", "wantan mee" and all other kinds of noddles for fun... ;)

"Chalotte = chow lock (smelly ??? I'm not sure what "lock" means, will have to ask her)"

Lock = "prostitute" in Hokkien. Talking to my mother about this this morning, she said that the name Charlotte had always struck her as bad -- since it sounds close to the English "harlot"... ;DDD

Hi goldenrockproductions --

"Of course, Hong Kong's new favorite trend is pseudo-Japanese names, like Yumiko."

Aaah yes, as in singer Yumiko Cheng! :)

sbk said...

When teaching in China my husband, Gordon, was called Golden by his students as they were hopeful the name would bring them luck with their English studies.

YTSL said...

Hi sbk --

Well, there are a heck of a lot worse names to be called by one's students than Golden. So reckon that Gordon got off pretty lightly there! ;D

just me said...

Hi ytsl,

Yeah, I went to ask my mum about Charlotte and yup it is "prostitute" like your mum said. =)

I got more for you. Once again from my mum.

Albert = Ah But (Hokkien for mother)
Alan = Ah Lan (Hokkien for penis)
Charmaine = chah meh (Teochew of las night)
Richard = li-chart (sounds like English for lizard)


YTSL said...

Hi again "just me" --

Please say thanks for the list to your mother for me, okay? ;)

"Charmaine = chah meh (Teochew of las night)"

Hmmm, "chah meh" also means "last night" in (Penang) Hokkien. But somehow never noticed the similarity between that phrase and Charmaine! And ditto re Richard sounding like "lizard"!!! :DDDD

OTOH, to make things less East vs West, had already previously noticed that Cecilia Cheung's Chinese personal name of Pak Chi only needs a bit of a tonal shift to sound like "idiot" in Cantonese! ;D

just me said...

Hi ytsl,

Will let my mum know you thank her. :) And also noticed that about Cecilia Cheung's Cantonese name. :)


YTSL said...

Hi once more "just me" --

"also noticed that about Cecilia Cheung's Cantonese name. :)"

If you encounter other funny celebrity names, please let me know (on this thread or via e-mail).

As for funny non-celebrity names: I had a schoolmate whose name was Bee Nah. Am not sure what it actually was meant to be but her Hokkien schoolmates couldn't help but early on in our acquaintance with her, we translated it into/as "brush"! ;b

Then there's the girl who was named Khor Sue Sue who, if you were in a multi-lingual Malaysian environment, easily turned into "bitter milk" (i.e., "khor" = bitter in Hokkien; "susu" = milk in Bahasa Malaysia)! :DDD

GurlonFilm said...

Power Chan
Benz Hui
Rocky Cheng (Rocky is usually reserved for dogs/pets. at least that's what we had named out dog. :D)

YTSL said...

Hi GurlonFilm --

"(Rocky is usually reserved for dogs/pets. at least that's what we had named out dog. :D)"

Yeah, well, since my brother and his girlfriend have named their dog Charlie and the cat Bruce (i.e., names which are usually reserved for people)... ;D