The other day, I was in the staffroom with Lily and Jackie talking about our families. One of the great things about Mandarin is the ability to explain family relationships. I don’t have to call Scep my semi-brother, there is a name to mean my wonderful and revered Granny, and separate her from all those other grandmothers in the world who are just acceptable! I can easily express Oldest Daughter Of My Boyfriend’s Younger Half-Brother with a short phrase in Mandarin. Well, I could if my pronunciation didn’t suck.
Anyway, Lily mentioned that her husband’s little-boy name is Bao.
“Did you say bao ze, Little Dumpling?” I asked.
“No, Bao, like bag.”
“Your husband is called Bag?”
“Yes,” she said.
Her husband’s real name is something good-sounding but his family calls him Bag. And when she visits her in-laws, they call her Wife of Bag or Bag Lady.* This isn’t an oddity of Lily’s family, in rural China, mothers call their babies by insulting names like Little Dog or Mud. Jackie has an uncle Ugly Opera Mask (it sounds a little better in Chinese, but not much better). I read, before arriving, that this was an ancient tradition to confuse evil spirits who might want to steal the child. The spirits want to take a healthy, beautiful child, and won’t bother to harm a Little Dog.
I actually did a paper on this concept for Prof. Barton’s Roman religion class. All the noble Roman family names are insulting. Catullus actually means “Little Dog”, and other family names mean Big-Nose and Baldie. My paper was all about whether insult-names are meant to protect the baby from harm, or keep the mother from getting too attached to her new baby or to keep the child from getting conceited, and attracting harm that way. Any of these would be a realistic reason behind the Chinese custom, and I was so excited to find out the truth.
“It’s because so many childen die when they’re young,” Lily said, as though insult names naturally followed. I asked if this was because of evil spirits or to help keep the mother from getting too attached to the child. She didn’t know what I meant. We went back and forth a few times, in the way that’s most frustrating. She wasn’t able to explain her custom because she’s Chinese and it’s just so obvious to her. And I wasn’t even able to form a question that would help me understand better.
“You have to call what’s most important, something bad.” she said. “Because you love it so much.”
I finally got it. “Lily, did I tell you my boyfriend is called Stick?”
*Dear boys of Griffon Games, I am very sorry I ever got annoyed at Stick’s Chick. Compared to Bag Lady, it’s quite all right!