query: sarcastic antonymic nicknames

David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Tue Nov 24 15:57:29 UTC 2009

Dear all,

On my latest visit to Roon, a small island off the Birds Head of New 
Guinea, I met somebody with the Papuan Malay nickname "Pace Putih".  
"Pace" is a male-person term of address, while "Putih" means 'white'.  
People explained to me that he was called "Pace Putih" because -- ha ha 
-- he was by far the *darkest*-skinned person in the village.

What struck me was (a) how immediately accessible to me the sarcastic 
nature of the nickname was; and (b) how in nearly two decades of 
experience in other parts of "Indonesia proper", I had never encountered 
a similar example of what I am calling here a Sarcastic Antonymic 

Subsequent inquiries amongst colleagues in Indonesia revealed no known 
examples of Sarcastic Antonymic Nicknames, and a few colleagues actually 
went further, claiming that "we don't say things that way".  This 
suggests that there might be a real difference here between Papua and 
other parts of Indonesia.

So the purpose of this query is to try and map out the cross-linguistic 
distribution of Sarcastic Antonymic Nickames: a thin person called 
"fatso", somebody with long hair referred to as "baldy", a stupid person 
known as "prof", etc.  I would greatly appreciate any real live examples 
you might be familiar with of such Sarcastic Antonymic Nicknames: in 
your own native language or in languages you have worked on; among your 
own circle of acquaintances, or in texts you have collected, or even 
cases that are generally known (public figures, fictitious characters in 
novels, movies, etc.), or whatever.  I would also be really interested 
in claims to the effect that a certain language does *not* have 
Sarcastic Antonymic Nicknames, though of course such negative claims are 
much harder to support.

(Note: I am not interested in examples of the relatively well-known 
phenomenon whereby babies are given names expressing undesirable 
qualities in the hope that this will ward off the evil eye or whatnot, 
and that the baby will grow up to have the opposite qualities: although 
such cases may end up as de facto antonymic, they lack the crucial 
feature that I am interested in here, namely, sarcasm.)

My more general interest is in the ways in which sarcasm and irony may 
differ cross-linguistically.   I have long had the feeling that sarcasm 
never seems to work for me in Indonesia, and other expats I have spoken 
to in Indonesia have reported similar experiences.  One is tempted to 
say that Indonesians don't "do" sarcasm, but this is not true: our own 
naturalistic corpora contain quite a few examples of utterances that 
have, for good reason, been tagged as sarcastic.  So maybe Indonesians 
do sarcasm differently.  This query is a first attempt towards putting 
such gut-feeling claims on a firmer empirical foundation.



David Gil

Department of Linguistics
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Deutscher Platz 6, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany

Telephone: 49-341-3550321 Fax: 49-341-3550119
Email: gil at eva.mpg.de
Webpage:  http://www.eva.mpg.de/~gil/

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