query: sarcastic antonymic nicknames

Nicholas Ostler nostler at CHIBCHA.DEMON.CO.UK
Wed Nov 25 18:23:15 UTC 2009

David Gil wrote:
> A little bit under 24 hours after posting the original query, I've 
> received a slew of examples from English, a few nice examples from 
> other European languages, but very little from the rest of the world 
> -- the only clear-cut example so far coming from the Australian 
> language Bardi (thanks to Claire Bowern). So are Humorous Antonymic 
> Nicknames really a mostly European phenomenon? Or is it just that us 
> mostly-European-language-speaking typologists don't know enough about 
> the relevant facts in other parts of the world?
> David 
A possible non-Western example is the loveable loser hero of Japanese 
comedy movies Tora-san, which could be translated as "Mr Tiger" - 
probably the animal he least resembles (and written with the correct 
character 寅 - though this means the Chinese zodiacal beast, rather than 
the actual animal).
See, for more details of this antihero,

More generally, in terms of antonymic nicknames in non-Western 
traditions, one thinks of the bizarre nature of Nahuatl honorifics, 
which seem to be largely drawn from hypocoristics (e.g. the suffix -tzin 
in Malintzin, 'Malinche', Cortes's interpreter. This phenomenon (and its 
possible converse - honorifics used as insults) are discussed very 
briefly in my book, Empires of the Word (HarperCollins 2005) pp. 15-16, 
referring to the learned discussion by Frances Karttunen 1990 - 
Conventions of Polite Speech in Nahuatl, Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl, 
20: pp. 281-96.

Nicholas Ostler
Chairman, Foundation for Endangered Languages
nostler at chibcha.demon.co.uk

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