query: sarcastic antonymic nicknames

Nicholas Ostler nostler at CHIBCHA.DEMON.CO.UK
Thu Nov 26 11:14:12 UTC 2009

Perhaps we are getting off-message, but if sarcasm (but not irony) is 
not appreciated in Japan, what about the Japanese feeling towards what 
they call  皮肉 hiniku (evidently literally 'skin-flesh' - via Chinese, 
where this metaphor is apparently unknown).  This is the word that 
usually gets translated as irony.

The (etymological) point here seems to be that this trope is essentially 
superficial; not a reversal of the literal truth (as we now understand 
'irony' in English), or agonizing as Greek sarcasm ('flesh-tearing') 
suggests, or disingenuous as original Greek irony ('lessening'). (As 
discussed by Pokan at bottom of 
Perhaps not appreciated because (a) it's felt to be missing the point 
(not getting to the nub of things - the bone and marrow) or (b) 
insensitive - probing skin and flesh, instead of addressing the subject. 
It doesn't seem to be valued as a kind of arch cleverness, anyway, but 
as a conversational vice.

On the original point, I'm grateful to be corrected on the way Japanese 
really feel about Tora-san, but the etymological facts stand: his name 
is his name, for a' that,  the full-name Torajiro still contains the 
explicit 'tiger' character, followed by a sort of code for '2nd son'; 
and the idea of a tiger has a certain dramatic and colourful resonance, 
even in Chinese and Japanese imagery and astrology. It interests me that 
most native speakers blithely overlook it.


Mike Morgan wrote:
> Yes, I agree with Midori fully. As a semi-outsider
> observer-participant in Japan (for 18 years!), I must admit that my
> sarcastic wit was NOT fully appreciated ... EXCEPT in the Deaf
> community (where they love sarcasm!) and among exchange students from
> China (mostly Shanghai) and Mongolia (well, i only had ONE of those).
> Appreciation of sarcasm was one of a list of features that I would
> list that separates Japanese Deaf culture as distinct within "normal"
> Japanese culture.
> Irony on the other goes over quite well ... with almost everyone in Japan.
> On Thu, Nov 26, 2009 at 5:58 AM, Midori Osumi <nekubunpoo at gmail.com> wrote:
>> To the suggestion Nicholas made, re.Tora-san,
>> i think it s not the case.  Tora is shortened form of Torajiroo, which is
>> his real name, and his name does not make us feel sarcastic. Maybe, he was
>> born in the tiger year, too, which is the reason for his name...
>>  In fact, Japanese does not have this habit, i guess, Sarcasm, or irony,
>> which may be heard often, and probably related to the idea such as wits,
>> among esp British people (?)but in Japan, it is not considered as anything a
>> good thing to do.  We have Senryuu, a literary art form, which is like
>> Haiku, short poem, in which people purt their criticism in ironical, subtle
>> way, against the society or authority in the form of poem, as they couldnt
>> say that openly.
>> re pensons'names, the japanese language council or something reviews
>> characters which are usable or not, for names (of newly born children), and
>> they sometimes eliminate some characters which are associated to evil,
>> death, excrements, curse, etc,, as they view that these naming may lead to
>> discrimination.
>> Midori Osumi
>> 2009/11/26 Nicholas Ostler <nostler at chibcha.demon.co.uk>
>>> 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,
>>> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otoko_wa_Tsurai_yo
>>> 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
>>> www.ogmios.org
>>> nostler at chibcha.demon.co.uk

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