query: sarcastic antonymic nicknames (& negative face in Andalusia)

Harry Howard howard at TULANE.EDU
Thu Nov 26 17:30:28 UTC 2009

Dear David Gil,

In "The People of the Sierra", 2e (1971), Julian Pitt-Rivers devotes  
chap. 11 to the use of nicknames in the town in which he did  
ethnographic fieldwork (Grazalema, Cádiz, Spain) during the early  
1950s. To make a long story short, everyone has a nickname. Many are  
less than flattering and go well beyond just the antonymic ones you  
mention. Pitt-Rivers says of these:

The nickname is one of the way in which the sanctions of the community  
operate. An ugly nickname is very much resented, even though it may  
never be used in the owner's presenceso the pueblo, through the  
imposition of a nickname, castigates the non-conformist in a way which  
permits the individual neighbor to remain guiltless of the offense of  
rudeness." (p. 168-9)

Enrique Luque Baena, in his study of a village in the province of  
Granada, "Estudio antropológico social de un pueblo del Sur" (1974)  
says in a similar vein:

ridiculizar comportamientos, actitudes e incluso rasgos físicos es de  
hecho uno de los cauces más poderosos para conseguir la conformidad  
con las normas sociales y con los patrones culturales (p. 156)

(to ridiculize behaviors, attitudes and even physical features is in  
fact one of the most powerful channels to achieve conformity with  
social norms and cultural patterns. -- HH)

To my mind, this brings up the notion of politeness. About all I know  
about politeness I learned from this Wikipedia page, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politeness_theory 
 >, but with that grain of salt, the 'sarcastic/ironic' nicknames that  
interest you and seem to be (used to be?) so common in rural Andalusia  
would be analyzed as negative-face threatening acts: "Negative face is  
threatened when an individual does not avoid or intend to avoid the  
obstruction of their interlocutor's freedom of action". That is to  
say, the community desires to obstruct someone's freedom of action  
(that of someone who transgresses a norm), but does so in a round- 
about way, so as to not threaten his or her negative face directly.

Thus to look for correlations with other social factors, one would  
have to look for ways that communities deal with how attempts at  
social control can lead to threats against negative face.

By the way, a search of the MLA International bibliography turned up  
several hundred hits for 'nickname', but unfortunately it does not  
give abstracts so it was hard to tell what the first few were about.  
In any event, a crosslinguistic/crosscultural study of nicknames would  
appear to be an excellent dissertation topic.


On Nov 24, 2009, at 9:57 AM, David Gil wrote:

> 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 Nickname.
> 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.
> Thanks,
> David
> -- 
> 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/

Harry Howard, Associate Professor
Dept. of Spanish & Portuguese
Sociocognitive Robotics Lab (442 Newcomb Hall)
Program in Cognitive Studies
Program in Latin American Studies
Program in Linguistics, Acting Director
Program in Neuroscience

My schedule is available on my homepage:

Skype name: hdhoward
voice: +504-862-3417
fax:   +504-862-8752

Dept. of Spanish & Portuguese
322-D Newcomb Hall
Tulane University
New Orleans, LA  70118-5698, USA

"Skeptics are neither cynics nor spoilsports. They do not carry  
stunted genes for wonder and awe. We are awash in wonder and awe. It  
is just that we prefer being awed by the truly awesome and to wonder  
at the truly wonderful. We aren't interested in wasting our time on  
the artificial, the phony, and the illusory. The defining  
characteristic of skeptics, the diagnostic field mark, is not the  
absence of wonder and awe, it is the refusal to go off half-cocked."

Eirik A.T. Blom, Seeking the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

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