summary: Humorous Antonymic Nicknames

David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Sun Nov 29 21:50:57 UTC 2009

Dear all

Last week I posted a query on Sarcastic Antonymic Nicknames (reproduced 
at the bottom of this message).  Following is a summary of the responses.

Many respondents offered a wide range of phenomena akin to but not 
exactly fitting the bill of what I was looking for.  Among such related 
phenomena are (a) denigrating or "negative-face threatening" nicknames; 
(b) names or nicknames involving negative characteristics that are given 
to ward off the evil eye that may or may not end up being antonymic; (c) 
names or nicknames involving positive characteristics that are given in 
the hope that they will turn out to be true and which may or may not end 
up being antonymic; (d) kinship term address inversion, where, say, a 
grandfather addresses his grandson as "(little) grandfather".  Some 
respondents, however, convinced me that the phenomenon I was interested 
in does not necessarily involve sarcasm; rather, the necessary 
additional ingredient is, more generally, some kind of humour.  As a 
result, I redefined the scope of the query as involving Humorous 
Antonymic Nicknames.

Following is a summary of the robust and uncontroversial data points 
that came out of the query, restricted to Humorous Antonymic Nicknames 

Languages WITH Humorous Antonymic Nicknames

English (British, Australian, American), German, Swedish, Italian 
(Roman, Sicilian), Russian, Arabic (Syrian/Lebanese/Palestinian), Roon 
[SHWNG, Austronesian], Bardi [Australian], Beaver [Athabascan]

Languages WITHOUT Humorous Antonymic Nicknames

Japanese, Minangkabau, Besemah [Malayic, Austronesian], Indonesian 
(Riau, Jakarta), Javanese, Makassarese

Not enough data for a WALS-style world map, unfortunately.  But still, I 
would suggest the following modest geographical conclusions:

(a) As suggested by Roon, Bardi and Beaver, the phenomenon of Humorous 
Antonymic Nicknames is not peculiar to Europe;

(b) Impressionistically, however, the richness of data from European 
languages, specifically English, more specifically Australian English, 
struck me as possibly exceeding the built-in European bias of the 
LINGTYP readership (and the prominence of linguistic typology in 
Australia), suggesting a possible areal hotbed for the phenomenon in 
that part of the world;

(c) The absence of Humorous Antonymic Nicknames in western Indonesia was 
confirmed, and a possible extension of the isogloss to include Japan 
suggested.  The obvious question that this raises is what about mainland 
Southeast Asia.  Unfortunately, a similar query on the SEALANG list drew 
not a single response.

Finally, I couldn't resist choosing my favourite example from all the 
data that you provided.  The winner is ...

Viktor Friedman, who writes: "my great aunt and uncle, who were native 
speakers of Russian, had a cat named Sobaka [dog] and a dog named Kotka 

Thanks to:

Anvita Abbi, Elena Bashir, Jonathan David Bobaljik, Claire Bowern, 
Bernard Comrie, Tom Conners, Östen Dahl, Nick Enfield, Erni Farida Sri 
Ulina Ginting, Viktor Friedman, Spike Gildea, Dolgor Guntsetseg, Alice 
Harris, Jeffrey Heath, Heri Mudra, Paul Hopper, Harry Howard, Giorgio 
Iemmolo, Anthony Jukes, Siva Kalyan, Suzanne Kemmer, Bradley McDonnell, 
Dalan Mehuli, Mike Morgan, Samia Naïm, Nicholas Ostler, Midori Osumi, 
Bill Palmer, Ludwig Paul, Frans Plank, Viktor Raskin, Jan Rijkhoff, 
Elisa Roma, Santi Kurniati, Gabriele Schwiertz, Singgih Sugiarto, Andrew 
J. Spencer, Leon M.H. Stassen, Jess Tauber, Hannu Tommola, Peter 
Trudgill, Rebecca Voll, Jan Wohlgemuth, Yessy Prima Putri


The original query:

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.



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

More information about the Lingtyp mailing list