From Nancy Gandhi’s under the fire star:

In the Urdu alphabet, the short vowels are not written. So, if you read chaat you will see an ‘a’; but the letters ‘cht’ could be pronounced chat, chit or chut. Chat means ‘roof,’ but chut is a part of the female body. Once a friend of mine who was an Urdu teacher told me that in the school where he taught foreigners, one of the early reading tests always included the sentence, “When it is hot, I sleep on the roof.” Invariably, some poor sucker would read, “When it is hot, I sleep on the (female body part),” and all the teachers would snicker like little boys. I guess it shows that embarrassment is an excellent way to imprint something in one’s memory.


  1. When I was in Taiwan (I talk about my year and a half a lot here…. I really have to start travelling again) there was a legal case. A boy had a personal name which sounded like “a part of the female body” in one of the Chinese languages spoken in Taiwan. He applied for a name change, the judge turned him down, and he hanged himself. Bullying is as brutal in Taiwan as in Japan, I think. (Though as Frank Zappa told Ahmed, or maybe Dweezil or Moon Unit, if they’re going to tease you they’re going to tease you, regardless).
    I’ve told the story several times and now I’m trying to figure out which dialexcts they were. It’s hard to imagine anyone in Taiwan giving a kid that sounds bad in Mandarin, unless it was a very recent and uneducated arrival. Possibly a native Mandarin speaker could be ignorant of the Hokkien or Hakka version of the name.

  2. I think the latter must be the case. When I was in Taiwan (and I talk about it a lot too — let’s face it, it’s a fascinating place) hardly any Mandarin speakers botherered to learn the local dialect (which Kerim Friedman wants me to call Hoklo: Kerim, this is for you!), so I can easily see this happening. Still, the response seems over the top. (And if I were Dweezil, I’d have punched the old bastard out. I can’t stand people who take out their hip-dudity on their helpless offspring.)

  3. Embarrassment, and kids’ willingness to cause it, might be among the reasons why it’s so much more easy to get accentless in a foreign language as a child.

  4. Just off the top, the names Walter, Harold sort of, Wilbur, Elmer especially, Homer way especially, and more than a few others, depending on the ethnicity of the named and the social contexts in which they moved, could cause their bearers to be ridiculed in present-day “multiverse” America. And the forbearance of the naming parents in light of that potential ridicule means these names, most of them the echoes of real-life heroes, begin to die out.
    Not that Moon-Unit fits that diagram, but that the unfitness of a name and its malfunction as an abuse-magnet may have a lot more to do with pathology in the culture, rather than parental child-as-accoutrement fashionism.
    And out-punching seems a might severe, in any case.
    One thinks, fondly, of Ima Hogg, pride of Mineola, highly respected philanthropist, daughter of James Stephen Hogg, Governor of Texas.

  5. And Percy. Shelley. As well.

  6. I hate vowels. I’m trying to learn Korean and they all sound the same.

  7. Duckling — same with Mongol. They often write them the same too. They’re supposed to have long and short versions of five vowels, but only have three written forms.
    This proves that Mongol and Korean are closely related.

  8. Actually, it’s pronounced “chaati”, and means chest in Urdu (and Hindi, and Punjabi).

  9. Actually, it’s pronounced “chhat,” and means ‘roof.’

  10. Living as an expat in East Jerusalem, I struggled to learn Arabic and never succeeded, to my eternal shame. I still contend that the Arabic class I was in had a very bad atmosphere, and it never occurred to my callow self to seek tutoring. Anyway, everything seemed to mean something silly in Arabic if mispronounced or simply uttered. “Aaron” (the name) sounded like Airr-an (meaning, supposedly, “two dick”, though all I know is that something sounding like “Airr” meant “dick” in Arabic), and “kuss” (Deutsch) sounded like a word all who’ve spent any time in an Arab country will recall.
    Sadly, as I got through this comment, I realized my memories of mispronunciations in Arabic have been repressed and I can’t remember what they meant. But to redeem it, I learned the word “bint” as a normal nice Arabic word before it was picked up by English speakers as an insult, and it gave great puzzlement, and then amusement to see it in English usage. Strange, considering Arabic has nice, long, evocative cursing (though I always contended that English had a monopoly on the short, sharp and coarse ejaculation, so perhaps someone wanted an Arabic word that was short and harsh).

  11. Must add something to increase the relevance, a lot of mistakes came from not being able to see the vowels while reading Arabic, followed by laughter.

  12. Having grown up with the name Prentiss Arol Sumner Riddle, I nevertheless subscribe to the theory that unusual names help build character.
    And they have a further advantage in the age of Google. If I’m wrong this is no doubt the place to get shot down, but I think I’m still the only Prentiss Riddle on the net.

  13. I learned the word “bint” as a normal nice Arabic word before it was picked up by English speakers as an insult
    You learned it before mid-C19? Respec.

  14. jean-pierre says

    Where can one get sound files of the Urdu and Hindi names for the chaati, chhat, whatever? Am very interested in seeing some Sanskrit characters. I’ve seen Russian on some of the blogs. Does anyone know a blogger who puts both Roman alphabet and Hindi, or Hindi and Cyrillic, Bengali and English, etc.?
    I was delighted to get off work, from my new job with the State of Georgia, turn the key in the ignition of my pickup, turn on the radio, and hear Northern Indian/Pakistani hip-hop and other pop. I was rockin’ and groovin’ down the Interstate toward our cottage in sleepy onion country. Methinks I’m going to get serious about the Gujarati, since a good dozen or so families reside in my county.

  15. Marco: Ooh, yeah, I must really have not been paying attention when I wrote that. I just meant that I’d seen it in Arabic first, and then seen the English curse word. I didn’t realize I’d made any assumptions about its age in English. *color me embarrassed*

  16. I think unusual names are *wonderful*. Someone who is most likely related to my family found me through my website, because of the unusualness of my (our) last name. He’s Russian, so he transliterates it slightly differently, but it’s close enough. Unfortunately, I know no Russian, so the communication problem means we’ve been unable to determine whether our families are related or not.
    Michelle (Klishis)

  17. [abusive comment deleted]

  18. When studying Chinese I was surprised how often older female language instructors, who otherwise seemed to by paragons of “proper” behavior, would ask students if they liked “eating tofu.” Eating tofu is a euphamism for a sexual act, and they seemed to find it very funny to trick (male) students into admitting that they enjoyed doing it.
    PS: Thanks LH.

  19. eating tofu

    I’ve decided to look up what a/the classifier would be for a piece of tofu: Turns out it’s [t͡ɕo̞ː], but I was surprised to learn 豆腐に鎹:


    豆腐に鎹 • (tōfu ni kasugai)

    1. having no effect


    糠に釘 (nukanikugi)

    and the kasugai is the thingy illustrated here. 糠に釘 is another useful activity of nailing down some bran. Yet another efficient way to do things is 豆腐の角に頭をぶつけて死ね (tōfu no kado ni atama o butsukete shinu) ‘to die of bumping one’s head against the edge of tofu’.

  20. How did they get chō out of Middle Chinese teng?

  21. David Marjanović says

    Having grown up with the name Prentiss Arol Sumner Riddle, I nevertheless subscribe to the theory that unusual names help build character.

    Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson. Yup, that’s a character alright.

  22. David Marjanović says

    How did they get chō out of Middle Chinese teng?

    How about a Slightly Later Chinese [tjəŋ]? That, I imagine, could have become [tɕə̃ː] and eventually [tɕoː] in Japanese, but [tiŋ] in Mandarin.

  23. January First-of-May says

    Prentiss Aron Sumner Riddle sounds almost like the Mary Sue protagonist of some bad HP fanfic. But it would have to be “Summer”, I think.

  24. Trond Engen says

    Hey, I was going to work out the anagram!

  25. chō from teng is just usual Japanese monophthongization: /teŋ/ substituted as *teu, then > /tjoː/ > /tɕoː/ (perhaps with some further intermediates like [øw] > [øː]?).

  26. How did they get chō out of Middle Chinese teng?

    I suspect if you found it furigana’d in a pre-1945 text, it’d read teu.

  27. Thanks to both of you! Clearly I don’t know nearly enough about the history of Japanese.

  28. In general it seems to me that the changes †p > f/h-, -∅/w- and †au ou eu iu > ō ō yō yū (respectively) account for a majority of nontransparency in Sino-Japanese.

  29. David Marjanović says

    Ah, so [teŋ] was borrowed as [tew]. Makes more sense than my speculation would have.

  30. Go-on (呉音, Japanese pronunciation: [ɡo.oɴ],[note 1] “sounds from the Wu region”) are one of the several possible ways of reading Japanese kanji. They are based on the classical pronunciations of Chinese characters of the then-prestigious eastern Jiankang (now Nanjing) dialect.

    Go-on preceded the kan-on (漢音) readings. Both go-on and kan-on exhibit characteristics of Middle Chinese.

  31. Language, Writing and Literary Culture in the Sinographic Cosmopolis
    Series Editors: Ross King, David Lurie, and Marion Eggert
    Edited by Ross King, University of British Columbia, David Lurie, Columbia University and Marion Eggert, Ruhr-Universität Bochum
    The series will be of interest to anybody interested in questions of cosmopolitan and vernacular in the Sinographic Cosmopolis—specifically, with respect to questions of language, writing and literary culture, embracing both beginnings (the origins of and early sources for writing in the sinographic sphere) and endings (the disintegration of the Sinographic Cosmopolis in places like Korea, Japan and Vietnam, and the advent of linguistic modernity throughout all of the old Sinitic sphere. In addition, the series will feature comparative research on interactions and synergies in language, writing and literary culture in the Sinographic Cosmopolis over nearly two millennia, as well as studies of the ‘sinographic hangover’ in modern East Asia-critical and comparative assessments of the social and cultural history of language and writing and linguistic thought in modern and premodern East Asia.

  32. David Marjanović says

    Both go-on and kan-on exhibit characteristics of Middle Chinese.

    Basically go-on is from Early and kan-on from Late Middle Chinese, with the voice contrast of the former turned into the tone-system split of the latter.

  33. Language, Writing and Literary Culture in the Sinographic Cosmopolis

    That looks to be a great series.

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