Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What's in a (presidential candidate's) name?

Unlike Western names, Chinese names have meanings that are (in general) obvious and out in front. Take my name, Benjamin. It means "son of my right hand," but most people don't know that.
Then take a Chinese name, like 毛泽东 (mao2 ze2 dong1). So the surname comes first, and while these all have meaning (in Mao's case 'hair'), I suppose they are just considered a name, like Smith. Nobody thinks of a Smith as a smith. But the given name in this case, 泽东, means "beneficence to the East."
Now, of course, (if he were just a normal guy) people wouldn't go around thinking of him as Hairy Beneficence to the East. They would just think of him as "Old Mao," or "Zedong." But still, the name is made of words that are used in the language as it exists today. In other words, the names are not based on Latin or Aramaic or whatever, so that the meaning is lost on most people. The meaning is right there in your face.
Having said that, (now there's a weird expression. Of course I said that.), anyway, that being said, (ibid), ahem. In the case of foreign names, things get tricky. In the next few posts, I will deconstruct for you, dear reader, the names of the U.S. presidential candidates (technically 'hopefuls') as they appear in the Chinese media.

1) Mysterious Sticky Horse
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is referred to in Chinese as 奥巴马 (Ao1 Ba1 Ma3), which is a 3-character transliteration of just his last name "Obama." That is a theme (with some exceptions) in the transliteration of Western names. It's handy to do that, because then his name has three words in it (like a Chinese name, usually), and it is easily readable for people. Otherwise the name would be long and cumbersome to read.
Here is Obama's name, broken down into its separate characters:
: "Ao" means "obscure or mysterious." It is also a phonetic word that is used in foreign sounding words, like "Olympics" or "Austria."
: "Ba" is another word that is usually used as a syllable in transliterations. But the top meaning in the online Xinhua Chinese dictionary is "something sticky, like mud or 'guo ba' (that rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot)"
: "Ma" simply means "horse." Pretty straightforward. Also used commonly in transliterations.
So, in sum, Obama is referred to in the Chinese media as the "Mysterious Sticky Horse." Interpret that as you will.
Tune in tomorrow (or whenever I get to it) for more presidential pun-ishment!
NEXT: John McCain and Hillary Clinton...

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