Monthly Archives: February 2012

Chinese Orphans to Get Names That Don’t Set Them Apart


The number of orphans in China stands at about 100-thousand. That’s the official number. Some child advocacy groups believe it’s much higher than that.

Life can be extremely trying for orphans in China. There is, of course, the trauma of absence and rejection: not knowing who your parents are or why they abandoned you.

There is the difficulty of getting ahead in society. Some Chinese still believe that orphans bring bad luck, which makes it harder to find a good job or get into a good school or college.

And here’s the icing on the cake: your name gives you away. Local social welfare agencies are charged with naming orphans. And traditionally, they have given them names that amount to scarlet letters.

Your surname/family name is often a shortened version (Yu, Tong, Tian) of the city or county (Yujiang, Tonggu. Tianhe) where you were abandoned and found. Your given name may be overly patriotic (Party, State, Battleship) or refer to a recent event (Defy Earthquake).

These names sound weird in English. They sound weird in Chinese too, but in a different way.

There are about 100 popular surnames in use in China (Li, Zhang, Chen etc). Eyebrows are raised if you don’t have one of those. There are more given names—and these days more kids are given obscure, sometimes goofy names. But not ones that sound like communist or patriotic slogans.

Social welfare agencies in some regions have changed their naming protocols. They now give orphans ordinary Chinese names. But that’s not happening in all of China. So, according to the state-run China Daily, Beijing is stepping in with a plan to do away with orphan-branding names once and for all.

Also in the pod this week:

  • Swivet, upscuddle and other words in the new volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English.
  • Are linguistically stereotypical depictions of Asians making a comeback in the US? Exhibit A: Congressman Pete Hoekstra’s racially-charged” Yellowgirl” TV ad that ran during the Superbowl. Hoekstra caught so much flak for it that his campaign has tried to eradicate all traces of the ad and its supporting website. Thanks to Angry Asian Man, though, you can see the site archived here.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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The Perfect Love Song

Here’s a candidate for the perfect love song: Bravo Charlie by the Danish group Kliché.

Released in 1982, Bravo Charlie is heartfelt nonsense, profoundly meaningful and totally meaningless.

The first couple of times I heard it, without paying much attention to the lyrics, I thought it was an ode to a woman called Julia.

Then the penny—or the øre, this being Denmark—dropped.

The lyrics are comprised only of words contained in the NATO phonetic alphabet—Alpha, Bravo, Charlie etc. Also known as the NATO spelling alphabet, it’s used by armies, aviators and many others.

The song’s one indulgence is the chorus line, which is made up of two words: “Oh, Julia.” Julia—the presumed object of the singer’s affections—substitutes for the NATO alphabet’s Juliet.

Lyricists might find this limiting. No verbs, for one thing, except the noun/verbs echo, golf, tango and x-ray. But there are also words evoking love (Romeo, Juliet), dancing (tango, foxtrot), and travel (India, Lima, Zulu, hotel). Then there’s Papa, a complication in many narratives of young lovers. And whiskey. We all know where that leads.

Kliché use some but not all of these words. They seem more interested in the sounds of the words, strung together between choruses of plaintive cries of “Julia”.

In its own way, Bravo Charlie makes more sense than most love songs. That’s the brilliance of Kliché’s conceit. Plus, there’s a pleasing undulance to phrases like Echo x-ray papa kilo lima and Mike yankee tango India.

(All the other songs on Kliché’s album Okay Okay Boys are in Danish. Thirty years after it first came out, I still often listen to it, along with the group’s first album, Supertanker—also a post-punk classic.)

Other items in this podcast:

  • Writer Lisa Appignanesi on how the English word love covers a absurdly broad range of meanings. Other languages use more than one word for love’s many shades of meaning. Not English.
  • Reporter and US Peace Corps veteran Nina Porzucki on the mixed messages that can result when love strikes in the Peace Corps.
  • Attempts to expand modern opera beyond the usual emotions: love at first sight, irrational hatred and life after death.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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The Voice of Iran in Spanish

In early 2011, the BBC announced massive cuts in its foreign language services. We devoted an entire pod episode to that decision and its implications.

At the time, London-based journalism professor George Brock warned of an imminent deluge of government-run foreign language broadcast channels. That’s certainly playing out. The Chinese and Russian government-run TV companies have fast-growing foreign language services. China’s CCTV now broadcasts in English, French, Russian and Arabic. And the Kremlin’s mutilingual network RT, recently made a splash when it announced that it would broadcast a 10-part series interview show hosted by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

Now, Iran has got in on the act. In late January, it launched Hispan TV, a Spanish language service aimed at Latin America. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showed up at the launch, making it clear that there would be no arm’s length policy between the politicians and the journalists on this project. He even uttered a few Spanish words: “Viva España , viva America Latina.”  He also said, according to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting that Hispan TV “is expected to convey a message of peace, friendship and freedom for all human beings, and at the same time to block or squeeze ways through which the global arrogance tried to dominate others.”

Also in the pod this week:

  • The origins of an oft-used Hebrew expression to describe the segregation of women favored by some ultra-Orthodox Jews.
  • Scientists at UC Berkeley unveil technology that seeks to put words to our thoughts.
  • Why songs get stuck in our heads.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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