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Global Psyche: The Name Game

Posted by Gregov on March 22nd, 2008

In the Philippines, quirky monikers stick—even government officials are fair game for nicknames.

By: Tara Bruno

The Philippines is a spirited place where locals don’t think twice about calling a 60-year-old businessman Honey Boy. Or a beloved male professor Tatay—basically, dear old dad. In fact, it’s perfectly acceptable (and not the least bit embarrassing) for Filipinos to take whimsical nicknames like Butterball, Boy Blue, or Pee-wee to the grave. "My cousin Kristina’s face looked like a perfect circle when she was born, so her nickname became Bilog, which means round," says Ruth Aniceto, originally from Quezon City. "Even though it doesn’t fit her anymore, she’ll always be Bilog."

On this archipelago comprising more than 7,000 islands, even government officials are fair game for nicknames. Former president Corazon Aquino was widely known as Tita Cory—Aunt Cory—when the people agreed with her policies. When they didn’t support her, they would call her Aling Cory, what one would call the old lady of the village.

And as if saying a name once just doesn’t cut it, nicknames are often repeated to create multimonikers like Len-Len or Ning-Ning. Also, parents tend to pick names for their children that all begin with the same letter or adhere to themes, such as a family of fruits (Cherry Pie, Peachie, Apple) or Greek philosophers (Aristotle, Socrates, Homer). The more creative, the better.

Nicknames are helpful just to tell everyone apart. The island nation was a longtime colony of Spain and still maintains a heavy dose of Spanish culture. Nearly all Filipinos are Catholic, and most are named after popular patron saints or religious figures. That’s a lot of Joses and Marias running around. "Since many of the same birth names are used, Filipinos want to instill individualism by finding the most unique name to identify a person," says Kathleen Angco-Vieweg, a professor of sociology at American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Nicknaming also helps cope with hard times. The Philippines has a history of poverty and political corruption and has suffered natural disasters ranging from landslides and floods to volcanic eruptions and typhoons.

The country was ranked the world’s most disaster-prone nation by the Brussels-based Center for Research and Epidemiology of Disasters. So Filipinos seek happiness in their intimate personal relationships. "It’s important for Filipinos to feel a sense of community, and giving a person a nickname makes you feel closer to that person," says Joi Barrios, a professor of Filipino literature and languages at the University of the Philippines.

Filipinos try to laugh in the face of adversity by strengthening their communal bonds. "We are fun-loving and creative by nature," says Karla Villarin, who moved from Manila to New York. "Giving each other nicknames is an outlet for us."

Greatest Hits

Some nicknames have become more popular than others. Here are a few Filipino favorites:

  • Bing
  • Binky
  • Bo
  • Boy
  • Ching
  • Cookie
  • Ding
  • Dong
  • Girlie
  • NeNe
  • Jun-Jun
  • Wee-Wee

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