Male aunty

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Joel Martinsen came across this snapshot a couple of days ago:


Here's the story

The sign says:

Zhāopìn
Zuòfàn āyí
(Nánnǚ bù xiàn)

  招 聘
做饭阿姨
(男女不限)

Help Wanted
Cook Aunty
(Male or female)

Baidu Fanyi translates the last line more literally as "not limited to men and women".

We've been grappling with gender a lot lately, and it looks like we have more gender bending going on here.

The key term is āyí 阿姨 ("aunt; auntie; aunty; nurse[maid]"). The first syllable is a noun prefix designating terms of relationship; the second syllable contains the semantic core of the word — note that the character used to write this syllable has the female radical.

Chinese families often hire an āyí 阿姨 ("aunty") to help with the children, but many of the āyí 阿姨 that I encountered in China served primarily as cooks for the families where they were employed. In this case, it is fairly clear that cooking duties are being emphasized.

But wait a minute! What about the last line, which declares that this "cook aunty" can be either male or female (or maybe even something else!)? It would appear that āyí 阿姨 ("aunty") is losing its gender designation in China, so for many people it no longer sounds strange to think of a "male aunty".

It's no stranger than to speak of a "male nurse", though I must confess that, when I was young and first heard that expression, I felt confused. Similarly, it took me a while to get used to the fact that stewardesses could be male (never mind that "stewardess" is obviously the femininization of "steward"). See: "'Male stewardess' just didn't fly". More generally, see also this Wikipedia article on "Gender marking in job titles".

[Thanks to Rebecca Fu, Jing Wen, and Cheng Fangyi]

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25 Comments »

  1. Victor Mair said,

    April 11, 2014 @ 9:22 pm

    Of course, we could translate āyí 阿姨 here as "nanny" instead of as "aunt" or "aunty", and that might sound a bit less jarring. "Nanny", however, is just as rooted in feminine origins as is "aunt; aunty". That, of course, is entirely natural, since, in the past, this kind of job was normally associated with women.

    The reason the people who put up the sign did not use chúshī 厨师 ("cook; chef") is probably because the latter term refers to someone who is professionally trained in the culinary arts. Zuòfàn āyí 做饭阿姨 simply means a nanny who is responsible for cooking.

  2. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 11, 2014 @ 9:49 pm

    The word "ayi" is all over the BJ expat literature. It is interesting that Hong Kong expat English uses "amah" instead (well, at least in the guidebooks – I don't know how many expats actually say that word – and this discrepancy is interesting in and of itself). However, "amah" is not Cantonese. The word "amah" is of Anglo-Indian origin, and there does not seem to be a similar-sounding Cantonese equivalent. (The ABC dictionary for Mandarin has the word 阿母, but Cantonese speakers do not use it, at least not in this meaning.)

    As for Cantonese expressions denoting "domestic helper", there are (at least):
    • 賓妹 (ban1mui1): derogatory, specific to the Philippines
    • 菲傭 (fei1jung4): specific to the Philippines
    • 印傭 (jan3jung4): specific to Indonesia
    • 家庭傭工 (gaa1ting4jung4gung1): formal

    As for 賓妹, compare our very recent discussion of 老外.

    (There are also the generic expressions 工人(gung1jan4) and (vocative) 阿姐 (aa3ze1).)

  3. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 11, 2014 @ 10:00 pm

    I should add some facts to give proper context: 1. Chinese HKers neither use nor know the word "amah". 2. Last time I checked, the Philippines and Indonesia were the countries ranking highest wrt national origin of domestic helpers in HK. 3. The question of the proper term of address is related to the power dynamics and the social situation of domestic helpers in HK. This is a complex topic, and it has to do with immigration regulations. Anti-Philippine xenophobic sentiment was running high after the Manila hostage crisis in 2010.

  4. julie lee said,

    April 12, 2014 @ 12:48 am

    @Stephen Stiller,
    I'm surprised that "amah" is not Cantonese. I always presumed it was. "A-" (pronounced "ah") is a Cantonese prefix similar in meaning to the suffix "-y" for names in English, as in Kitty, Tommy, Betsy, Mickey.
    So if one's name ends with the character "maan", or "luk", or "choy", you'd be called Ah Maan, Ah Luk, Ah Choy, and so on, just as we call people Tommy, Davy, Suzy, etc.
    I lived in India for a while, in Bengal, and we called the nanny or maid "the ayah". Our family had an ayah named Sakina.

  5. julie lee said,

    April 12, 2014 @ 12:59 am

    My five-year-old grandson in London needed a nanny and we got a male nanny for him. The male nanny was a young rock musician, the brother of a friend of ours. He wanted to take the nanny job for the summer. He was a very conscientious nanny and the boy took to him right away. He worked as the boy's male nanny for several summers. We felt fortunate to have a male nanny for the boy.

  6. Martin J Ball said,

    April 12, 2014 @ 7:50 am

    I think a male nanny should be called a manny …. ;)

  7. John Roth said,

    April 12, 2014 @ 10:31 am

    @Martin

    Granted sticking man- on the front of words that are typically feminine is currently fashionable, you might want to read this rant from The Atlantic about the trend: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/04/the-problem-with-man-bag-and-other-man-words/359830/

  8. errorr said,

    April 12, 2014 @ 10:33 am

    The Indian Ayah is a loanword from Portuguese that comes from Grandmother/Aunt that also means domestic helper. I wonder if Ayi was the same word that came through Macau.

    It also makes me wonder if many of the words for nanny/nurse/maid/domestic helper often come from a languages word for some close female relative. I'm pretty sure the vast majority of societies had close female relatives gill these roles and it would seem natural that the words were first just versions of "hired female relative". It would show how societal evolution and development exerted the same change on many disperate languages.

  9. julie lee said,

    April 12, 2014 @ 10:35 am

    @Martin J Ball,
    Great idea. I forgot to say that when the five-year-old saw his manny for the first time, he started right away to skip around and box him like a boxer. And later on they would engage in mock boxing bouts and mock wrestling. The boy never had such fun with his regular nannies.

  10. julie lee said,

    April 12, 2014 @ 11:22 am

    @errorr,
    Thanks on Ayah. The word for Grandpa in Ningpo topolect is Ayah (阿 爺, Ah Yeh in Mandarin), Ye/Yeh爺 is a name for grandfather, Ah is a term of affection. Once I read about a telephone call Madame Chiang Kai-shek made in her old age to her sister, Madame Sun Yat-sen, who was a revered figure in Communist China whom Madame Chiang hadn't seen for several decades. She spoke in Shanghainese and addressed Madame Sun, her older sister, as "Ah Jie" (meaning "Ah Elder Sister" or "Dear Elder Sister" or "Darling Eldler Sister"). I found it touching that one exalted old lady would still address another exalted old lady this way.
    Ayi 阿姨 means "aunty"(yi 姨 is mother's sister). I don't know if it comes from Macau, but it isn't Portuguese, if that's what you are wondering about .
    Just a few explanations, in case you are interested: Ayi means "young aunty" and can be applied as a courteous affectionate form of address to any woman not related to you, even if the woman is old. It is more intimate, less formal, than other words that also mean "Aunty", such as Yima or Guma. Yi means mother's sister, Gu means father's sister, and "Yima" or "Guma" can be applied to any older, married, woman unrelated to you, as a courteous form of address. Ma means "Ma", as in English . Bemu and Shenmu also mean "Auntie", but on the father's side. Mu means "mother". Bemu is the wife of your father's older brother, Shenmu is the wife of your father's younger brother.

  11. Max said,

    April 12, 2014 @ 2:03 pm

    As a child, I was confused and amused to learn that nurses in South Africa are addressed as "Sister [NAME]", whether male or female… and when one doesn't address them by name, one calls a male nurse "Mister Sister" (my mother worked as a hospital pharmacist, and I heard her utter this phrase one day when I went to see her at work)

  12. hanmeng said,

    April 12, 2014 @ 7:00 pm

    In Taiwan, they're generally known as 歐巴桑 (ōubāsāng), from Japanese おばさん. Is that what they'd be called in Japan?

    Also, I want to make a joke about 歐巴馬.

  13. Movenon said,

    April 12, 2014 @ 9:26 pm

    Cantonese uses the word 阿嫲 (a mȁ) to mean grandmother. So while I'm not sure as to whether amah also happens to be of Portuguese/other origin or not, it has been at least reanalyzed as this word for grandmother. 嫲嫲 (mȁmȁ) means the paternal grandmother, equivalent to Standard Mandarin 奶奶.

    Taiwanese Hokkien also has amah, though it is usually written as 阿嬷. Hakka and Teochew also have it.

  14. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 12, 2014 @ 10:07 pm

    » Movenon

    阿嫲: aa3maa4, and note how 嫲 is a character which is used in Cantonese but not Mandarin. [What system of tone mark annotations were you using?]
    嫲嫲: maa4maa4

    Note that 阿嫲 specifically means "paternal grandmother". The maternal grandmother is 外婆 (ngoi6po4) or 阿婆 (aa3po4).

    Note also the existence of the two words 阿媽 (aa3maa1) and 媽媽 (maa4/maa1 maa1) for "mother" and the fact that the differences to the above are purely tonal (ie: we have segmental identity).

    As for the origins of the HK-English word "amah", the book "Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Migrant Workers" (Nicole Constable; 2e, pp 52ff) has some speculation (Portuguese? Chinese?). I took my information from the OED, but it may very well be the case that this particular regional usage comes from elsewhere.

  15. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 12, 2014 @ 10:13 pm

    PS: What I meant in my very first post was that I am not aware of something like 阿嫲 (aa3maa4) being permissible in the meaning "domestic helper" ("amah").

  16. julie lee said,

    April 12, 2014 @ 11:12 pm

    I looked up Baidu on the internet, and it gives (in Chinese):
    ”(old Chinese) 嬤嬤 momo (2nd tone Mandarin) meaning
    ”1) granny; 2) mother; 3) old woman; wet nurse“.
    My laptop dictionary gives the pronunciation "mama" for the same characters 嬤嬤.

    In the novel Hong Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber) , 嬤嬤momo, mama occurs a lot. I gather from the context that it means "nanny" , "mother", or "granny" , referring to an old female servant or wet-nurse.

    When I was a child and went to a Catholic school in Hong Kong (Kowloon) run by Italian nuns, my family called nuns 嬤嬤momo (first tone, Mandarin). I believe it meant "Mother", as the nuns were called "Mother Teresa", "Mother Agnes", "Mother Josephine", etc. But the first tone may come from Shanghainese, as my parents first became acquainted with Catholic nuns in Shanghai.

    So it would seem that the English word "amah" comes from Chinese (Cantonese or Shanghainese etc.) ama 阿媽 or ama 阿嫲, 阿嬤meaning "mother", "granny", or "nanny", which, aside from their literal meanings, are used as courtesy designations for a domestic helper, nanny, or wet-nurse. .

  17. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 13, 2014 @ 1:10 am

    @ julie lee

    If 嬤 is indeed the "term of endearment meaning 'little mother'" mentioned in the book reference I gave, the two potential origins of "amah" given there would be 阿嬤 ("common name prefix" 阿-, as attached to 嬤) and 奶媽 (wet nurse).

    But we don't actually know whether aa3maa1 or aa3maa4 were used in Cantonese in that meaning, because they are presently not. The examples you give in your first three paragraphs don't use 阿- (aa3-). Interestingly the book states (p. 52):

    Amah is not often used when speaking Chinese but has long been used by Chinese who speak English and by English speakers in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia.

    Later (p. 53):

    Editorials in Hong Kong's English-language newspapers sometimes use the term amah to refer to Chinese and foreign domestic workers, but it is also applied more specifically to Chinese women who received wages for their household labor as opposed to muijai. Amah may loosely refer to any woman domestic worker, but most foreign women in Hong Kong do not like to be called amahs and claim it refers only to Chinese women.

    (By "muijai", 妹仔 is meant.)

  18. julie lee said,

    April 13, 2014 @ 10:19 am

    @Stephen Stiller, re. the English word "amah":
    @Movenon wrote above:
    "Cantonese uses the word 阿嫲 (a mȁ) to mean grandmother. … 嫲嫲 (mȁmȁ) means the paternal grandmother, equivalent to Standard Mandarin 奶奶.
    "Taiwanese Hokkien also has amah, though it is usually written as 阿嬷. Hakka and Teochew also have it."

    So Cantonese has 嫲嫲(mama) "paternal grandmother" and 阿嫲 (ama) " grandmother", written 阿嬷 (ama) in Taiwanese Hokkien, also found in Hakka and Teochew.

    Since Baidu gives 嬤嬤(momo) in older Chinese (gu hanyu) meaning "granny","mother", "old woman", "wet-nurse", and we know that 阿 is a term of endearment, I infer that
    阿嫲 (ama), also written 阿嬷 (ama) "grandmother" in Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, or Teochew, was used also as a courteous designation for a nanny, wet-nurse, or child-minder.
    English "nanny" is now generally used to mean "child-minder", but Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online) also gives "other meaning" as "grandmother". When I was a school-girl, I always understood "nanny" as "granny". I learned the meaning "childminder" later. I recall reading English stories or novels in which old women of the lower or servant class being addressed as "Nanny" (grandmother) or "Granny" as a courteous form of address. We know from "Downton Abbey" and other sources that in England, as in China (and probably other countries too), there were courteous forms of address for servants, that in many English houses, for instance, housekeepers and nannies were given the courtesy title of "Mrs." and were addressed as "Mrs." so and so even though they were unmarried.

  19. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 13, 2014 @ 11:57 am

    @ julie lee

    What I mean is that, while it's possible (and it's certainly plausible), the explanatory gap is that if "amah" was used in Cantonese in that meaning, this term later fell out of use (for unknown reasons) and there are alternative origins of the term. So specifically I disagree not with the possibility of your explanation (which is what I would likely postulate in the absence of any other potential origins of the term myself), but with your wording "are used as courtesy designations for a domestic helper [etc] [in Cantonese]" (ea). Btw, as for my original comment ("there does not seem to be a similar-sounding Cantonese equivalent", ea), I had in mind that ABC glosses 阿母 as "〈topo.〉 ① mother ② wet nurse" (ea) [in Cantonese this would be aa3mou5, but note that it's unclear which topolect this would be from], while the various segmental "aa-maa" don't presently allow a child-minder meaning.
    [I always write: eo = "emphasis in the original"; ea = "emphasis added"; er = "emphasis removed"]

  20. Anna Johnson said,

    April 13, 2014 @ 1:09 pm

    AMAH is actually derived from Arabic AMAT- "female slave" > "wetnurse, nanny". It spread along the trade routes.

  21. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 13, 2014 @ 1:49 pm

    I was wondering whether the use of 'nanny' to mean 'childminder' derived from its use to mean 'grandmother'. It may be significant that until quite recently (mid 20th century, I guess) 'nanny' was mainly used as an informal title for someone who looked after children, rather than a descriptive term; children would address her as 'nanny' and say 'nanny says…' , etc., but the straightforward word for someone who did that job was 'nurse'. ('Nurse' could of course also mean someone who looks after the sick, but that could be expanded to 'hospital nurse' to avoid ambiguity.)

  22. julie lee said,

    April 13, 2014 @ 7:24 pm

    @Stephen Stiller, @Anna Johnson, @Andrew (not the same one):
    Yes, Merriam-Webster Dictionary online says "amah" comes from Portuguese meaning wet-nurse, and that it comes from Middle Latin.
    Arabic AMAT- "female slave" > "wet nurse, nanny" is also close in sound and meaning to "amah",
    and I find in the online Iciba 愛詞霸 dictionary for the Teochew topolect of China that
    ama 阿媽 means "grandmother" "amah—maid-servant, wet-nurse in India and East Asia".
    "Nanny" in English also means grandmother, so I thought "amah" came from Chinese ama 阿媽“grandmother", "maid-servant, wet-nurse" , but it may well have come from Portuguese. .Teochew–Chaozhou潮州 (in Mandarin)—in Guangdong Province was a great commercial port frequented by Arabs as well as Portuguese. A grad student from Chaozhou told me it has a a wonderful museum of the historical sea-trade.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    April 14, 2014 @ 4:13 pm

    From a colleague:

    =====

    …a term that is plainly derogatory as a job title for house maid — laomazi (老妈子,lit., old mom), which is officially banned after 1949, and many house masters (esp. when they were well-educated or benevolent) avoided using this term even before 1949. Sometime, people use this term as a self-humiliating term such as in this sentence: "Why are you telling me to do this and that — I'm not your laomazi, and even a laomazi doesn't have to do so many things!" Or, "You are not treating me as your wife — you are treating me as your laomazi!"

    =====

  24. Peter Peverelli said,

    April 16, 2014 @ 2:40 am

    Perhaps we can say that meaning of the word ayi is moving towards 'au-pair'. That term is also primarily perceived as a female position, but the word is gender neutral.
    Au-pair is defined as 'a domestic assistant from a foreign country working for, and living as part of, a host family'. An Ayi in present day China is a person (yes, usually a woman) from the countryside seeking employment by an urban family to do domestic chores.
    In my research on migrant entrepreneurs in Chinese cities, we found that models developed for migrant (foreign) entrepreneurs in Western Europe can be applied to migrant (countryside) entrepreneurs in big Chinese cities.
    This seems to justify translating ayi as used in this sign as 'au-pair'.

  25. Fluxor said,

    April 17, 2014 @ 1:41 am

    For formal uses, Cantonese speakers also employ the terms 工人 (denotes generic household help, much like 阿姨) or 保姆 (nanny).

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