Haba: mysterious Mandarin morpheme for "pug"

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There's a town called Hǎbātún 奤夿屯 (where tún 屯 means "village, hamlet; camp; station") in Chāngpíng qū 昌平区 ("Changping District") of Beijing.  The name sounds odd and the first two characters are unusual.  It is said to date back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) when it was a Mongol military encampment.  Southerners supposedly referred to the Mongols as "hǎbā".

I've also often wondered about the origin of the name "hǎbagǒu 哈巴狗" (where gǒu 狗 means "dog"), which is the Chinese name for "pug" (it is also called bāgēquǎn 巴哥犬 [where bāgē 巴哥 literally means "ba brother" and quǎn 犬 is another word for "dog"]).  Is it possible that the hǎba 哈巴 of hǎbagǒu 哈巴狗 is related to the Hǎbā 奤夿 of Hǎbātún 奤夿屯?

奤 is not listed among the 9,933 highest frequency characters.

It has the following pronunciations:

— large / huge / immense / enormous face

— used in some place names

tǎi, as in tǎizi 奤子 (already from the Ming period [1368-1644] with both of the following meanigs —

a. pejorative local term for a person who is obese and whose movements are clumsy

b. old derogatory term used by southerners for northerners

The two parts of the 奤 character are dà 大 ("big") and miàn 面 ("face").  For whatever reason(s), 奤 has become popular on the internet recently.

夿 is also not listed among the 9,933 highest frequency characters.  So far as I can tell, however, people do not seem to be having as much fun with this character as they are with 奤.

Just as "pug" sounds right for the English name of the dog (from 1749), though the origin of this term is uncertain, so does this odd word "haba" sound appropriate as the Chinese word for this cute, little canine.

I wanted to test my hypothesis that the name of the dog, hǎbagǒu 哈巴狗, may somehow be linked to the word hǎbā 奤夿, so I asked three specialists on Mongolian language and history their opinions on "haba".

Juha Janhunen:

Yes, for the moment I can only think of the word haba 'dog'. This is a word commonly used in the languages of the Sino-Tibetan border region, that is: NW Mandarin, Amdo Tibetan and the Turkic and Mongolic languages of the region. It normally refers mainly to small and friendly dogs. I do not know from what language it originates, but I suppose this word could easily have been transferred to Peking by Chinese speaking Hui Moslems. I never heard of it being used of Mongols, however.

Timothy May:

As a matter of fact, there is a Mongolian word Xaba, khaba, or qaba  (depending on how you like your transliteration), that means little dog.  Xab can also be the sound of a dog snapping at something.

See Ferdinand Lessing, Mongolian-English Dictionary, p. 895.

Chris Atwood:

Hǎbagǒu 哈巴狗 is definitely from Mongolian qaba "pug dog" (variant spelling, qab, modern khaw with same meaning). It's found today in modern combinations such as Beejin khaw "Pekinese" or Dalain khaw "seal" (lit. "pug dog of the sea"). The latter seems to be the origin of the Kalmyk khaw, which means just "seal." Manchu has kabari, which is the same root, but with the plural suffix -ri (cf. old Jurchen singge and later Jurchen & Manchu singgeri  "rat"). The origin of the word seems to be onomatopoeic, since qab kib in Mongolian or kab kib in Manchu is a phrase for "yapping" or the barking of small dogs. In modern Mongolian, the sound of dogs barking is also written khaw khaw.  I have not found any attestation of qaba in Middle Mongolian, but its presence in Kalmyk and Manchu puts it back at least in the seventeenth century, and probably well before.

About Hǎbātún 奤夿屯, while I suppose it is possible that Southerners termed Mongols as qaba, I think it's much more likely that the name came from the area being inhabited by Mongol princes who kept qaba or pug dogs, and hence was called that by other Mongols and/or bannermen. Hǎbātún 奤夿屯 might be Yuan era, I think it's more likely to be a Qing-era term. It's found in the Qing shi gao*, but not in any easily searchable Yuan-era source — if it is  Yuan era, it would provide proof of qaba in Middle Mongolian.

*Qīngshǐ gǎo 清史稿 (Draft history of the Qing Dynasty [1644-1912])

Here are some other ways to write the morpheme "haba" as it is applied to pugs:

獬[犭+八].  Note that the semantophore of both characters is the canine radical.  The first character is usually pronounced xiè and is part of the name of the fabulous xièzhì 獬豸 ("goat of justice")  For references, see "Year of the ovicaprid" (2/15/15).  This writing of "haba" exists from the Ming period (1368-1644).

哈叭. From the Yuan period (1271-1368).

哈巴, usually with the diminutive suffix ér 兒.  The initial syllable may then be elided and gǒu 狗 is stuck back on at the end as baergǒu 巴兒狗 ("sycophant, lackey; Pekingese")

It's obvious that the sound of "haba" is far more important than its Sinographic form.

And this captivating little creature is also sometimes referred to as shīzigǒu 獅子狗 (lit., "lion dog"), but then it gets mixed up with other small dog breeds, and I don't want to go there.  Nor do I want to go into the Tocharian origin of shīzi 獅子 ("lion") here, except to say that it tells a very interesting story of linguistic and cultural transmission stretching back two millennia.

Pug — adorable little dog with a big, round face:  hǎbagǒu 哈巴狗.

[h.t. Jinyi Cai]


  1. Neil Dolinger said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 11:26 am

    In reading the opinions of your correspondents that "haba" may have been a borrowing from surrounding Mongolian or Turkic languages, I began to wonder about the etymology of gǒu 狗. It has always seemed strange to me that Chinese has a radical that means "dog", and that this word survives as quǎn 犬, yet 狗 is the word used for "dog" throughout China today (I think you may have said that 犬 is still the word used in Min areas). Could 狗 have also been borrowed from the same Mongolian or Turkic source?

  2. JB said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 11:53 am

    I was kind of hoping you'd regale us with tales of Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi and her army of Pekingese…

  3. Victor Mair said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 12:26 pm

    From a German friend:

    A pug is a MOPS inGerman, but a Rollmops is a piece of cured herring rolled up with pickle and onion.

    I made my only pug acquaintance when Dad and I had our once a year dinner at an elegant restaurant in Wienhausen (fabulous 11th Cent. monastery, church and park) and a sweet older pug followed his equally old mistress and obediently sat under the table. I must have done something "nice" to or for the dog, because the following year, and five more years after that, each time the lady entered, her dog would seek me out and come over to greet me sweetly. One year while she was passing near our table I commented how unusual I found it for a dog to remember from year to year. She then thought that Dad and I were frequent customers and was bowled over when I said we merely celebrated my annual visit from the US. To that she replied that she comes there "at most once a year" and was amazed over the coincidence of being there for years at the same time.

  4. flow said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 2:13 pm

    ⿰犭八 is in Unicode as U+2471e: 獬𤜞

  5. Doc Rock said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 3:33 pm

    БАХ-ийн нохой [Bakh-een nokhoi] is pug dog in Modern Khalkha Mongolian.

  6. Stephen Hart said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 4:32 pm

    Just coincidence?

    tún 屯 "village, hamlet; camp; station"

    town; Old English tūn ‘enclosed piece of land, homestead, village,’ of Germanic origin; related to Dutch tuin ‘garden’ and German Zaun ‘fence.’

  7. Jean-Michel said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 6:16 pm

    It has always seemed strange to me that Chinese has a radical that means "dog", and that this word survives as quǎn 犬, yet 狗 is the word used for "dog" throughout China today (I think you may have said that 犬 is still the word used in Min areas).

    Well, it's the only such character–豬 "pig" contains 豕 "pig," 眼 "eye" contains 目 "eye," and those more fluent/literate in Chinese can probably name some others.

  8. Jean-Michel said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 10:15 pm

    *not the only such character

  9. Wolfgang Behr said,

    March 29, 2017 @ 3:44 am

    For what it is worth, Chen Gang's wonderful _Dictionary of the Beijing Dialect_ (陈刚, 《北京方言词典》,北京:商务印书馆 1985) does not derive the word from Mongol хабa (khaba) 'pug' but from "halban" (i.e. халбаг-а(н)), 'spoon; the knob on a flag staff; bobber (in fishing)' (~Lessing) with a question mark and lists a few more orthographies of the compund:

    哈叭狗 ha4bagou3
    獬狗 xie4bagou3
    猈狗 hao1pi2gou3
    猲猈狗 he4pi2gou3
    狗 ha4bagou3

    The spoon/knob etymology would explain such expressions as 哈巴腿儿 ha4batue3r 'bow-legged' (German 'O-beinig'), 'to walk with bow-legged' derivied from the same root. Chen also claims that the ha4 in ha4ba- is in the fourth tone, unlike ha3 of ha3ba1tun1 奤夿屯 (1st tone), so they may not be related at all.
    In China, raising pugs is well attested in Ming courtly circles, cf. e.g. this passage from Liu Ruoyu's 刘若愚 (1584-?, himself a palace eunuch) Zhuozhong zhi 《酌中志》 (16.15) ("Records from the Inner Court")

    "During the Wanli reign (1573-1620), Du Yong, the Eunuch of the Spirit Palace overseeing the Eunuch Assembly reared a xieba (=pug) puppy, which was totally adorable. But when Eunuch Li of the "Eastern Stable" (the Internal Palace Security Office) got to know about this on an inspection, he decreed it a violation of the ban on disrespectful behaviour, and announced the dismissal (of Eunuch Du) from court, which he just managed to evade by paying a fine of more than a thousand gold taels."

    The first occurrence of ha4bar 哈巴兒 in a dictionary apparently appears in the Mongolian version of the Ming Sino-Xenic lexical list series Hua-Yi yiyu 華夷譯語 ("Sino-Barbarian translated terms") first compiled in 1389, but there the Chinese orthography is used to transcribe the word for 'nose', i.e. Mong. khamar (хамар) (cf. http://tinyurl.com/kzyw224).

    German Mops seems to be derived from Dutch moppen "to have a grumpy look on the face" (same root as Mumps, 'parotitis'; Kluge 569) such that the Germans would have focused on the grumpy face and the Mongols on the crooked legs when designating the poor pet.

  10. JB said,

    March 29, 2017 @ 5:36 am

    哈巴腿, huh?

    I always (mis)heard this as 哈蟆腿 and put it down to a very thick Zhejiang accent…

  11. Jichang Lulu said,

    March 29, 2017 @ 12:25 pm

    I wonder what the sources are for Chen Gang's proposed derivation from khalbaga халбага ᠋᠋᠋᠋᠋ᠬᠠᠯᠪᠠᠭ᠎ᠠ qalbaɣ-a 'spoon'. As Atwood and others have said, khaw хав ᠬᠠᠪᠠ qaba simply means 'pug' in modern Mongolian. It's attested in multiple Inner Mongolian varieties, mostly pronounced [xab(a(:))], indeed a perfect match with the Mandarin. Although at least one of the Mongolic forms (Dongxiang 东乡 kabagou) comes from Mandarin, the distribution (reaching, per Atwood, as far as Kalmyk) strongly suggests this is indeed a Mongolian word that has meant 'pug' for centuries. The presence in Manchu (noted in Qianlong-era dictionaries) only adds support to the qaba etymology. I guess the qalbaɣ-a hypothesis would be worth looking into if someone could provide some evidence that the Mongols ever 'focused on the pet's crooked legs'.

    As a possible source for hàbatuǐ 哈巴腿, perhaps we shouldn't dismiss qalbaɣ-a outright, although it doesn't look terribly convincing without evidence that, for example, qalbaɣ-a did enter Mandarin at some point as a loanword in some of its Mongolian meanings (since, as I explained above, it most likely did not enter Mandarin in a canine connection). Phonologically, its shape [xalbag] looks like a poor source for the Mandarin; there seems to be a regional pronunciation [xablag], but apparently none with no [l] at all, and I think Mandarin loanwords from Mongolian and Manchu tend to reflect an [l] in similar positions (as Mandarin l- or -r). The proposed etymology would make sense if, for example, there was an attested Mongolian phrase 'spoon-legged' to mean 'bow-legged', but I can'f find any such phrase. For a 'croooked legs' semantic range, there are several Mongolian words beginning with mai- (including an early Qing attestation), with modern Mongolian майга хөл maiga khöl ᠮᠠᠶᠢᠭᠢ mayigi for 'bow-legged'.

    I would say that looking for a Mongolian source for habatui by just looking for Mongolian words containing /x/ and /b/ is going to be difficult, since those are very common phonemes in Mongolian. Many unrelated words begin with /xab-/, such as хаван khavan ᠋ᠠᠪᠠᠨ 'wild boar' (from Turkic; cf. Russian каван), 'sow', 'edema', 'spring'… or indeed 'nose'. Although the modern Khalkha and Chakhar standards have хамар khamar ᠬᠠᠮᠠᠷ, the -b- spelling that appears in the Hua-Yi yiyu in Behr's comment used to be more common and a pronunciation with [w] still seems to exist elsewhere in Mongolic.

    Interestingly, Mongolian khaw also occurs in other (rare) animal names: besides 'seal' as in Atwood's remarks, there's (apparently) khaw jagas хав загас ᠬᠠᠪ ᠵᠢᠭᠠᠰᠤ 'clam' and (apparently apparently) khaw gümbira for some sort of crocodile (the second word, a Tibetan loanword, ultimately from Sanskrit, has various spellings, e.g. гумбараа, гүмбираа ᠭᠦᠮᠪᠢᠷᠡ).

    As for 巴儿狗, perhaps it's an independent Mongolian loanword, from баал baal ᠪᠠᠭᠠᠯ baɣal 'lap dog', rather than a derivative of 哈巴(儿). I would also like to mention Korean 발바리 balbari 'pug' (I'm not suggesting this is more than a coincidence).

  12. Doc Rock said,

    March 29, 2017 @ 1:01 pm

    For 발바리, cf., http://terms.naver.com/search.nhn?query=%EB%B0%9C%EB%B0%94%EB%A6%AC

  13. Eidolon said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 5:23 pm

    "In reading the opinions of your correspondents that "haba" may have been a borrowing from surrounding Mongolian or Turkic languages, I began to wonder about the etymology of gǒu 狗. It has always seemed strange to me that Chinese has a radical that means "dog", and that this word survives as quǎn 犬, yet 狗 is the word used for "dog" throughout China today (I think you may have said that 犬 is still the word used in Min areas). Could 狗 have also been borrowed from the same Mongolian or Turkic source?"

    Axel Schuessler compares gou 狗 to southern languages like Proto-Miao-Yao klu, Proto-Monic clur, and Bahnar ko. The Mongolian common word for dog is noqai, so probably no connection. Turkic has a word, kobek, for dog that seems relatively more close, but it seems to be of recent spread, having previously been specific to Oghuz. The Chinese word is around 2,200 years old, since it is found in early Han and Warring States texts. I do not therefore think it can be from the same source, but no one ultimately knows for sure the etymology of this ancient word for dog.

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