Bear talk

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The bear seems a particularly fecund source of images, metaphors, memes, and symbols.  I'm currently preparing a Language Log post on words for bear in Sinitic and in languages with which it was in contact.  At the same time, I'm editing a closely reasoned and heavily documented philological study of bear words and lore by Diana Shuheng Zhang for Sino-Platonic Papers.  I'm hoping that both of them can be published by the end of this month or the early part of December.  In the meantime, as an interim offering, here are some notes on interesting expressions involving the word for bear in Northeastern colloquial speech.

In Dōngběi huà 東北話 ("Northeastern topolect"), "xióng háizi 熊孩子" ("bear cub"), far from a cute word praising how lovely and chubby a child may be, is actually a pejorative name for "young punk, troublemaker".

To describe a person of an older age who has a "xióng háizi 熊孩子" ("bear cub") personality, Northeasterners would use the expression "xióng rénwù 熊人物" ("bear figure; bear character"), which may be referred to in its abbreviated form: xrw. If an entire family, or lineage, shares the xióng 熊 ("bear") quality across its members, then Northeaesterners may say "lǎo xióng jiā 老熊家" ("family of the old bear") — how about "Lineage X" (parallel to the English idiom "Generation X") as an English translation?

🐻

[Thanks to Diana Shuheng Zhang]



10 Comments

  1. E. N. Anderson said,

    November 15, 2019 @ 5:58 pm

    I'd be interested in how widespread is the custom of not naming bears when hunting them, or in the forest, because of fear that naming one would bring one on. This is probably the source of our word "bear," cognate with "brown" (some say, at least), certainly not with ursus/arctos. I think it was Rane Willerslev in SOUL HUNTERS who reported that a Yukaghir hunter mentioned hunting "a Russian in fur boots" and everybody knew what he meant. Chinese avoid speaking of tigers, in the same vein. I don't know about bears.

  2. Thomas Hutcheson said,

    November 15, 2019 @ 7:17 pm

    Voldemort

  3. Freddy Hill said,

    November 15, 2019 @ 10:01 pm

    I don't know about bear taboos, but avoiding using the name of dangerous animals seems quite universal. In southern Spain some avoid the word for snake (serpiente, serpe) and use instead the Spanish word for "bug" but in feminine: not "el bicho", but "la bicha"

  4. cameron said,

    November 16, 2019 @ 1:02 am

    Michel Pastoureau's book L'ours. Histoire d'un roi déchu is a fun read. There is an English translation available.

    One of the revelations he offers is that Valentine's Day and Ground Hog Day are variations of the same basic holiday.

    The taboo avoidance pertaining to bears is common to all the Germanic languages. The Ainu also had the bear as their totem animal. Did the Ainu language distort the name of the bear? Or do we not know enough to know?

  5. David Marjanović said,

    November 16, 2019 @ 7:33 am

    our word "bear," cognate with "brown" (some say, at least)

    That does not work, in part because the very concept of 'brown' is just a few hundred years old. Rather, start from the well-known PIE root *ǵʰwer- 'wild animal, beast' (e.g. Greek ther-), make an adjective in *-o- out of it ('wild/ferocious'), then turn that into a *n-stem noun ('the ferocious one'), and you get the Germanic word. So yes, bear is a euphemism, but a different one.

    "a Russian in fur boots"

    I don't know how far, geographically, the homophony of 'Russian' (diffused from the west) and 'monster' (diffused from China, where it arrived from India with Buddhism starting from rākṣasa) extends, because this paper isn't anywhere online that I can find:

    Juha Janhunen (1997) The Russian monsters. On the etymology of an ethnonymic complex. Studia Etymologica Cracoviensia 2,159-165.

    It's been cited a lot, though.

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 16, 2019 @ 10:53 am

    @ David Marjanović
    http://info.filg.uj.edu.pl/zhjij/sec/store/sec-2.pdf

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    November 16, 2019 @ 12:28 pm

    A most helpful and interesting link, Jonathan — thank you. Incidentally, a quick check reveals that http://info.filg.uj.edu.pl/zhjij/sec/store/sec-1.pdf also exists, so there may be many more previously inaccessible treasures available at related URLs.

  8. Chris Button said,

    November 16, 2019 @ 3:50 pm

    @ David Marjanović

    That does not work, in part because the very concept of 'brown' is just a few hundred years old. Rather, start from the well-known PIE root *ǵʰwer- 'wild animal, beast' (e.g. Greek ther-), make an adjective in *-o- out of it ('wild/ferocious'), then turn that into a *n-stem noun ('the ferocious one'), and you get the Germanic word. So yes, bear is a euphemism, but a different one.

    Presumably you meant to mention Donald Ringe here? It's also worth remembering that it appears to be a suggestion rather than an assertion (Mallory & Adams and Watkins still go with the "brown" etymology)…

  9. David Morris said,

    November 17, 2019 @ 2:07 am

    Apropos of not much, Australia has a new threat to rival that of drop bears. A headline in the Daily Mail Australia informed us of a "Great wall of fire bears".
    (Actually, it was "Great wall of fire bears down on Sydney.) (But drop bears are real, though.)

  10. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    November 18, 2019 @ 8:05 am

    Any etymological research that could be used to assist my ancestors in escaping from Hell would be greatly appreciated.

    Se di saper ch'i' sia ti cal cotanto,
    che tu abbi però la ripa corsa,
    sappi ch'i' fui vestito del gran manto;

    e veramente fui figliuol de l'orsa,
    cupido sì per avanzar li orsatti,
    che sù l'avere e qui me misi in borsa.

    [If you have crossed the bank and climbed so far
    to find out who I am, then know that I
    was one of those who wore the mighty mantle,

    and surely was a son of the she—bear,
    so eager to advance the cubs that I
    pursed wealth above while here I purse myself.]

    https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-19/

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