Biden naming arcana

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It has become a meme in China to make fun of people speaking with a Henan accent.  Here are two videos of women dancing and singing Christian songs in Yùjù 豫剧 ("Henan opera") that are circulating on the Chinese internet to the accompaniment of much merriment:  first (for Easter, eulogizing the scene of the Resurrection of Jesus; folkish), second (in praise of Jesus, with an industrial, commercial, official flavor).

Comment by a Chinese friend on the first song-and-dance:

Just think of saints who resurrect from tombs riding in sedan chairs carried by angels and flying to heaven in throngs! It makes me laugh so hard. The girl in red with a piece of cloth over her head is obviously a bride. So it becomes a scene of wedding in progressing to heaven. What a combination of local customs with religion!

Further remark by the same friend:

As for the second piece, it will work perfectly well if "Zhǔ 主“ ("Lord") is replaced by "Dǎng 党“ ("Party").

People aren't just laughing at the videos, they're making jokes about the way Henanese talk.  Here's one from a linguistically oriented website called Xiéyīn gěng yánjiū suǒ 谐音梗*研究所 (Institute for Research on Homophonia Memes) on 11/5/20 at 08:32:

*See under "Selected readings".

Chuānpǔ yīzhí zài jiāojí de děng xiāoxī, yī wèi péngyǒu quàn tā zǎodiǎn shuì, shuō:  “Bài dēng la, děng yěshì Bàidēng.”

Wèn: Zhè wèi péngyǒu zuì kěnéng shì shénme rén?

A. Yī wèi Gònghédǎng péngyǒu

B. Yī wèi Mínzhǔdǎng péngyǒu

C. Yī wèi Hénán péngyǒu ​​​​


A. 一位共和党朋友
B. 一位民主党朋友
C. 一位河南朋友 ​​​​

Trump has been anxiously waiting for news. A friend advised him to go to bed early and said, "Bi ('don't') den ('wait'), even if you wait it'll still be Biden."

Question: Who is this friend most likely?

A. A Republican friend

B. A Democratic friend

C. A friend from Henan ​​​​

Key:  báiděng 白等 ("wait in vain") is pronounced as Bàidēng 拜登 ("Biden") in Henan topolect.

For those who are interested in advanced studies on Sinitic homophonia, a connoisseur of the subject writes as follows [for specialists only; others may skip to the next section on Bideniana]):

WARNING:  not for Sinitic homophonia amateurs

Actually the two 拜登s are different. And it has three different interpretations in topolects!!!! 

1)别等(bài děng)啦,等也是白等(bái děng)。[here the 别 is pronounced bài in the topolect; I don't know if this is Henan topolect, but this is DEFINITELY the pronunciation in 胶辽官话 “Jiao-liao Mandarin”. E.g., Shandong, Dalian, etc.] 
—— "Stop waiting; waiting is a waste." Here we can't know his political view, but who would not be tired of the prolonged 2020 election? 
2)别等(bài děng)啦,等也是拜登(bài dēng)。
—— "Stop waiting; it will be Biden even if you wait." A Democrat! 
3)白等(bái děng)啦,等也是拜登(bài dēng)。
—— "What a waste of waiting; it's Biden even if I waited." A Republican! (pay attention to the switch of personal perspective from 2nd to 1st between 2) and 3). A native Mandarin speaker can easily tell the nuance.)
So we cannot know if his friend is from Henan (maybe, Shandong!!), and neither may we now if he's a Democrat or Republican! LOL

Bideniana variora

While doing due diligence on the above topic, I came upon Joe Biden's interesting middle name:  Robinette.  That struck me as diminutive and feminine, so I wondered about it.   A little bit of web-searching led me to this Intelligencer (New York Magazine) article by Dan Amira, "Joe Biden’s Middle Name Is Robinette" (8/26/08):

It’s widely acknowledged that Barack Obama chose Joe Biden as his running mate to balance out the ticket in his areas of weakness — national security, for example, or appeal to the female, blue collar, or smart-aleck voting blocks. One area in which Biden definitely doesn’t help, though: middle names. By now, we’re all aware that Obama is graced with the, er, politically uncooperative middle name of Hussein. But now the ticket is weighed down by a second, probably worse middle name: Robinette. That’s not a typo. Joe Biden’s middle name is Robinette. What the hell is that, even? It’s a little feminine, obviously. It also sounds like some kind of miniature bird, or maybe a doo-wop backup singer. Actually, it’s neither. As Biden explained it on C-SPAN a couple of years ago:

It’s my grandmother Biden’s maiden name. It’s French. And it goes back a long, long way. Allegedly the Robinettes came over with Lafayette and never went home. I don’t know that. We can’t guarantee that.

Wait a second, wait a second. They “came over with Lafayette and never went home”? The middle name is bad enough, but were Joe Robinette Biden’s relatives … illegal aliens?

Come to think of it, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette (1757–1834), known in the United States as Lafayette, had a similar surname as Joe Biden's grandmother.

Lafayette or La Fayette, is originally a surname or a toponym coming from the Occitan words la faieta and that designates a beech forest.   (source)

VHM:  "the little beech tree", mind you (so says Wiktionary)

It's a long way from Pennsylvania to Henan, but there's a tie that binds them.

Interesting that "biden" means "wait" in Middle Dutch! (source). See the Henan homophonia joke above.  Cf. English "bide", which the dictionaries say is dialectal or archaic, but it is part of my active vocabulary, and I've heard many other English speakers use it in daily discourse.


Selected readings


[Thanks to two anonymous correspondents]


  1. John Rohsenow said,

    November 11, 2020 @ 6:30 pm

    In addition to "biding my time", I am old enough to remember when cute
    rural B&Bs were called "Bide-a Wee", along with the "Dew Drop Inn".

  2. Laura Morland said,

    November 11, 2020 @ 10:54 pm

    Terrific post (even though I had to skip the "not for Sinitic homophonia amateurs" part)!

    I was surprised, though, that you didn't dig down deeper into Robinette, but instead slipped over into the etymology of Lafayette.

    The French word "robine" is also mostly found in Occitania and originally meant a small channel communicating two bodies of water. After the creation of the canal system in France, it came to designate a "small canal".

    So "Robinette" could mean a *very* small canal!

    According to, however, Robinette is a variation of "Robineu, Robinot, Robino, Robinet, Robineault, Robineau, Robinault, Robinaud, Robinaut and many more".

    For another French twist: the magazine Le Point (not my favorite) claims that the Robinette ancestor of Joe Biden is a 15th-century *Englishman*.

  3. Keith said,

    November 12, 2020 @ 2:49 am

    Having "Robinette" as a middle name didn't surprise me at all. It seems to be a common tradition in many families in the UK to use the mother's (or a little more rarely a grandmother's) maiden name as a middle name.

    Indeed, the "Walker" in the names of previous POTUSes George Herbert Walker Bush and his son George Walker Bush was the maiden name of the mother of Bush père.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    November 12, 2020 @ 6:55 am

    "Walker" doesn't have a feminine appearance.

  5. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    November 12, 2020 @ 8:21 am

    Prof Mair: I've always wondered about that — how, in some cultures (e.g. Italian, German, etc.) it's acceptable for a male to have a female middle name (e.g. "Rainer Maria Rilke"), and in others (e.g. Anglophone), it's not, although it _is_ acceptable for a female to have a male middle name.

    As for Joe Biden, maybe it strikes us as odd because "Robin-ette", although a surname, has the appearance of a female first name, whereas other French feminine surnames (e.g. Lavoie) don't quite "jump out" as much.

  6. Lasius said,

    November 13, 2020 @ 5:58 am

    The name Biden also lends itself well to puns about the election in German since the homphone "beiden" is an inflected form of "both of them".

  7. SusanC said,

    November 14, 2020 @ 5:17 pm

    Robinette is fairly clearly a surname (even if you don’t know the persons family history), so it’s fairly obviously a case of the anglophone (given name)(some relatives family name)(fathers family name) pattern of anglophone countries, rather than the (given name)(opposite gendered given name)(family name) seen in other languages.

    On the other hand, Robinette could just about be mistaken for a female given name, making someone mistake it for the other pattern.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    November 15, 2020 @ 1:21 pm

    It's not clear to me, Susan, why you feel that "Robinette is fairly clearly a surname". To me, it is a name — it could be a given name, it could be a family name, I have no a priori way of knowing. But to test your hypothesis, I chose a family name at random and searched for "Robinette Jones" — sure enough, she exists.

  9. Aici said,

    November 17, 2020 @ 8:42 pm

    On the fun side note, "robinete" is the plural of robinet – meaning water tap in romanian.

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