Little friend

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From the Twitter account of @JiayangFan:

The diminutive in many languages conveys affection and solicitousness, not just in Chinese, so I don't think it's at all strange that people would politely refer to children as "little friend" (xiǎo péngyǒu 小朋友).

Dave Stilwell, in a Sept. 5 reply to Jiayang Fan, asks, "And why did 小姐 go out of fashion? Seemed a polite way to address a female unknown to you."

That's a good question, but an n-gram search on the term "xiǎojiě 小姐" ("miss; young lady"; lit., "little [elder] sister") shows that its usage has been steadily rising since the fifties and is still going strong, with a bump in the last decade (see here).  Indeed, we may trace this expression back to the Song period (960-1279), and it was very popular during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) (just take a look at Dream of the Red Chamber) periods.  What has changed are the implication and usage of the term.  It used to be, as Dave Stilwell says, entirely proper to walk up to a stranger on the street and ask, "Xiǎojiě, qǐngwèn, cóng zhèr dào huǒchē zhàn zěnme zǒu? 小姐,請問,從這儿到火車站怎麼走?" ("Miss, may I ask how you get from here to the train station?").  That's how it was when I was living in Taiwan in the early 70s.

In a more playful way you could refer to a young woman as having a xiǎojiě "píqì 小姐脾氣" ("missy termperament"), meaning that she was a bit petulant and pampered.

Gradually, especially in recent decades, "xiǎojiě 小姐" ("miss; young lady") has taken on more ironic tones, including in some cases indication that the person referred to may be a woman of ill repute.

There are a lot of other interesting replies to Jiayang Fan's Tweet; worth taking a look.


Selected readings


[h.t. Geoff Wade; thanks to Nick Tursi and Vito Acosta]


  1. Cervantes said,

    September 7, 2021 @ 11:47 am

    In Spanish you can say amiguito, but it wouldn't normally be a way of addressing a child, rather an affectionate way of addressing an adult friend. Adding "ito" or "ita" to a noun forms the diminutive, which can signify small size or affection, or in the case of a child maybe a little bit of both. I've even heard adjectives being made diminutive to refer to a child.

  2. wanda said,

    September 7, 2021 @ 1:01 pm

    My child is 5. Both of the daycares/preschools he's attended over the past 4 years referred to all the children as "little friends." This was in California, but they're both English-speaking establishments run by white people, and I doubt this terminology was influenced by the Chinese expression. I don't recall this terminology from when I was growing up, so maybe it's a new thing? Or I happened to pick preschools that used this terminology?

    As an aside, I think it was good for my son to have them referred to in this way. It reinforced that he was supposed to be friendly with all the other children.

  3. 번하드 said,

    September 7, 2021 @ 3:07 pm

    Ah, funny. In German, the diminutive of friend, Freundchen, has quite a different meaning.
    It could be part of a waring like "Freundchen, if you try that again, I will get really angry" or might even be used by a policeman towards a suspect.

  4. Bathrobe said,

    September 7, 2021 @ 6:29 pm

    小姐 xiǎojiě is definitely out in China, and the reason is that it has come to be associated with prostitution. In the 1990s it was still acceptable to call a waitress over by calling xiǎojiě. By the 2000s it was definitely out. The term of choice is now 服务员 fúwùyuán 'service staff'. While the old connotations are probably still around (e.g. xiǎojiě píqì 小姐脾气", I think they've been definitely overshadowed by modern connotations.

    Incidentally, the Japanese word お嬢さん o-jōsan has followed a different trajectory. It used to have much the same meaning as xiǎojiě (a well-bred young women from a wealthy family) but is now used for little girls. I was slightly surprised once when I heard someone called an o-jōsan in the original sense of the word. (The person in question, who had dyed reddish-blond hair, didn't match what I assumed an o-jōsan would be like, but the implication is social — the o-jōsan has the right breeding and background to move in the right circles).

  5. Terry Hunt said,

    September 7, 2021 @ 8:59 pm

    @ 번하드 — There is a similar situation in British English. "Pal" used to be merely an informal expression for "friend": in WW1 "Pals' Battalions" were made up of men all from a particular town, and the word is commonly seen seen in literature of the period.

    However, since (I would guess) around WW2, its unironic use has declined, so that now its employment by (male) person A in speaking to near or complete (male) stranger B may indicates that B has so annoyed A that A is very close to punching B in the face.

  6. Michael Watts said,

    September 8, 2021 @ 2:30 am

    I also never found it even slightly odd that a language might refer to children as "little friends". All cultures hold positive views of children. Children are small, and indeed are largely defined by being small.

  7. maidhc said,

    September 8, 2021 @ 3:25 am

    Blessings on thee, little man,
    Barefoot boy with cheeks of tan.

  8. ~flow said,

    September 8, 2021 @ 6:19 am

    @번하드 in fact, 'Freundchen' is so far from being synonymous with 'kleiner/junger Freund' ('little friend') that your discussion of the word is my first time encountering it, though I've long be aware of 小朋友. AFAIK German pediatricians (and medical practitioners in general) prefer to talk about their young patients as 'die kleinen Patienten' instead of the maybe-more-obvious 'die Kinder'. What I like about the usage is that it somehow elevates kids to people, i.e. individuals with their own rights and so on, without denying the fact that, you know, kids are kids. So the literal TL for 小朋友 is 'kleine Freunde' rather than 'Freundchen'.

    Be it said that I'd be hard pressed for an example where German uses the diminutive to express 'done by or pertaining to a young person'; in so far it's not surprising that 'Freundchen' is no equivalent to 小朋友. 'Fräulein' for 小姐 is, like 'Brüderchen' (sometimes used in the sense of 'baby brother'), rather the exception than the rule. 'Mütterchen' and 'Väterchen' do not denote the very young mother or father, rather, they mean an aged woman, an aged man (so the diminutive signifies affection and maybe also the physiological effects of old age). But this is only for kinship terms (including 'Freund'); even the antonym of 'Freund', i.e. 'Feind' does not accept a diminutive: *Feindchen, *Feindlein, *Feinderl. Some but by no means all nouns denoting professions or people doing things do have a diminutive form; I can say 'Bäckerlein' and 'Reiterlein' but not *Königchen, *Polizistchen, *Leserchen etcpp. Add to this that 'Bäckerlein' does not mean 'a young baker' but rather sth like 'that (ridiculous? presumptious?) baker (of short stature and/or whom I do not like)', and 'Reiterlein' doesn't mean 'a young rider', either; rather, it sounds like denoting a thing sitting on top of another thing (like the tabs in paper-based file cabinet, although those are usually called 'Reiter').

  9. Vanya said,

    September 8, 2021 @ 7:40 am

    „Freundchen“ in German is often used pejoratively and aggressively. „Hör mal, Freundchen“ = „Listen up, friend“ just before someone starts a fight.

    „Fräulein“ is obsolete in modern German and often considered offensive. I actually heard someone address a waitress as „Fräulein“ today at a Café in Vienna. A little startling, but I assume the addressor was a foreigner. The fact that the waitress was a young South Asian woman added another layer of potential offense but the young woman appeared not to care.

  10. Daniel said,

    September 8, 2021 @ 4:46 pm

    wanda, I think sure the use of "friends" to mean the children attending a daycare/preschool is to avoid using the gendered phrase "boys and girls" (or the reverse order).

    If being gender-neutral is the goal, why not just use "children"? It might be that it's unnatural not to gender "child" to "boy" or "girl", as appropriate, whereas "friend" does not get gendered, since it has an additional meaning ("part of our group") which is an appropriate one for a daycare or preschool class.

    In primary school and up, there is a more appropriate non-gendered word "student" (or "pupil", do they still use that in England, perhaps?), but calling preschool children or younger "students" seems a bit of a stretch.

  11. Daniel said,

    September 8, 2021 @ 4:48 pm

    Oh, yeah, obligatory…

    "Say hello to my little friend!"

  12. Michael Watts said,

    September 8, 2021 @ 7:43 pm

    If being gender-neutral is the goal, why not just use "children"? It might be that it's unnatural not to gender "child" to "boy" or "girl", as appropriate, whereas "friend" does not get gendered

    "Child" might be a little unusual in the singular, but it's not at all unusual in the plural. My instinct is that "children" is normal for referring to a group of children, but kind of insulting if you're addressing them.

  13. ~flow said,

    September 9, 2021 @ 2:35 am

    "CHILDREN"—kids these days.

    Also I didn't find the Scarface quote 'obligatory' but disturbing. Unpassend.

  14. David Marjanović said,

    September 9, 2021 @ 1:29 pm

    I know Freundchen only from reading. It appears in situations like "don't call me 'buddy', pal" and is largely synonymous with Sportsfreund and Freund der Blasmusik.

    The dialect version that ends up getting spelled with -erl (from obsolete -elein; the r is unetymological) does occur in Freunderlwirtschaft, the Austrian equivalent of nepotism: the families aren't large enough to commit literal nepotism, so you give the important jobs to your buddies.

    Diminutives of professions are decidedly obsolete. The first one that comes to mind is the fairytale Das tapfere Schneiderlein, "the brave little tailor".



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