Tag Archives: names

Why Chinese People Have Short Names

This is a story that I heard from a barber when discussing folklore origins. S is a middle aged Chinese woman who used to live in China before immigrating to the United States.

S: There was one about a boy with a super long name who fell down a well and almost died because his name was too long. I think his name was “Tiki-tiki-tembo-no-sar-embo-charri-barri-boochi-pip-perry-pembo” or something like that. It was Chinese.. custom to say the full name of a firstborn child. So the boy with the long name had a brother with a short name, and they were playing next to a well by their house. The younger brother fell into the well, so the older brother ran to their mom and said Chang fell into the well! Oh, and Chang was the name of the younger brother.

Me: Oh nooo! Were they able to save him?

S: Yes! They got a ladder to help Chang climb out of the well right away and he was just fine. Then another day, the two brothers were playing next to the well again when this time it was the older brother who fell!

Me: (groans) come on guys, do better. Silly little kids!

S: So this time, Chang runs to his mom and tries to tell her that Tiki-tiki-tembo-no-sar-embo-charri-barri-boochi-pip-perry-pembo fell into the well. But since he ran there, he was so out of breath that he could only say tiki-tiki-tembo… before running out of breath. His mom was so intent on respecting her first-born son’s name that she would not listen until he was able to say (inhales largely) Tiki-tiki-tembo-no-sar-embo-charri-barri-boochi-pip-perry-pembo. Whew! That was hard hahha.

Me: (trying to say it with her) Tiki-tiki-tembo-no-sar-embo-charri-barii-boochi alala blehhh. I couldn’t imagine having a name that long. That must suck!

S: Yeah anyways, they finally got the ladder after Chang was able to pronounce his brother’s name, but he was basically almost drowned by this point. They were able to save him, but it took him a long time to recover. And that’s why Chinese people have short names!

Me: Wow, what a cool tale! I hope that the mom learned her lesson, that could’ve ended really badly.

Rawhide Creek

The informant grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. Here, he explains why a local creek from his home town was dubbed “Rawhide” Creek.

N: There’s a bunch of Native American–Native Indian– stories. Those aren’t technically my culture but– there’s a creek called Rawhide Creek. That supposedly has that name because a young man a long time ago, maybe the 1800s? I couldn’t tell ya. He set out to kill as many Indians as he could. And he killed a young girl. So her family, uh, to get revenge tracked him down. Found, like, the group he was a part of and said “You all die or you give him up” and they immediately gave him up. And so they took him to the creek, beat him to death, and skinned him. And there’s where you get the name Rawhide Creek.

The informant also told a similar story as to why a local bridge was named “Heartbeat Bridge”. It seems that in this region, it’s important to remember tragedies, and in order to do that, the areas that tragedies happened in are named after them.

Naming your children with things like water for good personalities

HK: Chinese people are really superstitious about how you name your child––so all the Chinese children have like, names that are made up of Chinese characters, right? And within those characters, there are characters that mean certain things.

MW: What’s your name?

HK: Well, let’s just say that basically my name has a lot of fire character in it. Too much probably, that’s probably why I’m such a bitch.

MW: Haha. So then what did you name your kids?

HK: All my kids, we decided, had to have water in their names. In Chinese you know it as the part of the character, the “radical,” known as san dian shui. It’s basically three dots at the edge of some characters that denotate that the character is related to water. We did that so they would balance me out. Cause now I’m such a bitch, by my kids are pretty cool. Keeps the family balanced.

MW: And how does this make you feel?

HK: Well, again, it’s that superstition feeling where you feel like you should just do it because if you don’t you worry about what might happen, and then otherwise your mother in law can blame everything bad that happens on you because you didn’t name your kids water or whatever. But they all have nice names. I like them.


The informant, HK, was born in New York but has parents who are from China. She married and has three children. 


HK now lives in Texas––I collected this story over a Zoom call. She has been one of my mother’s closest friends since college, and often, they would commiserate together with all of my other Chinese aunties about certain things their Chinese parents would make them do, or general annoyance over Chinese tradition. This was one of those calls.


With a lot of other superstitions from any culture, you do it to avoid a consequence; but with names, it’s more fun, especially if you’re born in America. American names generally don’t have any meaning, or at least any meaning that everyone knows. In Chinese, every name means something, and generally, everyone knows that meaning. So of course there will be superstitions surrounding names because the meanings are so clear, but it adds a lot of beauty to the literal title of your identity. It’s something that I feel like a lot of Americans might miss out on.


Main Piece:

Interviewer: Can you tell me how your children get their names?

Informant: Yes. Traditionally, in our Native ways, someone may change their name 2-4 times throughout the course of their life.

Interviewer: You mean they would get nicknames?

Informant: No, they would change their names. When they are born they may be given a name that speaks to how their parents want them to be. But over time, there may be a defining moment or incident in their life that would cause them to be known by another name. This might be from an act of bravery, an accident, or just an unusual experience.

Interviewer: And everyone, including their family, would then call them by this new name?

Informant: Yes, especially their family. And this might happen a few times throughout their lives.

Interviewer: Do you have an “Indian name?” 

Informant: Yes, my name is “Atsiniki.”

Interviewer: What does it mean?

Informant: Story Teller.


The informant is a Choctaw man in his early 50’s. He was born in Texas and grew up in Oklahoma. He currently resides in Tennessee with his wife and children.


During the Covid-19 Pandemic I flew back home to Tennessee to stay with my family. The informant is my father. My dad and I decided to have cigars in the back yard and I asked if he could share a few stories regarding our Native culture. I’ve grown up learning about these many traditions but asked him to explain them as if sharing with someone unfamiliar with the culture.


Names are an interesting thing. They travel with us, shaping how we see ourselves and the rest of the world. They help build our reality and draw meaning within chaos. When we can name something, we come a bit closer to understanding it; or at least conceiving it a bit better. A lifespan shows movement so it’s interesting to see that reflected in names as well. Many people have nicknames or change their name to mark a new phase in their life, which shows the importance of identity that can be found in a name. 

Culinta (Cullies) and Ginkles (Ginks)

  • Conext: The following informant, T, is a 56 yr. old married mother of three. She comes from a large Italian family. She explains to me the alternative names she and her entire extended family use for vagina (culinta/cullie) and penis (ginkle/ginks). The informant also sings me a song she created when her daughter was a toddler that incorporates a variant of the word culinta that is now sung throughout her family to female toddlers. The conversation took place in the informants kitchen as we looked at old family photos and remembered other folkspeech used among the family. 
  • Text:

T: “In my family growing up we would call vaginas culintas and penises ginkles and I don’t know where it came from. But it came from my dad’s side of the family, and they we’re Italian, and they would really call it a cullie or a ginks or a ginkle and we would just reference that…

And so when [my daughter] was little I made up this song about putting her pull-ups on in the kitchen and it would go… it goes like this…

‘Put the pulls on the cules and make the coffee in the kitchen’

And now that’s a family song. And all of the nieces, all of my nieces, sing that song to their kids.”

  • Analysis: Sex is a very tabboo subject in American society. The conversation of genitalia is also often censored. I believe this may be one of the reasons for the wide variety of vocabulary used to describe male and female genitalia. It does not shock me that my own family uses the words culinta and ginkle, because even though we’re aware of what body parts we’re referring to, it somehow makes the conversation feel appropriate to any audience. In addition, the words themselves sound more similar to Italian words, so they harken back to our ancestry. I plan on teaching the words culinta/cullie and ginkle/ginks to my children, as I’m not sure they could survive in our family without knowing the meaning of those words. Surprisingly to me, when the terms are used around non-family members, they often understand the meaning, but I would attribute this more to the context in which they are used. Perhaps from the other parts of the conversation, the person is able to pick up on the meaning of the words rather than inherently knowing the definitions.