Bentot dearie: understanding Filipino nicknames

Tue, 10/28/2014 - 08:55
(originally published in SCMP 2005)
Question: which of the following is not a Filipino nickname? Bongbong, Chin-Chin, Ding-dong, Lotlot, Ai-Ai. Answer: they are all Filipino nicknames. Foreigners new here often marvel at how so many Filipinos sport nicknames which are, how shall we say it, quaint, and charming and - oh, all right - they read like violent sound effects in a Looney Tunes cartoon.
On the face of it, we Filipinos have generally sensible, largely Christian names. José, Ricardo, Charlie or William. What is puzzling to outsiders is how these monikers get transmuted into Ping, Dong, Atong or Bogs, respectively. Most of the aliases sound as meaningless in the local language as they do in English.
Anyway, we Filipinos think nothing of nicknames. We take it for granted that we have politicians named Jinggoy and Joker (which is not even a nickname, it is his real one). We do not fall on the floor laughing hysterically when we meet a patrician nicknamed "Ting", or a socialite called "Tingting". Many of us voted a man named "Erap" president. We have even made a politician's nickname the official designation of our national airport, Ninoy Aquino International. Admittedly, if Filipinos were to stop and think about it, a lot of the nicknames probably sound peculiar. Take Popo, Cheche, Monching and Jobo, for example. String them together, repeat aloud fast enough and you would sound like a small demented steam engine.
But we Filipinos know nicknames are acquired early, usually as family endearments, diminutives or private code, the way American fighter pilots get descriptive call signs during flight school. And usually the recipient has no choice. "Alfredo" might get the nickname "Pao" because as a boy his cheeks were so chubby, they made him resemble a siopao, the local Chinese steamed roll.
Classic Filipino social behaviour can be elaborately courteous, respectful and formal. Because nicknames help smooth and relax interpersonal relations, Filipinos will always have them.
That is why I firmly believe that there will never be a Filipino global super villain. Just imagine: he would be presiding over a gathering of ruthless masterminds, plotting world domination, when suddenly some idiot minion would put through a call from his mother on the speakerphone. "Bentot dearie, did you get the monogrammed underwear I sent? Remember, `M' means `Monday', OK?"
Our villain, who had been calling himself "Death Master", would mutter "yes, mom" and sign off. Then, he would look up and realise that his colleagues were looking at him differently. I cannot bear to think what would happen next, but it would probably involve violent sound effects.

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