Names Across Languages and Cultures: A Case Study of the British PM’s New Chinese Nickname

London Journal of Research in Humanities and Social Sciences
Volume | Issue | Compilation
Authored by Wang Feng , Zu Yun
Classification: FOR Code: 200399
Keywords: nickname; misunderstanding; linguistic; cultural; social; onomastics.
Language: English

Names across languages and cultures need more bi-linguistic, bi-cultural and bi-social insights, but they are not well studied yet. A case study on the British PM’s New Chinese Nickname “Auntie May” can shed special light on this under-explored but important topic. “Auntie May” was coined by the Chinese to show affection and enhance international relations However, this nickname caused great misunderstanding in the UK. Based on qualitative analyses of the comments on the website of Independent and that of Tianya in China, the different receptions of the same name are contrasted and analyzed. It is found that such misunderstanding may lie in the different perception of kinterms, different cultural connotations, different social dynamics, and different expectations of the PM. We encourage further research and discussion about other misunderstandings of names across languages and cultures to ensure that those differences are analyzed, respected and negotiated in ever-increasing intercultural communications.


Names across Languages and Cultures: A Case Study of the British PM’s New Chinese Nickname

Wang Fengα, Zu Yunσ & Ma Yanρ



Names across languages and cultures need more bi-linguistic, bi-cultural and bi-social insights, but they are not well studied yet. A case study on the British PM’s New Chinese Nickname “Auntie May” can shed special light on this under-explored but important topic. “Auntie May” was coined by the Chinese to show affection and enhance international relations. However, this nickname caused great misunderstanding in the UK. Based on qualitative analyses of the comments on the website of Independent and that of Tianya in China, the different receptions of the same name are contrasted and analyzed. It is found that such misunderstanding may lie in the different perception of kinterms, different cultural connotations, different social dynamics, and different expectations of the PM. We encourage further research and discussion about other misunderstandings of names across languages and cultures to ensure that those differences are analyzed, respected and negotiated in ever-increasing intercultural communications.

Keywords: nickname; misunderstanding; linguis- tic; cultural; social; onomastics.

Author α: School of Foreign Studies, Yangtze University, No. 1, Nanhuan Road, Jingzhou 434023, Hubei, China.  

σ: School of Translation Studies, Xi’an International Studies University, Xi’an, China.

ρ: School of Foreign Studies, Yangtze University, No. 1, Nanhuan Road, Jingzhou 434023, Hubei, China. Correspondence to



Names serve as a sharp and quick way of labeling someone, creating an image of the named person, both by opponents and supporters (Gladkova, 2002). In social terms, we need nicknames, just as we need scapegoats and both cooperative and uncooperative nicknamed and nicknamers (Adam, 2009: 89). Nicknames often convey friendly acceptance and family affection, but some of them carry the derision and scorn of bullies or abusers (Black, Wilcox & Platt, 2014: 135). Almost everything concerned with a name is related to linguistic, cultural and social factors; thus, studies about names are quite fruitful. However, there were just a few researches on names across languages and cultures. Gibson (2017) stated that the cross-linguistic similarity in color-naming efficiency reflects colors of universal usefulness and provides an account of a principle (color use) that governs the categorization of colors. Chun (2017) researched Korean K-pop names for English-speaking fans and found that viewers invoked various ideological frames.

Names and common nouns across languages and cultures need more bi-linguistic, bi-cultural and bi-social insights. Take the dragon, for example. It’s almost universally known that the mighty and mythical creature in one culture may be considerably different from those in other cultures. The dragon is a combination of parts from different animals in all cultures. But, in western cultures, the dragon is usually regarded as an evil being, often killed by heroes in folktales, whereas the dragon is an auspicious creature associated with wealth, wisdom, success, and power, thus respected and beloved by the Chinese people. Chinese people even proudly claim that they are descendants of the dragon (, 2012). In the dictionary, the dog in English is linguistically equivalent to gou (the dog in Chinese), but their connotations are different. In the west, dogs are usually considered as pets or human’s friends. But in certain areas of China, dogs are only nurtured for meat. Baixiang in Chinese, meaning a white elephant in the dictionary, has been popular as a famous brand, because in the Chinese context, in contrast to Anglophone cultures, it never refers to a possession which its owner cannot dispose of and whose cost, particularly that of maintenance, is out of proportion to its usefulness.

Names across languages and cultures are interesting, intriguing but under-explored, we aim to shed special light on a case study of the British Prime Minister Theresa May’s new Chinese nickname. Hopefully, this study will contribute to a better understanding of the linguistic, cultural and social differences regarding names across languages and cultures.


According to a report in the Independent in the UK, in an interview with the state-owned CCTV channel before her meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping, Theresa May was asked: “So, when you were in Wuhan, did you realize that you’ve got a Chinese nickname?” When she replied she did not, the reporter said: “A lot of Chinese people would affectionately call you, in Chinese, ‘Auntie May.’ You’re one of the members of the family. Do you like that?” The Prime Minister replied: “Oh, thank you. Thank you very much indeed. I’m honored by that, thank you” (Watts, 2018).

According to former studies (Crozier, 2002; Crozier & Skliopidou, 2002; Butkus, 1999), nearly all nicknames can be captured by three categories—physical characteristics of the target person, his or her traits or characteristic behaviors, and variations on his or her name. As for “Auntie May,” it is formed on a kinterm-surname structure, which is related to the PM’s name Theresa May, and can be considered a more complex variation than Daddy D., Mummy T., etc.

Firstly, it is necessary to point out the reasons leading to the PM’s new Chinese nickname from the Chinese perspective. They can be explained from the following three perspectives:

3.1 Cultural Rationality

In Chinese culture, Auntie is a form of address showing affection for old-aged women. Yi, Auntie or aunt or aunty in Chinese, refers to 1) one’s mother’s sister; 2) woman of one’s mother’s age (Hui, 2002: 1915). It can be safely used as a form of address for a woman of one’s mother’s generation in China. Theresa May was a little over 60, so she is naturally called “auntie” by the young Chinese people. Similarly, the Chinese President Xi Jinping is cordially called Uncle Xi (Xi Dada in Chinese), and his beloved wife Peng Liyuan is affectionately called Mother Peng (Peng Mama in Chinese). In a recent search we did on June 1, 2018, we found that their nicknames appeared together more than ten times on the website of China Daily.

3.2 Linguistic Rationality

  1. A Dilemma in the Chinese Transliteration

As we know, “May,” the surname of the PM, is pronounced in English as /mei/. When it is transliterated into Chinese, it can either become /mei/ as one syllable, which can be represented in one Chinese character, or /me-i/ as two syllables, which must be represented in two Chinese characters. According to Ma (2018), the closer the social distance of the addresser and addressee and the more informal the context is,the shorter the address form is. Thus, when it is transliterated into one short syllable, the equivalent is mei (plum or winter-sweet in Chinese), which is a little too sweet to address a Prime Minister. Therefore, “May” is better not transliterated alone, but with the given name. The Chinese transliteration of “Theresa May” is Telisa Mei, which can be represented with four Chinese characters. Thus, there is a dilemma here: the transliteration of the surname “May” into one Chinese character seems too sweet for the PM, as mentioned above; the transliteration of the whole name “Theresa May” into four Chinese characters is acceptable but not concise enough, especially in informal situations. It is necessary to find a better counterpart to refer to the PM in Chinese.

2) Phonological Rationality in the Chinese Transliteration

As we stated above, it’s quite unusual to use only one Chinese character to address a person who is not very intimate. At the same time, it’s not concise enough to represent the whole name in four characters because it is not concise enough. As a compromise, it’s preferable to transliterate it into two Chinese characters. Coincidentally, “auntie” in Chinese is pronounced as /yi/, which is quite similar to the English pronunciation of /i/. As /me-i/ sounds very similar to meiyi (“Auntie May” in Chinese), it is quite acceptable, even witty, to transliterate the PM’s surname “May” into meiyi, meaning “Auntie May” in Chinese.

3.3 Social Rationality        

1) Strategic Partnership between the UK and China

When the UK PM was visiting China, she was leading a quite big business delegation, including BP and Jaguar, as well as small firms and universities including Manchester and Liverpool. She has claimed her visit “will intensify the golden era in UK-China relations” (BBC News, 2018). She promised to seek “deepening co-operation with China on key global and economic issues that are critical to our businesses, to our people, and to what the UK stands for” (ibid.). She was confident that co-operation and engagement will be beneficial not just for China, but for the UK and the wider world (ibid.). Her visit to China was welcomed as “an opportunity to achieve new development of the China-UK global comprehensive strategic partnership” (ibid.). An affectionate name or nickname is suitable to show China’s willingness to develop and strengthen the strategic partnership with the UK.

2) Youth as the PM’s Major Audience

Last but not the least, Theresa May came to China to develop new education links with China, and her initiative included the extension of a Maths teacher exchange program and an “English is GREAT” campaign to promote English language learning in China. Most importantly, when she was in Wuhan, home to the largest number of students of any city in the world, she was invited to visit to honor the achievements of the UK’s Spirit of Youth campaign in China, in which youth are the major participants and the major audience. She also said that new agreements would “enable more children and more young people than ever to share their ideas about our two great nations”, helping to ensure that “our golden era of co-operation will endure for generations to come” (ibid.). Thus, it’s quite natural for the young boys and girls to call the PM “auntie” to develop intimacy, rather than “Dear Prime Minister”, or “Your Excellency”. Together with other reasons listed above, this endearment nickname “Auntie May” became official in a short time.


The Chinese nickname “Auntie May” for the British Prime Minister enjoyed instant popularity in China, and received the expected appreciation from Theresa May herself. But, will it be well accepted in the UK? We performed a qualitative case study of the 130 comments (qtd. in Watts, 2018) posted on the website of the Independent in the UK. In fact, not all of them were discussions about the PM’s new Chinese nickname, but we still found that 39 comments are closely relevant, which are enough for a qualitative analysis, “a research method for the subjective interpretation of the content of text data through the systematic classification process of coding and entifying themes or patterns” (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005). We found that the receptions can be divided into three major types: 1) “Auntie May” is a positive nickname for the PM; 2) “Auntie May” is a neutral nickname for the PM; and 3) “Auntie May” is a negative nickname for the PM.

4.1 “Auntie May” is a positive nickname for the PM 

Table 1: The first type of reception of online independent users


User name

Excerpt of the comment (Watts, 2018)


Juniper Joe

I suppose that it's better than ex-Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patton's ‘Fat Pang’.



Well it's better than "Yang Gueizi"1 anyway! Though "Da Pizi"2 might suit her rather better.



I have quite a lot of SE Asia experience and Auntie and Uncle are positive terms that may be used for family friends as well as relatives occupying those positions



The term auntie, or uncle, is often used as a term of respect or affection in Asia. Ask those from the sub continent. Not really the 'bad news' story many Indy readers think.



For the Chinese everyone who is more elderly is known as an uncle or auntie. A respect for the elders



UK, China sign $13bn worth of trade deals. … Keep up the good work Aunty May.



The Chinese call all women of a certain age "auntie" as a mark of respect. It is nothing special



This is not news. To address a woman who is of a similar age to your parents, you refer to them colloquially as "auntie". Similarly, a man would be addressed as "uncle". Slighter older men than yourself are "big brothers", then "big sisters", similarly, "little brother" or "little sister". This is standard in Asian society, and is a mark of respect.

In Table 1, the nickname “Auntie May” is compared to “Fat Pang”, “Yang Gueizi”, and “Da Pizi”, which were obviously negative nicknames in Chinese (See notes). Thus, for the PM, “Auntie May” seems like a more positive one. Other posters used such words as “positive”, “respect”, “affection”, and “good” to show their attitude that “Auntie May” is a positive nickname for the PM.

4.2 “Auntie May” is a neutral nickname for the PM

Table 2: The second type of reception of online independent users


User name

Excerpt of the comment (Watts, 2018)


Tom Cassidy

"Auntie" is a term used to any elderly lady



The Chinese call any old lady, "Auntie". It is the way they might address an elderly female shopkeeper. Not to be mistaken as a sign of special respect.



The term 'Auntie' in the far east is not necessarily a term of endearment or affection, it just means person of the older generation. It is also used for people of 'extremely' older generation, not just a little older and maybe a little out of touch...the meaning is nothing like a western interpretation



YES it is (a term for a person of the older generation), I have just asked my Chinese wife

In Table 2, four commenters objectively described the usage of “Auntie” as a term for “any elderly lady”, or “any old lady”, or “person of the older generation”. Considering the fact that Theresa May is actually an elderly lady, the nickname “Auntie May” can be considered neutral for the PM.

4.3 “Auntie May” is a negative nickname for the PM

Table 3: The third type of reception of online independent users


User name

Excerpt of the comment (Watts, 2018)


Tom Cassidy

only it's more like Anti May



There's something lost in translation, they meant Antichrist



auntie being pissed



I'm anti may



Anti May?



Think they meant we’re "anti May"



I think someone was quick thinking; News articles: Huge anti-May crowds form, Translator to May: Huge crowds call for Auntie May. Alls good in the world.


Bill Edmunds

The Chinese must have heard that most UK voters and about 40 of her MP's are Anti-May



So the question is this; are the chinese mocking Theresa May by saying everyone is "Anti"-May? Or are the chinese being *really* nasty calling her 'Auntie' because they know she can't have children of her own? Or both? Either way I'm not so impressed with the Chinese elite's nastiness or with Mrs May and the Tories for putting us in this position where we, as a nation, are treated as objects of ridicule



Ironic nickname for the prime minister of what was once a big and respected world power. ''Auntie'' is a pathetic old lady from a middle size country with uncertain future



Global Britain Fairy stories. Episode 28: China. 'Auntie May very nice lady. We make trade deal with Little England: Little Trade deal! Auntie May go home - everybody happy. The End'



it's 'velly nice' and 'ellybory harry



She went there with a begging bowl.



not for someone you respect, for an elderly indigent relative maybe



Probably confusing her with infamous British rock band, Aunt May



Auntie May is a fictional character appearing in American comic books, commonly in association with the superhero Spider-Man. Who do you think is Spider-Man?



"Auntie May" - isn't that the one who used to play lead guitar for Queen?



An understandable confusion with the vision of her as an Aunt Sally3 figure



A mad auntie. The cap fits.



More like auntie lies or auntie u turn.


i'm laughing inside

more like great Bac Guai4


Juniper Joe

Who can forget lovable "Uncle Joe" Stalin?5



Senile granny May more like



Grandma May would be more appropriate lol



More like granny grim!



Auntie May..., probably a politie way to say Grandma May



Well it could be worse ....... Grannie May

In Table 3, 27 comments showed that “Auntie May” is a negative nickname for the PM. Among them, seven comments associated “Auntie May” with one of its homophones “anti May”, which was used in protest against Brexit and the PM and is absolutely a negative nickname for the PM. One comment even went as far as to assume that “There’s something lost in translation, they meant Antichrist”. Other comments mentioned “infamous British rock band”, “a fictional character”, “one who used to play lead guitar for Queen”(This bit of wordplay comes about by associating the PM with the band named Queen, whose guitarist was named Brian May; I suppose this is intertextuality in a way), a throw-and-hit game “Aunt Sally”, etc. These images are far from Theresa May’s official image as the PM, thus should be considered negative for the PM too. Word-plays of “auntie” like “a mad auntie”, “auntie being pissed”, “auntie lies”, “auntie u turn” also suggested that the nickname “Auntie May” has negative influence on the PM’s image. Comments including “a begging bowl”, “elderly indigent relative”, “treated as objects of ridicule”, “ironic nickname”, “Little England: Little Trade deal”, also showed that the nickname aroused ironical thoughts about the PM. The posters’ conscious linkage of “auntie” with “granny”, a form of address for much older women, as shown in “Senile granny May”, “Grandma May”, “granny grim” and “Grannie May”, also showed that “Auntie May” might mislead people to think of the PM as a much older lady than she actually is. In fact, age is definitely a part of the associations of “auntie”, but also it can connote being a spinster (unmarried and unloved).

To sum up, it is obvious that the PM’s new Chinese nickname “Auntie May”, had various interpretations and different receptions among the users on the website of the Independent in the UK.


As stated in the first section, the Chinese nickname “Auntie May” enjoyed instant popularity in China and received the expected appreciation from Theresa May herself because the PM felt “honored” and showed her gratitude of such an affectionate nickname. It’s widely reported in the Daily Express, the Sun, the Guardian, Huffingtonpost, Bloomberg, CPEC News, Pakistan Today, the Standard, etc. Times of News even reported with a title: “Auntie” Theresa May Meets “Uncle Xi” Jinping to Talk Chinese Tea and Trade (Times of News, 2018). And all the interviewed Chinese students believed that “‘Auntie May’ is a warm expression, just like we call Xi Jinping ‘Uncle Xi’ to show our fondness,” “It’s a friendly name we feel close to.” (ibid.)

To make a comparison of the receptions in the UK and China, we searched on the Internet and found posts on the PM’s new Chinese nickname on the website of Tianya, which is quite similar to the Independent in the UK that Internet users are able to read and post their own ideas online. We did find posts on the PM’s new Chinese nickname “Auntie May”, such as, “A form of address to show our affection and welcome”, “elderly auntie in the folklore: all in red”, “Auntie May and her husband come to visit us, how affectionate”, “Auntie May of the Chinese people comes”, “Though here comes a guest, not a relative … the form of address shows our Chinese people’s great personality and magnanimity” (Tianya, 2018; all our translations). Obviously, compared with the diversified interpretations of the users on the website of the Independent, the Chinese users on the website of Tianya are highly positive about the nickname.


However, from the posts on the website of the Independent, the posts on the website of Tianya in China, as well as CCTV’s report of the PM’s gratitude toward her new Chinese nickname, it’s obvious that there exist great differences in the perceptions of the same nickname at least among the Internet users in the UK and in China. As one of the posters on the website of the Independent rightly pointed out, “That word doesn't mean what you think it means” (La Cosmopolite, qtd. in Watts, 2018). It is true that “Nicknames can be friendly, showing peer approval and in-group unity. They can also be cruel and vicious”, as Black, Wilcox & Platt (2014) pointed out in their research. Why do such huge differences exist? It’s necessary to find out the reasons behind such differences to ease the potential cultural conflicts between the confused British and the good-intentioned Chinese.

6.1 Different perception of kinterms

In Chinese, the use of kinterms can help develop a certain closeness. In the present case study, almost all the Chinese believe that the PM’s Chinese nickname “Auntie May” can help develop a much closer relationship than Mrs. May, Mm May, PM May do. However, the British who posted on the website of the Independent were inclined to relate the kinterm “Auntie” to an old lady, even an indigent old relative. Such misunderstanding of kinterms in building good relationship can be considered the first reason.

6.2 Different cultural connotations

Chinese people are not used to calling others by more than one nickname. However, the British are good at nicknaming others. “Auntie May” to Chinese is nothing but “Auntie May”, a common form of address to show affection and respect to a woman of their mother’s age. However, to the British, “Auntie May” might be concerned with the British music band “Aunt May”, the fictional character “Aunt May” in Spider-Man, the “Aunt Sally” game, “Grandma May”, or even the worst of all, “Anti-May”. Should we blame the British for their wild imagination and unique creativeness? Probably not. The diversity of different cultures might be the second reason leading to the misunderstanding and different perception.

6.3 Different social dynamics

Social dynamics influence people’s perception of the same nickname. De Klerk and Bosch said that “nicknames might be regarded as fairly reliable indicators of current trends and attitudes” (1996: 526). On one hand, nicknames are reflections of “social dynamics of the group contexts in which they arise” (Holland, 1990: 261). On the other, different interpretation of the same nickname can also reflect the social dynamics. In the UK, the PM once had many negative nicknames like Theresa Maybe (Britain's indecisive premier, in The Economist, 2017), Mayhem (Metro, 2017), etc. Thus, when a new nickname, especially a new one coined by the Chinese, who are developing quickly on the basis of a continuous civilized history of more than 5,000 years while occasionally mistaken by a few foreigners as “savages”, comes to their eyes or ears all of a sudden, the British people, influenced by the social dynamic in the UK in which youth is admired, would most likely follow their own social dynamics and develop negative attitudes toward this new nickname, whereas in China elders are revered. In contrast, the Chinese audience and readers of the nickname “Auntie May” are influenced by the Chinese social dynamics; thus, they would not have so many negative interpretations and perception of the same nickname.

6.4 Different expectations of the audience

Nicknames (re)construct multicultural gendered identities (Mensah, 2016: 199). They can be seen as identity markers, and nicknaming carries a strong and complex verdictive force: it judges, assesses, or ranks (Adam, 2009: 82, 84). A wealth of nicknames can reveal masculinity and femininity (de Klerk and Bosch, 1996: 526). Male nicknames often relate to connotations of strength, hardness and maturity, while female nicknames relate more to beauty, pleasantness, kindness and goodness (Phillips, 1990). The nickname “Auntie May” unfortunately seems to have emphasized the femininity of the bearer. As women were generally considered to “take the nurturing and nurtured role” in society (de Klerk and Bosch, 1996: 540), some of the British who would not accept such a feminine nickname under diplomatic circumstances would consider it a negative nickname for the PM.6 It can also be speculated that it is still hard for a few of the British to accept a woman PM, Theresa May being the second in the British history. However, the nickname “Auntie May” reminded them that the PM is matter-of-factually a successful woman PM. Moreover, the nickname “Auntie May” is intended to show affection much more than respect. When some of the British are expecting respect from the Chinese, this affection-focused nickname will surely disappoint or even anger them to a certain extent, thus leading to their negative reception of the nickname “Auntie May”.


The PM’s new nickname “Auntie May”, logically the best nickname to show the Chinese people’s affection and welcome toward their distinguished guest, was appreciated by Theresa May herself, and celebrated by the Chinese according to various reports and media. But unfortunately, it caused great misunderstanding and led to different receptions among the users on the website of Independent in the UK. Such misunderstanding may lie in the different perception of kinterms, different cultural connotations, different social dynamics, and different expectations of the audience in the UK and in China. Limited by our own perspective, there must be other factors worthy of further research and more in-depth discussion from other linguistic, cultural or social perspectives. Additionally, our case study was mainly based on Internet users’ posts on two websites in the UK and China, the findings are only limited to online users. Therefore, similar research on such nicknames can be conducted with sufficient offline subjects. Moreover, even though the case study is interesting and engaging, it is not sophisticated enough to probe into the profound differences between the British and Chinese cultures, let alone the linguistic, cultural and social differences across different languages, cultures and societies. We enthusiastically encourage scholars to conduct further research on names across different languages and cultures from their own unique linguistic, cultural or social perspectives to ensure that those differences are analyzed, respected and negotiated in ever-increasing intercultural communications.

Note 1: Yang Gueizi, a nickname used to refer to the European and American people who swarmed into Chinese to do business or to teach people about Christianity in the Qing Dynasty.

Note 2: Da Pizi, meaning “big nose”, was used to refer to foreigners coming to China in the past, because they usually have a much bigger nose than the Chinese.

Note 3: Aunt Sally refers to a traditional English game usually played in pub gardens and fairgrounds that dates back to the 17th Century in which players throw sticks or battens at a model of an old woman's head.

Note 4: Bac Guai, or White Devil, a nickname for John Willis in Cantonese, is an American mobster linked with the Chinese Mafia in Boston and New York.

Note 5: The lovable "Uncle Joe" Stalin. It was a nickname for the former Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin, who was known as one of the "Big Three”, while the other two were Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. As “Auntie May” is similar to “Uncle Joe” in form and structure, the authors first took it as an affectionate nickname. However, we consulted an expert in politics and were told that, “I am quite sure that the commenter was not referencing ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin’ the one-time ally of the UK, but ironically, by using ‘lovable’ he is referring to the mass murderer Joseph Stalin. He is not treating the Auntie May nickname as affectionate.” Thus, the authors regarded this comment as negative for the PM.

Note 6: Even though “auntie” does give the vibe of female, but sometimes not a motherly one: the unmarriable stigma of “auntie” clings to the word (which, by the way, is also itself somewhat old fashioned--a youthful, highly modern woman is unlikely to be called “Auntie”, a term reserved more often for the unfeminine (in the traditional view) and sometimes even isolated.


This work was supported by China Scholarship Council under Grant [201808420043].


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