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How 小名 (Nicknames) Work in Chinese

Contrary to popular belief, a Chinese 小名 (xiǎo míng) is not simply a nickname. Anyone can give you a nickname, and some of these nicknames might not be so nice! I’m thinking of the playground bullies who call other kids “slowpoke” or “short stuff.”

But 小名 (xiǎo míng) are usually created by a person’s parents or close family members, and they are created out of love. 

Back in ancient China when infant mortality rates were high, people were superstitious and feared that evil spirits would come kill their children before they can grow up. To keep the evil spirits away, parents gave their kids humble 小名 (xiǎo míng) such as 狗剩 (gǒu shèng) - “dog’s leftovers,” or 臭蛋 (chòu dàn) - “stinky egg” so that they wouldn’t care to pay attention to a child who is so “lowly.”

Nowadays, parents are no longer so superstitious, and 小名 (xiǎo míng) are usually created to express parent’s good wishes or used as a term of endearment. There are a number of ways that 小名 (xiǎo míng) is chosen, read on to find out!

How are 小名 (xiǎo míng) chosen?

1. Variation of the given name

This is probably the easiest way to pick a 小名 (xiǎo míng), and the one that we can relate to the most in English. It’s similar to the process in which Alexander becomes “Alex,” and Samantha becomes “Sam” or “Sammy.”

In Chinese, you take the last character of a person’s name, and you repeat it. For example, the last character of my name is 娜 (nà) - and my 小名 (xiǎo míng) is “娜娜 (nà na).” This is what my parents, grandparents, aunt and uncles all call me! Unless my mom is angry or serious, in which case she uses my full name. 

But not all 小名 (xiǎo míng) are chosen this way. Maybe the last character of your name doesn’t roll off the tongue, or maybe you simply wanted something different. It’s actually quite normal for 小名 (xiǎo míng) to not have any direct correlation with the actual name.

2. Nature

Another popular way that families choose 小名 (xiǎo míng) for their child is to look for inspiration from nature. Parents will name their kids 石头 (shí tou) - “rock”, 小虎 (xiǎo hǔ) - “little tiger,” 雷雷 (léi lei) - “thunder.” These 小名 (xiǎo míng) can show a lot of strength and vivacity. 

3. Expressing Good Wishes

Of course parents want their kids to be lucky and succeed in life, and sometimes these hopes get carried over to the kids’ 小名 (xiǎo míng). In the category, you’ll have 小名 (xiǎo míng) such as 来福 (lái fú) - “blessing” or 喜儿(xǐ er) - “happy child.” For families with more than one kid, they might name them sequentially, such as 大宝 (dà bǎo) - “big treasure” and 二宝( èr bǎo) - “second treasure.”

TIP: Check out our post on How To Wish Someone Well in Chinese
4. Characteristics of the kid

Lastly, 小名 (xiǎo míng) might be chosen on the characteristics of the kid as a baby. For example, if the baby likes to smile a lot, parents might name her 乐乐 (lè le) - “cheerful.” Maybe the baby likes to squirm around a lot, so the parents name him 动动 (dòng dong) - “to move.”

For me, my parents almost gave me the 小名 (xiǎo míng) of 跳跳 (tiào tiao) - “to jump,” because I like to jump around the crib, but they settled on 娜娜 (nà na) instead. Giving me a 小名 (xiǎo míng) was actually the cause of a major family debate! And that’s how it usually happens in families, everyone will have an idea on what is the perfect 小名 (xiǎo míng), but one of them eventually sticks and is used by your family throughout life.

小名 (xiǎo míng) FAQs for Non-Native Speakers:

Should I pick a 小名 (xiǎo míng) for myself?

Sure, why not? If you already have a Chinese name, you can try to turn one of the characters into a cute 小名 (xiǎo míng)

If you don't already have a Chinese name, you should first read this article on How To Choose a Chinese Name, followed immediately by our article on How NOT to Choose a Chinese Name.

Should I introduce myself with my 小名 (xiǎo míng)?

Probably not. You see, 小名 (xiǎo míng) is a little more casual than simply turning “Alexander” into “Alex.” There is a silly element to 小名 (xiǎo míng), kind of like turning “Robert” into “Bubba.” Would you introduce yourself as “Bubba” to people? 

Watch this lesson from Unit 4 of the Beginner Conversational Course to learn how to introduce yourself in Mandarin:

Who should I call by their 小名 (xiǎo míng)?

As you might have guessed, 小名 (xiǎo míng) are deeply personal and should be used by family and very close friends only. Perhaps if your significant other is Chinese, they might be okay with you using their 小名 (xiǎo míng) occasionally.

It’s also a generational thing, you would never call people in an older generation by their 小名 (xiǎo míng), it’s disrespectful! But if you have kids or nephews or nieces, you can call them by their 小名 (xiǎo míng)

Should I ask people if they have a 小名 (xiǎo míng)?

You could with a close friend, but be aware that they might not want to share it. The 小名 (xiǎo míng) could be pretty embarrassing, too. No one wants to be called “stinky egg” as an adult! So exercise discretion when it comes to other people’s 小名 (xiǎo míng).

Do you have any questions about Chinese 小名 (xiǎo míng)? Does your family have a 小名 (xiǎo míng) for you?Do you have a Chinese 小名 (xiǎo míng) or nickname?  Let us know in the comments below!