The Explainer is where we explain an aspect of Chinese life. Simple. So now you know.
Taylor Swift has many nicknames: T-Swizzle, T-Swift, Swifty, Tails, Tay Tay, Tayter Tot, Tater Swift, Dead Tooth, the little country star who could, the Queen of Pop, the Queen of Country, the Queen of Country Pop, the Mother of Dragons…
But Tater Swift is probably not aware of what the kids call her in China: Meimei (霉霉), meaning “moldy,” or to give the more direct translation, “mold mold.”
We know haters gonna hate, but that’s a particularly strange sobriquet to bestow upon the Khaleesi of Country Pop. Surely there’s not bad blood between Taytor Tot and the Chinese people? After all, Swifty added a third show to the Shanghai leg of her all-conquering world tour after tickets to the first two concerts sold out in mere minutes. It doesn’t sound like Tay Tay has passed her expiration date.
Never fear, the PRC’s still got mad love for Dead Tooth. According to the explanation of one self-professed Chinese fan on the Yahoo Answers-esque site Baidu Zhidao, the musty nickname is not used pejoratively, but is an àichēng 爱称, a pet name or term of endearment; literally it’s a “love name” – Tay Tay, just say yes.
While it might seem strange to signal fandom by suggesting your favorite pop star is covered with a fungal growth, there is an explanation – so grab your passport and my hand as we delve into the wonderful world of Chinese wordplay.
The Mandarin language is particularly rich in homophonous syllables. While there are tens of thousands of Chinese characters, Mandarin has a limited number of sounds, meaning that many characters are pronounced in exactly the same way or sound almost identical and are differentiated only by intonation.
China has long tradition of switching characters out for homophones and many of the most well-known aspects of Chinese culture stem from these puns – for instance, the number four is considered inauspicious because it sounds like the word for death.
In today's digital age, homonyms are popular as a means to evade Internet censorship because keyword searches for politically sensitive terms fail to detect netizens’ inventive puns. Most famously, the ‘grass-mud horse’ (a play on ‘fuck your mother’) became an emblem of online subversion as the mythical creatures battled watch-wearing river crabs, stand-ins for state censors. Last year, the government went as far as to ban puns in an attempt to keep up with creative online dissent.
Clearly, however, Chinese Internet users haven’t got the memo and puns continue to proliferate online – sometimes to make a political point and sometimes just for the pun of it.
In the case of Swifty’s bacterial alias, the word for mold or fungus 霉, pronounced ‘méi,’ is a homonym for the character for beautiful 美, which also represents the US, 美国 (Měiguó), literally ‘beautiful country.’ And Tater Swift is, of course, a beautiful all-American girl. In fact, the origins of using the character for mold to replace the character for beautiful likely come from certain freedom-hatin’ quarters of the Chinese Internet, where ‘Murica is referred to as ‘mold country’ (霉国). (Hilarious, guys!)
But why christen T-Swift with mold? Why not another pretty US pop diva like Swifty’s sworn enemy Katy Perry? Apart from the fact that Perry’s netizen-bequeathed alias is ‘Fruit Sister,’ it mei be that there are more puns…
Indeed, the character for mold is also found in the two-character word for unlucky 倒霉, dǎoméi. (Those of you living in China may recognize the word from the ubiquitous ursine cartoon Daomei Xiong 倒霉熊, which follows the unfortunate adventures of, you guessed it, a shit-outta-luck bear.)
Hold up. We know she has her detractors haters and she does seem unlucky in love, but does fortune really frown on the reigning Queen of Pop?
A few years ago – when Chinese fans first started to call her Meimei – success didn't come so easy. According to the Baidu Zhidao explainer, whenever Tails released a new single, it never managed to top the Billboard Hot 100, and T-Swizzle was always doomed to settle for second place, perennially pushed off the top spot by an “evildoer.” Note that this explanation was given in August 2012, meaning the ‘Moldy’ nickname predates T-Swift’s first US chart topper, September 2012’s “We Are Never Getting Back Together.”
So there you have it, Tay Tay’s Chinese nickname is a reference to her beauty, her nationality and her (former) bad luck.
We would suggest it might be time to update the stale moniker, but if Taytor Tot’s feud with Katy Perry continues to escalate, a mold attack would be the perfect weapon to take down Fruit Sister. Go forth and make a meme, Internet!
If you’re wondering what Swifty’s actual name in Chinese is, it’s 泰勒·斯威夫特 (Tài∙lè Sī∙wēi∙fú∙tè), giving her a rather inauspicious four-character family name. Maybe Moldy isn’t so bad after all – no need to it shake it off, Taters.
[Image via MTV]
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