Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure once said language is a structured system of arbitrary signs. In other words, your name, when read out loud, could coincidentally mean something outrageous in one of the thousands of human languages. Who knows, your last name could mean “moron” in an Amazon tribe’s language.
The Biographical Dictionary of Notable Figures with Hilarious Names (Japanese: Sekai-chinmei-ijinroku) written by Jirolle Taquai (Takai Jiroru) is a collection of foreign names that happen to sound obscene, funny or nonsense in the Japanese language.
Allow us to introduce you one of the most extreme examples from the book. Peter Mancoc, a Slovenian record-holding swimmer, must have given an extremely hard time to Japanese sportscasters, especially female. Pronounced man-ko-cchi in Japanese, the name sounds too much like a combination of the foulest way to refer to a female genital and a cute-sounding suffix -cchi. The book contains serious drawings of what many Japanese would picture when they hear such names (see below).
It gets even worse with Ed Fella, a renowned American graphic designer. His name is adapted as Edo Fera in Japanese, which sounds to the Japanese like nothing other than a combination of Edo, what the city of Tokyo was known as till the 19th century, and the common abbreviation of the word of Latin origin ending with -tio. Perhaps it wasn’t only teenage Japanese boys who have pictured a little Edo-era geisha performing it like in the painting below.
The book also talks about names that sound rather positive yet slightly funny in Japanese. Most Japanese wouldn’t be able to help supporting Ibrahim Gambari, a former Nigerian Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations. Gambari is a nominalized form of ganbaru which means to make effort in the middle of a hardship. Many Japanese must have pictured an old mother wishing the best luck of her son who is working hard away from the country.
The Japanese are fully aware foreign names don’t come from their language but some names just sound too much like Japanese to them. The book mentions Saddam Hussein’s son named Qusay, which inevitably reminds any Japanese, probably including government officials, of the word kusai (stinky). This could have affected how much responsibility the Japanese government was willing to take about the war in Iraq. Michael Jordan, whose last name is pronounced almost identically as joodan (joke), might have caused Japanese sports fans to take basket ball less seriously than they would have. The Dictionary also points out Nicolas Cage’s last name sounds like keiji (detective). No wonder he played an excellent police officer in It Could Happen to You – at least many Japanese think so.
If you’ve been wondering why Japanese people giggle when you introduce yourself, just check the Biographical Dictionary of Notable Figures with Hilarious Names and see if your name is in it.