Dai, Bhai and Babu

One thing in particular that I like about Nepali culture (although this phenomenon is more or less pan-South Asian) is the usage of “uncle,” “aunty,” “dai,” and “didi” (and I guess “bhai” and “bahini” although I don’t use these very often—and for little kids— “babu” and “nanu.”)

Why?

Because I can’t always remember the names of all the new people that I meet at a party and consolidating everyone into one of these categories makes life so much easier!

“Uncle” and “aunty” are easy and self explanatory. Nearly everyone who is just about old enough to be your parent (or older) can be put into this category. Using these words in this way does not denote kinship—most people who are related to you would have a different set of terms anyway— but it is a way to refer to elders with proper respect.

When I first met P’s dad I was at a loss as to what to call him. My Nepali friends insisted on “uncle” but calling my partner’s father “uncle” struck me as sounding a little odd. So I avoided using any formal title for a while and eventually blurted out what was most comfortable to me, “Mr. P” (P’s last name starts with P as well), which made my group of friends burst out in giggles because “It sounds too weird when you call him that!” since everyone else was calling him “uncle.”

However I must note, in case people out there are worried about what to call their significant other’s parents, I’ve known other Nepali couples who have referred to their future in-laws as “uncle” and “aunty” until marriage. Even if the terminology sounds weird to me, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t culturally acceptable!

Anyway, I digress. Beyond P’s parents, all the other older Nepali people I’ve met—parents of friends, friends of parents, etc–easily fall into “uncle” and “aunty” categories.

“Dai” (older brother) and “Didi” (older sister) are relatively easy too. Most of my friends size up people on their first meeting and decide whether to use this title or not. For example, some of our younger friends will call P P-dai even if he is just a few years older, and I call our older neighbors S-di (short for “didi”) and M-dai.

One has to be a little careful though, because if “dai” or “uncle” is used for someone who is not as old or young as you think it can be either a bit offensive, embarrassing or comedic. For instance S-di’s two daughters who are about high school age like to tease one of our friends by calling him “uncle” even though he is too young to be an uncle to them, thus making it a bit comedic and a little embarrassing. However if I meet a new person who is only about ten years older than me and misjudge their age and call them “aunty”—well, you can imagine that I’d probably embarrass or offend that person a bit.

“Dai” and “didi” can be just as versatile as “uncle” and “aunty.” I’ve heard P call taxi drivers and shop keepers in Nepal “dai” while negotiating with them, as well as family friends. “Dai” and “didi” can be used on their own or attached to a name like P-dai, S-di and likewise Frank Uncle.

“Bhai” (younger brother) and “bahini” (younger sister) can be used in the same way as “dai” and “didi.” Although I don’t hear these terms used with as much frequency as “dai” and “didi” probably in part to “dai” and “didi” being more respectful terms, and one should respect your elders more readily than perhaps your youngers.

“Babu” and “nanu” are great terms to know if there are little kids around. Little boys are “babus” and little girls are “nanus.” They are more like terms of endearment, like “little cutie” or something similar. There is one little “babu” that I am beginning to know relatively well, and I don’t have any idea what his real name is because every time I see him he is simply “Babu.”

So if you find yourself at a Nepali wedding, party, or other social event in a room full of people you don’t really know with various age groups, at least the people who aren’t your age could fall into one of these categories and you can focus on remembering the names of your contemporaries instead.

Quick Reference:

Uncle, Aunty—same as English
Dai– older brother
Didi or Di—older sister
Bhai—younger brother
Bahini—younger sister
Babu—little boy
Nanu—little girl

Me and Babu

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4 responses to “Dai, Bhai and Babu

  1. Joan Chamberlin

    Thanks for this really helpful post. I was in Thailand in Peace Corps for 2 years and Thai culture and language has similar words to use. Sounds practically the same, except the words themselves are different of course.
    Cheers,
    Joan

  2. just out of curiosity, any reason to use the title of this particular blog post: Dai, Bhai and Babu rather than didi, bahin and nanu..

  3. That was a rare peep in your culture.. that pic would have been nicer if not blotched..

  4. I wonder why “didi” is (seemingly) universal across the Sanskritic languages, while the term for older brother is different (but related). In Bengali it’s dada, in Hindi it’s bhaiyya, etc…

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