Tag Archives: Nanu

Nicknames and Pet Names

When I was in elementary school my grandmother took my sister and I on our first sans-parents trip. We flew across the country to San Diego to see one of my aunts who had a young son and was pregnant with her second child. My little cousin’s name was Sean, and I remember cooing to him, “Hey Sean, hey little Sean, hey there little Seanie-Seanie-Seanie-Seanie-Seanie!” My aunt stopped me right there and said, “Oh, no. No nicknames. He is just Sean. I don’t want anything silly to stick.”

I didn’t really grow up with a nickname either. I think my parents didn’t really know what to shorten my name to, or maybe no one really thought about it (except for my sixth grade teacher who jokingly referred to me as C—-nie-Weenie-Beanie-Frances, although that’s not really shorter). But for someone who grew up without a ton of nicknames, I think P and I are going to be the kind of parents (someday) that have a million nicknames for our kids–if our poor dog is any indication. His name is Sampson but he also goes by Sam, Sammy, Sammu, Samaloula, Samalou, Bubala (which actually means “grandmother” in Yiddish, so don’t ask me where that came from), Bubalou, Bubaloula, Bubahead, Bubaface, you get the picture. I guess the dog is used to our craziness, because he seems to respond to all of them.

Anyway, that was my long introduction to my ramble for today: Nicknames (pet names?) for couples, US and Nepali style.

In the US couples have all sorts of pet names for their significant other. They range from cutesy (Baby, Sweetie, Darling) to food inspired (Cupcake, Muffin, Honey) to silly (insert all sorts of potential nouns here). I kind of wish P and I had a better pet name for each other. I admit, ours is totally dumb, and really has absolutely no meaning at all, but it’s one of those things where it just stuck, and now I don’t think it will ever change (perhaps my Aunt had a point way back when?)

In high school somehow I started using the made up word “Merface” as a silly term of endearment for friends or my sisters. I don’t have a clue where it came from, it was probably something that just came up in conversation once and stuck. By the time I met P in college, “Merface” had morphed into “Merf” and that also just kind of stuck. Eventually P was the one and only Merf in my life and that name became this silly nonsensical term that I used so frequently with P (and he with me) that occasionally he stops and says, “You know, my name isn’t really Merf.”

Much like our poor dog, Merf also has lots of variations: there is the short and to the point “Mer” that can also be elongated when I’m pouting about something like, “But meeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrr I don’t want to eat rice today” or P:
Meeeeeerrrrr pasta, again?”), there’s the flirty “Merfy” (“looking good Merfy”) or the more playful “Merfalou” or “Merfaloula.” Or even an insult—“Don’t be such a Merface.” You get the idea.

Gosh, I feel pretty ridiculous even typing all this out, but I’ve already gotten this far, so I might as well keep going.

“Merf” I think looks even stranger when typed out rather than said, because I think most people probably assume we are saying “Murph or Murphy” to each other, like the Irish name. Maybe they think I’m trying to Irish-American-ify P by christening him “Murphy.”

Anyway, aside from our weird nickname that doesn’t mean anything, there are some relatively common Nepali terms of endearment that people use, so I wanted to mention those.

I think a frequent one is “Nanu and Baba.” Nanu means something like “little girl,” while Baba could mean “father” but is also used similarly to Babu for little boys. Sometimes I find in confusing because “Baba and Nanu” are also used as generic cutesy terms for Nepali children. So there could potentially be both an older and younger set of “Babas and Nanus” over for a dinner party. Although I guess there could be a lot of older and younger “Muffins and Sweeties” too depending on the crowd you are with.

Our friends AS and N use these particular pet names a lot. When they stayed with us for several months, I got so used to hearing them call each other Baba and Nanu that I even started referring to them as Baba and Nanu, which in our household was more of an inside joke, but when visiting Nepalis heard me call N Baba it probably scandalized them (“What is going on in this house?”)

I asked P if he could think of any others. Some wives sometimes call their husbands “Raja” (king) and I guess conversely the wives might be called “Rani” (queen). P’s parents call him “Kalu” as a nickname (black). AS said that sometimes couples might call each other Kalu and Kali (black) or Budha/Budhi (husband/wife).

So now that I’ve embarrassed myself with nicknames and pet names, what do you guys call each other?

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.”)


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