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One of the most common questions entertained here at the House of Two Bows, aside from “What kind of dog(s) is/are that/they?”, is “What do their names mean?”

So here’s the answer (extended mix version)…

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Photo taken 23 March 2010

Both of our dogs, one a Japanese breed and the other an African breed originating from the Congo region, have Mandarin Chinese names. We preferred not to give them “human” names, and we preferred to give them names in a language that at least one of us spoke fluently. Nevertheless, even native Mandarin speakers will find these names odd, which is just how we like it — their names are as unique as their places in our lives.

Bowdu established the pattern just by virtue of the fact that my partner and I got him when we were living in Taiwan. Shiba Inu, as well as all things Japanese, are relatively common on the island. As a former colony of Japan (1895-1945), it took some time for “Japanese cool” to reinstall itself in the Taiwanese mainstream. However, now I’d say it’s pretty much second nature and a distinctive strain of Taiwanese culture, such that acquiring a shiba there wasn’t so much about getting a Japanese dog as it was about getting any dog at all.

My boyfriend picked the character Bow (or bǎo 寶), meaning “precious” or “treasured.” I picked the character (肚), as in “stomach” or “tummy.” This part of his anatomy immediately drew my attention, the way his puppy gut sagged onto my arm when I cradled him. It was also an affirmation of how his was now the only other stomach, other than our own, that we would have to mind. The Precious Tummy made three in the family.

Five years later, Bowpi came to us from a different life with a different name. I shan’t repeat it here, but suffice to say, it didn’t suit our impression of her at all. Let’s just say her old name suggested a kind of vigor and pizazz that this shut down, withdrawn, wee sliver of a Basenji didn’t seem to possess, or perhaps had been flushed out of her after a long stint of crated life. Even now, she seems content to sleep 18 hours a day, though she immediately leaps to attention at the hint of a walk or outdoors exploration.

When naming children, it’s common for some Chinese families to retain the first character in the given name (Bow, in this case) and change the second character. But the second character is where we had difficulty. My boyfriend, with his limited knowledge of Mandarin Chinese, wanted to name her Bowpi 寶屁 meaning “Precious Toot”. As in a fart. Dog farts, especially when audible, are so rare that they’re both humorous and endearing, the way they can instantly liven up a room as everyone scrambles to escape the stench. At least, that’s what we’ve come to realize through common experience. So my boyfriend didn’t mean it as an insult — he loves dogs so much, he thinks even their farts are cute. If there’s one funny thing that transcends cultures the world over, it’s a base appreciation for fart jokes. Yes they’re juvenile and crude and low-class and inelegant, but if you can make a roomful of people laugh because of a stupid fart joke, you know you’ve broken down at least some barrier of “proper” decorum.

Nevertheless, I was horrified by this proposed moniker, and even more so when she started to respond to my boyfriend’s use of the name. “She’s too pretty for the name!” I protested. “We’ve never even heard or smelled her fart!” At least not at the time of first use, but believe me… she can drop a real stinkbomb on occasion. “And the character is hideous — it’s got a corpse radical, how inauspicious is that?!” This last was the point that drove me to the dictionary, flipping through homophones in search of something better suited to this fawn-like dog. It didn’t take long to pull up the character 媲 as in pìměi 媲美 , meaning “to compare favorably with; to match; to rival (fairly)” — it even has a woman/female radical. James Legge, an oldschool Sinologist/missionary translator, glossed the character as “helpmeet” in reference to a royal consort in the Book of Poetry.

So since she complements Bowdu as much as she completes our household, Bowpi is the Precious Companion.

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Photo taken 26 April 2010

Bowdu 寶肚 (top) & Bowpi 寶媲 (bottom) wish we had a bigger deck and more sunshine.

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