Tuesday, March 17, 2015

St. Patrick's Day, Green Hats, and a Weird TIL

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

This morning, I noticed some people walking around with green hats. Which I think is perfectly fine, but the Chinese in me always thinks of our good-natured taboo of wearing green hats.

A lot of green hats. I sure hope that it's got nothing to do with marital strains. Credit
You see, the phrase "wearing a green hat" is a euphemism for "cuckold", or the deceived husband in an extramarital affair. So when we say in Chinese that Mr. Wang is wearing a green hat, what we really mean is that Mrs. Wang's been a bit naughty. As you might imagine, the association has made it increasingly difficult for modern Chinese to literally wear green hats. Hence, the presence of any green hats is made all the more noticeable in daily life.

However it may sound, by now the green hat thing qualifies as a cultural sensitivity for Chinese, so I end up explaining this rather humorous association to people quite often. What's interesting is that even in a period of increasing vulgarity within our collective lexicon, the word "cuckold" is now nearly extinct from everyday English. Due to the nature of the word, it's understandably not a popular choice for inclusion on English vocab quizzes. It's not an SAT word, but it should be.

I myself first came across the term while watching episode S16E7 of the Simpsons, where the cuckoo clock sings "cuckold! cuckold!", prompting Homer to scream in anguish, "What's a Cuckhold!?" This is pretty much the reaction I usually get when I first try to explain most native English speakers what the green hat represents to Chinese.

Today was different. This morning, I found myself explaining the green hat taboo to a French colleague, and to my surprise, he required no further definition of cuckold! The word (or rather, its counterpart) cocu still exists! It's no coincidence, as the first usages of cuckold in English occurred in the early 13th Century, when the language was still rather heavily influenced by French. That's pretty cool.
Fun word, fun times. (Source: Wikicommons)

I also decided to look this up on English Wikipedia, where a brief entry was inserted (not by me) regarding the Chinese "green hat" version. Fascinatingly, it included the origin of the green hat:
In Chinese usage, an altogether different allusion is used, when the cuckold (or wittol) is said to be "戴綠帽子" (wearing the green hat), which derives from the sumptuary laws used in China from the 13th to the 18th centuries which required the males in households with prostitutes to wrap their heads in a green scarf (or later a hat).
To sum up our multiple TILs here:

  1. The definition of cuckold
  2. Don't get your Chinese friends green hats as gifts.
  3. The French usage of cocu is legit; English speakers need to step up their vocab
  4. The origin of the Chinese phobia of green hats is real.
Now, none of this should spoil your St. Patrick's Day fun. Be merry, wear green where you want, try not to get cuckolded, and enjoy celebrations responsibly.

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