나비 and Shower Heads: Should I Just Ask A Korean?

A few questions occurred to me today. I don’t know whether anyone who reads this blog will know the answer, but I’m going to post them anyway.If nobody seems to know, I’ll go ahead and Ask a Korean, and see if that guy can come up with any sensible answer… but first, I’ll post here.

The first thing I’m wondering about is the cat name “나비.” (For those of you not living here in Korea, the stereotype name for a cat is 나비. The Korean word for butterfly is the same.) I’m wondering:

  1. Is the name actually butterfly, or just a homophone? (I’m pretty sure it’s the former, but I wanted to check.)
  2. Are many cats actually named 나비 these days?  Or is it like with the name “Fido” for dogs in English, a name we almost never  actually see used, but which is the stereotype name for that animal, perhaps because it was at some point more common?
  3. How far back is 나비 a stereotyped name for a cat? Was the name either stereotypical or in use during the late Joseon Dynasty? Any idea how far back the name was used for cats, or was stereotypical for cats? (ie. Do you know if there is an old literary reference to a cat named that way?)

The second thing I’m wondering about is: when Koreans finish using a shower with a detachable shower head, they very often don’t set the shower head back in place — that is, they usually don’t put it back into the shower-head holder above their heads, but instead place it low, near the faucet. I assume this is to let the water in the shower head drain out, but I’m not exactly sure why. It’s a practice that doesn’t seem to have developed in the West — I never saw such a thing until I arrived in Korea — and I’m just wondering why it is so widespread, and what purpose it originally served.

(As far as I can tell, it doesn’t seem to serve any purpose now… it seems rather like the still-common habit of putting giant trash receptacles next to toilets in brand-new buildings that definitely have pipes wide enough to accommodate toilet paper — a vestigal practice, in other words — but I’m just curious regarding what the original purpose of the practice was.)

10 thoughts on “나비 and Shower Heads: Should I Just Ask A Korean?

  1. Um, I have no idea about the cat names, BUT. The shower head thing? I’d like to guess according to what I’ve noticed at my parents-in-law’s house. They aren’t standing up to have a shower. They are squating and often still using large basins filled with water to wash with instead of running the shower the entire time. All of their shampoo and soaps and stuff are on the floor of the bathroom, instead of on shelves. So, I assume, instead of standing up to put the shower head “back,” they just leave it hanging over the faucet where it’s easier to reach. Maybe? Just a guess!

  2. Here’s my take on 나비, with no guarantee of correctness. I can ask my wife later tonight when she gets home to see what she thinks.


    1. I’ve always understood it be the actual 나비. The idea of it being a homophone doesn’t really make sense to me, to be honest. That would be like naming your dog “Spot” and then saying, “Yeah, but it’s not ‘spot’ as in ‘mark,’ it’s a different ‘spot.'” People usually don’t make up words that sound exactly like other words and yet have no inherent meaning. So, yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s the actual 나비, too.

    2. No clue here. I’m not really a big fan of cats, and I don’t know anyone who owns a cat. I would bet that there are still unimaginative people out there naming their cats 나비, though.

    3. As for how far it goes back, I have no idea, but I very much doubt that people were naming their cats at all in the late Joseon period, if they even had cats as pets. As far as I know (which, admittedly, is not very far), the idea of animals as pets is a fairly modern one here. Animals have always served a more functional purpose in Korea, I think, so I suppose it’s possible that cats were kept to keep away the mice, but I don’t know if they were actual pets that would requiring naming. This is all conjecture, though.

    Heh. So that was probably no help at all. Moving on… the shower thing. Dude, I have no idea, but my wife does the same exact thing. She always leaves it on top of the faucet, and whenever I take a shower after her I always put it back in its holder. I didn’t even know it was such a widespread practice. I always figured that she left it on the faucet because it was easier just to leave it there. I never take the thing out of the holder and just use it like a normal shower, so it’s easier for me to leave it in.

    I’m definitely going to ask my wife about this one when she gets home, though.

    (Oh, one thing: I don’t buy the idea of letting the water drain out of the shower head–if you put the shower head in the holder and then turn off the faucet (or vice versa), the water will drain down from the head and out through the faucet. With the shower hose coiled or kinked, it’s actually less likely to drain.)

  3. My (Korean) wife bathes in the tradition- Korean way. She might (I hope I don’t get to graphic) spray herself from the shower-head, but then she will fill a basin, turn off the water and use the basin to rinse and such. As I see basins, often many basins, in Korean bathrooms, I had always thought they were used in the same way.

    Oh, by basin, I mean the large, low-sided plastic bucket, not the ceramic sink.

    On the subject of Korean bathroom quirks, my wife and her family seldom use the bathtub. They typically stand on the tile next to the bathtub while washing. I know the floor is (should be) waterproof and has a drain, but it still seems strange to me.

  4. Thanks for the responses everyone. Some interesting suggestions on the showering thing, and I’m looking forward to hearing with various spouses say about it. (Or will it just be Charles’ wife?)

    I have to admit, I have always found it annoying to find the shower head placed by the faucet. Not enraging, but sort of annoying. But suddenly I stopped and asked myself, “Okay, you’re annoyed because it seems pointless, but it must be (or seem) pointful to everyone else if they’re all doing it.” So I thought I’d try to find out.

    Bathing on the tile floor next to the bathtub seems very odd to me too. But then, I always hated this business of putting on (inevitably too-small) plastic slippers in the bathroom to keep the feet dry.

    However, it does at least help me imagine how people can take a “shower” in a room with no shower curtain and still not get their clothes, perched wherever they are, wet. (A constant problem for me in my old places… now I have a tub, though!)

    Charles: yeah, pets are modern, you’re right. But I had a monk naming a cat “나비” in a story set just in Sosa near the end of the 19th century — though if read as alternate history, it could be anytime in the last few hundred years — and having just maybe sorta sold it, I was suddenly wondering whether that moment it was anachronistic or not.

    (Actually, I think I removed the bit where he calls the cat “Nabi” but I’m not sure…

  5. About the cat thing… Not sure this is relevant, but given how much Korea was influenced by China over its history, it might or might not be useful to you.

    A lot of Ancient Chinese drawings depict a cat and a butterfly together, because a cat is a homophone for an octogenarian, and a butterfly one for a man of seventy years old–by representing both together, you’re wishing the recipient to live to a ripe old age twice over. There might be a connection to the naming of cats (given as present to people whom you wished to live long, for instance).

    As I said, it’s Chinese, but it might have crossed over (it’s one heck of a coincidence that both names are associated in both languages, to be sure).

  6. There’s a painting by Kim Hong-do (1745-1806?) that depicts a cat and a butterfly playing together – “고양이가 나비와 노는 그림” – that I thought might be part of the reason behind the association between the two names.

    When I asked the 부원장님 at our academy about it today she said that it was just something that was passed down from a long time ago (“our grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents”). She then took a guess and said that maybe it’s because a butterfly and cat move in a similar fashion. She mimiced this for me and seemed to indicate it had something to do with flittering motions, or at least not progressing in a straight line.

    A coworker said much the same thing — that the name comes from an association that was originally made many, many years ago and that she (and presumably everyone else) has no idea where it originally came from.

    Between the painting and the responses I was given it seems like there’s a possibility that cats were kept as pets during the Joseon dynasty … though I’m obviously basing that theory on somewhat circumstantial evidence.

    After coming home from work I looked up “김홍도 나비” on Google and came up with this site –


    – which contains the line “고양이가 나비와 노는 그림”은 생신 축하 선물이다. 중국어로 고양이 묘(猫)는 칠십 노인 모(모), 나비 접(蝶)은 팔십 노인 질(질) 자와 발음이 같다.

    The first sentence mentions that the painting was a birthday gift but, unfortunately, my Korean is not good enough to make a good translation of the second. Something to do with the cat representing an elder at 70 years old and a butterfly representing someone at 80 years old due to the characters (자) and pronunciations (바름) being similar/ the same??

    Assuming my translation is somewhat accurate (ha!) I wonder if that has any relation with this particular naming tradition. Maybe giving someone a cat named ‘나비’ is like showing your desire that the recipient lives to be 70, 80, or older?

    I can’t help with your shower question, but I did want to mention that the family of my Taiwanese friend does the same thing in their showers. Interestingly, in both of the bathrooms in their house the sink is in one corner while the shower head is in another. I noticed that they also had a basin for washing, though my friend’s mother does take care of young children for her nieces and nephews.

  7. Etymologically, ‘nabi’ could have come form ‘zannabi’ which is an old Korean word for monekey. They are both quick and fast. So… (this from a friend of mine who’s a Korean language major.) As for the shower head, in some apartments with decentralized heating system you gotta wait half a minute or so to get hot water flowing. Unless you want cold invigorating stuff on your head as soon as you turn on the water, it sounds like a sensible practice.

  8. I did a little research, and Paul (your translation was spot on) and Aliette are on the right track – in Chinese, “cat” and “eighty” are homophones, as are “butterfly” and “seventy” so it traces extremely far back. As for cats as pets, well, it depends on what you count as a pet. Cats were certainly domesticated and cohabitating with humans for thousands of years (how else do we end up with agriculture, which requires overwintering grain supplies that are vunerable to rodent and insect infestations? I would count the cat as much more essential for the development of human culture than the oft-lauded dogs), and there’s lots of pictorial evidence of cats in Joseon Korean – 화재 (변상벽) was particularly well known for painting them, even earning the nickname 병고양이.
    At any rate, when Koreans use 나비 for cats, they do in fact mean the word “butterfly” – it’s not a homophone in Korean for anything else (well, the same sounds also mean a bolt of cloth, but I think we can safely assume that’s not how they mean it.)
    While I have heard of people naming their cats “Nabi” it is most often analagous to our use of “Fido” in English as a name that applies to any dog, and substitutes if we don’t know the individual dogs name. It’s like calling “here kitty, kitty!” or John/Jane Doe for people we don’t know.
    As for the showers, it not only functions to let the hose drain and fascilitates the squatting showers already mentioned, but if you’re collecting water (used to be common in cities, still easily seen in rural households) for other purposes, it means more water is more likely to drain into the container you place under the faucet, rather than if you’d hung it higher on the wall. I’ve seen the collected water reused for kitchen, garden, and outdoor use.

  9. After reading this I realise that I at times do not set the shower heads back in place! At times I may want to hold on to the showerhead while showering and when I’m done I simply place it on top of the faucet as it is much less of a hassle than to reach up to place it correctly.

    Also, it takes about a minute for the water to heat up, which means that the next time I take a shower I wouldn’t have to reach up for the shower head to let the cold water run. Yes, I like to avoid cold water. By the way, I am Asian but personally do not use a basin. Several of my relatives still do though.

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