And it started with the phrase "党老爷们" in The Shop of the Lin Family/林家小铺子. I was reading the bilingual edition (from the 经典的回声-Echo of Classics collection, 外文出版社/Foreign Languages Press) last night, with the translation by Sidney Shapiro. Anyways, Sidney Shapiro translated "党老爷们" as "Kuomintang chieftains". I asked lzh about this, and she seemed confused. Then she told me I was a "老爷们". If I remember rightly, her reasoning was that being married and over thirty (but only just! Alright, thirty one years and a month counts as over thirty....) makes me a 老爷们.
And then the fun started. She made the mistake of telling me the female equivalent of 老爷们: 老娘们，which she pronounced with a noticeable Beijing rrrrrr, making it sound like lao niangr merrr. She speaks perfect putonghua when she wants to, Beijing-inflected putonghua most of the time, and Yanqinghua when she's with family.... but that's all beside the point.
Anyway, my dictionary has this charming little listing:
老娘们儿: dial. 1. a married woman. 2. derog. woman. 3. wife.
Compare with this:
老爷们儿: dial. 1. man. 2. husband.
Hmmm..... Do I detect a little sexism here?
So the fun: I started calling lzh 老娘们, and she got really annoyed. She protested that she couldn't possibly be 老娘们, even though she's married, because a 老娘们 is over thirty, already has children [ONE child, you counter revolutionary] and is fat. She insisted that 少妇 was the appropriate term for her.
And then, my brain ticking over in its usual odd way, I asked about the terms 少爷 and 少奶, which feature so prominently in the opening scenes of To Live/活着 and other films set in a similar time and place. Actually, my dictionary doesn't list 少奶, but it does have 少奶奶, and the same goes for this pinyin input thingy I use. Anyway, the meanings of 少爷 and 少奶 are pretty obvious to anyone who has seen To Live/活着 or similar films. 少爷 obviously refers to the son of the head of the household, and 少奶 to 少爷's wife.
Anyway, 老娘们 gets a pretty interesting reaction from lzh. 少妇 calms her down. Although it seems she prefers 老婆.
But here's something I hadn't realised: 少 comes in two tones: third, in which it means few, little, less, and all those other related meanings, and fourth in which it means young or the son of a rich family; young master. It's (obviously) in the fourth tone that it is used in all those honorifics and in words like 少年 or 少女. I'd always thought it only had the third tone, and that's how I'd been saying it all along, but now I realise that's really wrong. Fourth tone 少 is really quite different from third tone 少.
Anyway, it is all Mao Dun's fault. Well, no, me actually using one of these bilingual books for the purpose I bought them all- to help boost my Chinese reading by comparing the English translation with the original- led to quite a fun round of Chinese learning.
Now, I really need to get back into reading 《活着》, especially now that I've got free time coming out my ears.