This thread was sparked by seeing a discussion on livejournal. An English-speaking author was writing a story about a little Russian girl named Svetlana, and asked what the Russian word for “firefly” would be – because Svetlana means “light”, the author wanted her character’s grandfather to nickname her Firefly. A Russian poster responded, saying that in Russian culture this scenario would be unlikely, as insects aren’t associated with anything sweet or romantic in Russia. A Russian grandfather wouldn’t go from Svetlana = light = firefly, he’d go Svetlana = light = “my little light”.
I found this intriguing. Not so long ago, I had mentioned to a Chinese speaker that my middle name means “wolf”, and asked if there’s an equivalent name in Chinese. His response was wolves in Chinese culture have a negative connotation and therefore parents wouldn’t give their child a name with such a meaning. Whereas in some European cultures, wolf = free, wild, devoted to a pack, powerful, no such symbolism is connected with the concept of wolf in Chinese culture, or at least not in a positive way.
Can anyone give me more examples of objects or animals commonly used for symbolism, but which have contrary or nonexistent symbolism in other cultures?