This is something I still haven't mastered and still just go with the flow.

If I wanted to call someone a nickname, say for Mr. Wang, which one should I choose? What defines whether I should call him Xiao Wang or Lao Wang. Is it age, social status etc?

My wife has an Uncle who is older than both of us, but the family refers to him as 小居 including my wife (when talking with her parents about the uncle, not when talking directly to him), so I'm not sure if this is how I should be mentioning him when talking to others.

  • Your wife is called him 小居 when talking to your parents just to make he calling of him consistent between the two parties of conversation. This often happen in Chinese, my aunt will refer to me as Uncle (not "your uncle") when talking to her granddaughter. Usually we use the calling the younger parties use. But it is possible to used the one the elder party use.
    – fefe
    Jan 19, 2012 at 13:09
  • I would add more: both 老 and 小 are informally used, i.e. (1) you can't use it until you're familiar with them; (2) you can't call anybody using them unless you're telling jokes or showing relationship between you and others. May 31, 2013 at 14:09

6 Answers 6


Just as @Flake said:

In general, "小X" should be used to a person who is younger than you while "老X" to an older person.

And here is some additional usages:

  1. Generally speaking, 老X is often used to address a male, and 小X can be used for both male & female.
  2. 老X can be used to a person who is an acquaintance to you(usually both of you have almost the same age), for example, a close friend at school. However, in some cases, close friends will use 老X as nickname without obvious distinction between ages(this rarely occurs, but exists).
  3. You should not call a person who is much older than you 老X, it's impolite. You can call him/her X哥/X姐, and if they are older still X叔/X姨, etc.
  4. In companies, superiors might call their subordinates 小X.
  5. And in the family, elder ones might call the younger 小X.

Your uncle is older than both of you, so I think you'd better call him X哥(or just the given name, but should not use 小X as his parents used) when talking to others. :)

  • 1
    In 3. , by "mush big" do you mean "much bigger"? Even it is "much bigger" I still cannot get the point here. :P
    – Flake
    Dec 14, 2011 at 15:53
  • 1
    No worries. May also add the usage of nickname "老X" among close friends without obvious distinction between ages. ;)
    – Flake
    Dec 14, 2011 at 15:57
  • @Flake mum..that's right. I'll add it at No.2. :D
    – Kjuly
    Dec 14, 2011 at 16:01

In general, "小X" should be used to a person who is younger than you while "老X" to an older person.

Such nicknames are often used by a specific group of people. This makes the cases that a person is called "小X" if major members in the group are older than him/her, or vice versa.

However, in such a situation, let's take an example: a guy is about 30 years old and is called "小张" in his office where most people in the same office are older than him. But the few people who are younger than him normally should not call him "小张", but may call him some other nicknames, e.g. "张哥", or just his given name.

P.s. calling an uncle "小珠" is little bit strange to me.

  • In such situation, it is very common that your parents in law call him "小珠". But, normally, in my personal experience, the younger generation will not call him "小珠" but something like "珠叔". BTW, "珠" is a very rare family name as I never know a person with this family name. :)
    – Flake
    Dec 13, 2011 at 23:52
  • My bad, I'm not even close, that should be 居. Shows how well I know my extended family :(
    – going
    Dec 14, 2011 at 0:01
  • In China, relative levels cannot be mixed. Uncles cannot be called as brother. Even sometime calling by name is possible, using the wrong level in not acceptable.
    – fefe
    Jan 19, 2012 at 13:02

I just want to add some information to the accepted answer as I believe it is imprecise.

小x and 老x are used directly with someone you are familiar with (or speak with regularly, like a colleague).

The usage is based not only on age difference but also on the social status, gender, family relation to you and who is your interlocutor.

(You will not call your boss 老王 just because he is older than you but you would call him 老王 when talking about him with some colleagues. Similarly you could call 老张 an 80 years old chess partner that you play often with - there is no age limit when using 老. It's a mark of respect, not a mark of age like "old" in English.)

There are many ways to talk to/about someone:

-Using a diminutive like 小x and 老x

Both terms indicate that you converse or interact with the person on a regular basis but not regularly enough to be very good friends, intimate or family.

  • boss talking to an employee (小)
  • employee talking about the boss to a friend (老)
  • young chess club player talking to older friendly player (老)
  • 25 years old employee talking to 25 years old trainee (小)

-Using the full name

  • Colleague
  • Friend
  • Old person

-Using the first name

Rare. Can be used in the same place were you would call someone 小x

-Using a nickname

Obviously if you are close enough to this person.

-Using his/her specialty

  • 王总理
  • 黄师傅
  • 李老师

-Adding Mr or Miss or Mrs

If you don't know how to call someone, use those, you cannot be wrong.

  • 先生
  • 女士
  • 小姐

-Using the family relationship

Usually uncle/auntie and brother/sister (who are not your real brother or sister)

  • My wife's uncle: 王叔叔 or 叔叔
  • My wife's auntie: 王阿姨 or 阿姨
  • 5 years old talking to a 20 years old girl: 姐姐 or 大姐
  • 5 years old talking to a 20 years old boy: 哥哥 or 大哥
  • 5 years old talking to a 50 years old woman: 阿姨

-First name + family relation

  • My wife's relative (male), a little older than me: (王志明) 志明哥

In your case (uncle Ju) you can definitely call him (or talk about him) 居叔叔 or 叔叔

I would avoid the 老/小 diminutives when talking to/about anyone for the moment until you are familiar with the nuances or until someone asks you to use it.

The list above is of course subject to exceptions and difference of usages in certain provinces but in general it works.

  • employee talking about the boss to a friend (老) : Neither 小 or 老 can be used for bosses. You use their title.
    – fefe
    Jan 19, 2012 at 12:55
  • 5 years old talking to a 20 years old: It is well justified to used 叔叔/阿姨. 5 years old talking to a 50 years old: I would definitely suggest 爷爷/奶奶.
    – fefe
    Jan 19, 2012 at 12:57
  • In your case (uncle Ju) you can definitely call him (or talk about him) 居叔叔 or 叔叔: Usually, for relative, we don't use surnames. We only use surnames to one who is not a relative (e.g. parents' friends).
    – fefe
    Jan 19, 2012 at 12:59
  • @fefe: 50 years old is to young to call 爷爷/奶奶. I do use surnames for some of my relatives and 小/老 can be used for bosses when you talk about them with a friend. Thanks :o/
    – 龚元程
    Jan 21, 2012 at 3:47

To make it short, in a word, theoretically 老王are ones look above 45, 小王 are ones underneath it.

But sometimes people don't want to be seen as aging man, or too sensitive about it. we overlook the fact, call him 小王.

and use 老王 is call him with the respect of his passing days, so he can be a one

  • you familiar with or admirable or you want to fawn or make fun of.

CAUTION:never use it on your boss!!

小王 just go opposite.


I agree with all the above posts, very thorough.

Actually the best way to determine whether to use "老王" or "小王" is to:

  1. See what other people call him.
  2. Ask him which one he likes.

You might find it is very common that your calling "小王" to an old guy might make him happy (sounds like he is still young).


小王 is used to call someone who has the 王 last name and who is younger than the speaker.

The same, 老王 is used to call someone who has the 王 last name and who is older than the speaker.

Moreover, 老王 could mean the paramour (of the wife) i.e. 隔壁老王 - Literally means the 老王(old Wang) next door, in this case, 王 doesn't necessarily need to be the last name, it is just a specific term in this idiom.

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