VERY Literal Chinese – and my gummy worms

I absolutely love the simplicity and practicality of the Chinese language.

This means that I can read medical journals in Chinese that I can’t even understand in English. Chinese pretty much puts complicated vocabulary into layman’s terms. For example the Coccyx is the 尾臀骨 [wěi tún gǔ] or the “tail butt bone,” and Hepatopathy is 肝病 [gān bìng] or “liver illness.” Though this also means I feel really stupid when my Chinese doctor friends want my help translating medical terminology and I honestly don’t know the english word.

Chinese’s literalness with words stretches far outside the medical field into many everyday words. English isn’t so helpful. For some reason I always related the word Logistics with the word Logic, they both come from the same root “logos.” So I imagined the Logistics department to be the Logical department where they use logic to sort out problems or something like that. Instead they just ship the problems somewhere else. Well, the word makes more sense in Chinese “物流” [wù liú] which is literally object/matter 物 and move 流. See simple.

Well, as nice as this all is, it doesn’t help very much with food. My very first week in China I was drinking fruit juice and saw the two Chinese 1 characters 果肉 [guǒ ròu]. It’s pretty easy to figure out that the it means pulp, but even still, fruit flesh or fruit meat really doesn’t sound as appetizing.

So today I bought gummy worms (something that I was unable to buy in China just 3 years ago) and while I was enjoying them, I read the label “果味牛筋” [guǒ wèi niú jīn] fruit flavored cow tendons. Yummy.

My (Chinese) husband said that the name is just a name because gummies are chewy like tendons. Maybe he’s right. Even still, cow tendons and “fruit flavored” doesn’t sound like a pleasant mix even if you are a fan of tendons. I mean fruit flavored steak anyone?

When I was 10-years-old my classmate told me my Jello had horse hooves in it. I said she was lying, but I didn’t really want to eat jello anymore. Gummies are made of gelatin and gelatin is made of boiled connective tissue (from hoofs, bones, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage) of cows and horses. My gummy worms really are fruit flavored cow tendons. That’s just a little too literal for me. I lost my appetite for my worms.

Talk on VERY Literal Chinese – and my gummy worms


15 Comments
  1. I’m either the annoying nerd who doesn’t get the joke, or the kid who says the emperor has no clothes here, so here goes:

    How does the thought of eating tendons make you lose your appetite for eating worms?!

  2. Exactly! Which would you prefer to eat? Worms or Cow Tendons?
    Same question, but nicely barbecued.

    The thing is – we use quite a lot of literal words in English – it is just that because it is English and therefore common, we completely ignore it.

    • Profile photo of Ericka

      @lotsofwordsandnospaces & @Wonders for Oyarsa
      Simple answer: I guess the ‘joke’ was that worms are supposed to be gross, but I found eating fruity tendons to be worse. If you eat a lot of meat or don’t really think about what you eat, you probably won’t get it.

      The problem with gummy worms vs tendons is that I know gummy worms aren’t made from real worms while they are actually made from tendons.
      It’s one thing to call something something else like worms, and it’s another thing completely to bring attention to the fact that the candy is made from tendons. Worms simply imply the shape while thinking about tendons reminds me of the origin of my sugary snack.

      I would have been happier eating my sugary snack if I had not been reminded it was made with animal parts. It lost a little bit of it’s sweetness:(


      I actually thought about the implication of eating worms and it was sort of part of the strangeness of the situation. I was hoping people would realize that ‘pulp’ and ‘worms’ are actually words we are used to hearing and so immune but taken out of context are equally as disturbing.

      Foreign words sometimes simply appear more literal to us. It’s kind of like how you freak out when hear “hotdog” literally translated into other languages (a girl in my Spanish class started crying because she thought people in Spain at puppies!) until you realize we’ve become immune to it in our own language, but it sounds more literal as our brains process the meaning of the foreign word.

      However, whereas hotdogs are not made from dogs, gummies are made from boiled connective tissue. The word ‘cow tendons’ is actually used to describe a lot of chewy foods in chinese, but in the case of the gummy worms, it’s not just a cute name because it actaully has tendons in it.

      @Fabrizio
      They are English words based of the fact that they are in English language dictionaries and are used by medical doctors. A lot of medical vocabulary is of Latin origin.
      The reason English is such a hard language to speak is because its of a German origin, but it was heavily influenced by early French which is of Latin origin. Those words simply haven’t evolved as much as other Latin origin words because they weren’t as commonly used.
      To disreguard a word because it is from another language really limits what one can consider english vocabulary.

  3. I’ve always thought that 酸奶 (lit: sour milk) was an unappealing translation of ‘yogurt’. But, as you say, it’s fantastically pragmatic and aids memorization for me.

  4. Is German another language comparable?

    I am a native speaker of Chinese, and after more than two decades speaking English, complicated words in English are still a struggle for me.

    But it was a pleasant surprise to discover German words are a different story. There are great similarities in the structure of lexicon between German and Chinese. Examples: Pediatrician – 儿科医生 – Kinderarzt, Gynecologist – 妇科医生 – Frauenzrzt, etc.

  5. Words being simple to the point where they seem *too* simple, and I opt for something else (wrongly, of course), has been a small but entertaining niggle in trying to learn the language.

  6. Your theory needs tweaking.

    Coccyx is commonly referred to as “tailbone” in English, corresponding to the Chinese 尾臀骨 (tail butt bone), just as hepatopathy is simply “liver disease”, no less literal than the Chinese 肝病. But how many Chinese are familiar with 尻骨, the classical name for 尾臀骨? And if you look up the classical Chinese medicine books, lots of terms exist that the average Chinese would find arcane and out-dated.

    If the idea of animal gelatin turns you off, try 牛皮糖 which despite its name, is actually vegan.

  7. Profile photo of Ericka

    @ababa the key word there is “commonly” meaning that that is layman’s terms. If you find it easier to understand an English medical journal than a Chinese one (assuming you speak Chinese), then I will give up my theory. Most medical terms in English come from Latin or Greek and so aren’t very easy to understand for most English speakers. Try watching “Bones,” the show makes fun of the fact that normal people can’t understand the lingo.
    The point is that those words are still used in English and they aren’t arcane, they are still used by people in the medical profession. If you don’t like my examples, there are many more that can be used like ‘prophase’ is 前期 or ‘meiosis’ is 减少. Commonly used but not all that straightforward in meaning. I assure you the Chinese would have been easier to remember in my high school biology class.

    My point was that I have never studied any Chinese medical terminology but I can understand it as I come across it, but that isn’t possible in English.

    I’m usually ok eating gelatin if I don’t think about where it came from.

  8. Erika,

    Enjoyed the passage. I’m glad someone said it! (…even if I planned to say it). I don’t know why everyone is focusing on those two bone words. They are missing the point! Everything from diabetes (糖尿病 or “sugar pee illness”) rhinoplasty (鼻成形术 or “nose reshaping craft“) is so obvious in Chinese! Don’t be snobs, all you people. We don’t care if you can speak fluent Latin or Greek. The point is English is based on a slew of other languages, while Chinese is based only on Chinese (modern transliterations aside). Therefore many medical and technical terms are actually easier for a an English native who just started studying Chinese to understand in Chinese!

    And that’s wacky!

  9. This highlights something that seems to be missing in English language teaching. The fact is that many, many english words have roots in ancient Greek and Latin, and it is very useful for students to learn this, because it is often key to understanding new words without looking at a dictionary. Particularly with the common prefix and suffix used in technical language. For example, a student that is familiar with the word ‘Manicure’ can see the word ‘Pedicure’ and immediately know the meaning, because of the prefix ‘Ped’, relating to feet, as in ‘Pedestrian’, ‘Pedal’, ‘Biped’, etc.
    I make a point of explaining common and technical prefix and suffix to my students at quite an early stage, and encourage them to ‘explode’ unfamiliar words to ascertain the meaning, it keeps the dreaded electronic dictionary out of my classroom, and leads to a deeper understanding of the language itself.
    Works for me and my students anyway. :)

  10. i think that the problem native english speaker have with those latin or greek words is due the nature of our languages which are based on an alphabet and has been developing along with the oral language, other than chinese which is if i might define it like that: a meaning-based language, a visual language.

    An average chinese but also a japanese can understand the meaning of an old chinese text which might back so far as 2000 years ago,since each character has a meaning and its meaning has undergone less changed during the centuries. Considering also the history of china

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