I love etymology.

I’m not sure what about knowing “why” a word is what it is that steams my baozi, but I just dig it. I confess, I’m not hardcore about it, but do frequently visit www.etymonline.com for casual reading.

For armchair etymologists like myself, the Chinese language is a fantastic source of wonders. Learning new words in Chinese is unquestionably an uphill battle, and sometimes looking at the literal translations of character combinations is not only helpful for memorization, it is also just a whole lot of fun.

Back when “Chinese” was still just something I said mostly for the amusement of onlisteners, I remember being taught “小心“, which of course means “take care, be careful.” Literally translated it becomes “small heart”. The image of a man with a small heart (in my mind, meaning cruel) trying to hurt me has reminded me of the meaning ever since.

As convoluted as the above may be, some are very direct, and very humorous. Take, for example, vagina. In Chinese this is “阴道“, “阴” has a number of meanings, but for the sake of amusement, lets go with “covert, concealed, hidden”; “sinister, treacherous”; and/or “of the nether world”. “道” means “way, path, road, channel, etc.”

None of these are quite so amusing as the names of places and nations. For me this offers some, rather ill-conceived, insight into the opinion of Chinese towards 外面的世界. Here are a few:

English Chinese Literally
America 美国 beautiful country
Italy 意大利 wish big profits
Germany 德国 kind/moral/virtuous country
Russia 俄国 suddenly country
Asia 亚洲 inferior continent
Africa 非洲 mistake/error/wrong/evil-doing continent

Those last two are possibly the most interesting. I mean, obviously these are transliterations made to use similar sounds as their English counterparts, but really, is this the best they could come up with?

Now, before you scroll down and comment on how I’m being a far-too-literal asshole and reading WAY too much into what characters were chosen, am I wrong to think that perhaps more positive characters (with the same phonetic) could have been picked?

Perhaps someone with a bit more knowledge about the subject could chime in and enlighten me. As it is, despite what the media indicates, I’m sure as the world understands Chinese language more… two things are sure to happen – American-Chinese relationships may bloom (who doesn’t like being called beautiful), and African-Chinese relationships may sour… I mean, “evil-doing continent”? Bit hard to linguate your way out of that one.


  1. I think that the yin in yindao also refers to the yinyang balance.

    Here is a fight waiting to happen with most Chinese because yin is negative while yang is positive. Yin, or negative, representing the female is played down in modern China.

    If you want some great reading you should do some reading of the ancient Daoist texts on how men should preserve their yang. There are sex guides for men.

    In fact it is said that for a man to release during intercourse was letting the woman steal his qi, or life force and if I remember correctly the way to enlightenment was to have intercourse with many women (I forget if it was 10 or more) in one night without releasing the “qi elixir”.

    In light of these studies I would guess that the “Path or cave of darkness” is very fitting.

  2. Haha, despite my twisting of the term, “yin” (moon) terminology is not actually “negative” in a “she’s such a bitch and so negative” but more in a “you’re HIV negative” way… it’s considered the cooling, or soothing to the fire of the ‘yang’.

    Interesting stuff on the Daoist sex books. I’ll have to look into them. 🙂 The Daoasutra?

  3. LanguageHat and LanguageLog discussed 非洲 just last fall. It’s an abbreviation of 阿非利加洲, and the sense of 非洲 alone is more like “non-continent” or “different continent”. Still not flattering like 美洲,but at least not so negative.

  4. Three non-sequential thoughts:
    – A friend of mine had 亚 in his Chinese name for a while. He said it sounded cool at first, but he changed it when he realized it was the word the Middle Kingdom used to refer to all those “lesser” Asians, basically barbarians.

    – I wonder what the Chinese tell all their new African business partners when someone asks what Feizhou means.

    – Picking apart the characters was actually the tipping point that finally got me into a Chinese class, probably more than “ting bu dong” saturation. The one that sticks in my head is 姓, which a friend said has the characters “woman” and “born” embedded in it. Makes sense for “surname.”

  5. @Chris: It’s come up a few times recently, but if ever there was a character to inspire interest it’s gotta be – 肏

  6. @Ryan: I guess I shouldn’t be embarrassed that I didn’t know the meaning of 肏 straight off. My built-in software just called it “undefined” and Google translated it as “indicators,” whatever that means. I asked a friend here in the cafe what it meant and she sorta freaked.

    I finally found it on your old post about free speech and swearing. It’s a fascinating one indeed, and “enter meat” seems about as good a translation as any, I suppose.

    I love swearing in multiple languages.

  7. Pingback: Conversations With 小i | Life In Suzhou China Blog | Adventures of the Humanaught

  8. Hey Ryan, I have sent my translation on your book review(War Trash) to the BBS “tianya”(天涯, if you ever heard of). And, from some comments I have received, I realize that not many Chinese know about the truth of the Korean War(including me), and talking about the decisions of those POWs on where to go(mean, Taiwan or mainland) seems to be a heavy topic, for us mainlanders.

    Anyway, I find this topic of yours on Chinese learning very entertaining, so this time I’m gonna introduce it to more Chinese readers.
    BTW, what do you mean by “baozi”in your second paragraph? Does it refer to some Chinese characters?

  9. Hey LYM, definitely would be interesting to hear some of the comments being thrown around Tianya regarding the book. Definitely a heavy topic for mainlanders. By “baozi” I was referring to 包子.

  10. Translations like Asia -> 亚洲 have no meanings. It is pointless to add a literal meaning to everyone of them. People chose these words usually because they 1)sound nice;2)look nice, which also apply to the names. For example, some girls choose SNs like 沉香–沉 (sinking) is sort of negative, but it does not matter, because when you put the two words together, they form a beautiful name. (By the way, I think 亚 is a wonderful word to have in one’s name.)

  11. Hey Estelle, that was sort of the point. I’m endlessly told that some Chinese names have ‘no meaning’, they’re just names … but the fact is, with 400 some-odd phonetics to pronounce the thousands of characters – surely better characters with the same phonetic could have been found.

    This is the first I’ve heard anyone ever mention that a character is chosen for how it ‘looks’. I’ve heard names being said to be “good” because the character’s radicals are in line with 风水 or other superstitious things (wealth, fortune, luck, etc.)… but never just the look about the character.

    And why do you feel it’s a wonderful word to have in a name? Did this hit close to home or something, you seem oddly defensive about it.

  12. oh..not really…there are certain words work really well for names (different person likes different words obviously), especially when you purposely want the name to sound ancient,unique, and beautiful. In some many, many, many, Chinese novels, the names of some characters (especially main characters) have no meanings, they just sound nice (which is fine to me). Yeah..and how it looks also plays an important role..to me….for example..I personally don’t like names with words like 小, because it looks childish and ugly..yeah..

  13. 其实翻译非洲的名字的时候别人根本没想那么多

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