Archive for Etymology

Putting the kibosh on bosh

In the “Cultural disappropriation” section of the current The Economist, there’s an entertaining and informative article on the latest attempt to purify Turkish:

Turkey’s president wants to purge Western words from its language:  A new step in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s campaign against foreign influences”

The whole business is both humorous and hopeless:

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Coral reef, dead or alive

June Teufel Dreyer noticed that the People’s Daily and other official outlets refer to Okinotori as a jiāo 礁, reef, which fits her understanding of the geology involved.  The Japanese, hoping for a larger Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), say it is an island. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) definition is that a rock incapable of sustaining life (“life” is not defined; could be human life, animals, plants, bacteria?) is not an island. The government of Japan position is that Okinotori isn’t a rock, since it is composed of coral.  Yet the character, which she assumes the Japanese use as well, clearly contains the rock element.   So, June asked, can coral be considered a rock?  In this case, there are substantial implications.

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Chinese Trumpistas

Their legions grow with each passing day.  This post is about what they are called in Chinese (see below).

The Chinese people were fascinated with Trump even before he was sworn in as POTUS:

Year of the cock” (1/4/17)

See also the references in the second half of the third post cited below.

Now that Trump has been President for more than four months, he is all the more popular among certain segments of the Chinese population.  Even top politicians who are jockeying for power at the 19th Party Congress to be held this fall are modeling themselves after Trump:

China’s Leadership Reshuffle 2017: Rising Stars; How China’s regional chiefs use Trump tactic in race for top” (Choi Chi-yuk, SCMP, 6/3/17)

One mentioned Communist Party chief Xi Jinping’s name 26 times in a speech, another mentioned poverty 90 times

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Ask Language Log: cow evolution in Hong Kong

From Hwa Shi-Hsia:

I have a question for Language Log. My sister in Malaysia recently bought an MP3 player with a feature listed as “The fire cow charging”. My father figured out that it meant a transformer or power adapter, but he couldn’t come up with a plausible explanation. An acquaintance from Hong Kong responded that:

“It’s actually a transformer. Of course, transformer is too long to say so it was shortened to ‘former’, or 火馬. That became 火牛 because that’s just how Hong Kong Cantonese evolves.”

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From “barbarian” to “very”

Earlier this week, I wrote a post titled “‘Little Man’ the eating machine” (5/22/17), in which I pointed out that “Man” here does not mean “(hu)man” or “male human”, but that it signifies “(southern) barbarian”, with extended meanings of “rough; reckless; fierce; rude; unreasoning; unruly; bullying”.  I also noted that this mán 蛮 has another set of meanings:  “quite; rather; somewhat; very”.

In the sixth comment to the post, liuyao wrote:

I was hoping VHM would do a linguistic/philological analysis of 蛮 in the sense of “very”. Given that it was originally a derogatory term for “barbarians” in the south (possibly Austroasiatics that have long been displaced or assimilated), how did it come about that the southern topolects (or when they speak their variants of Mandarin) have this character or word for “very”? Are there alternative characters for this morpheme?

I will now attempt to answer all of liuyao’s questions.

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Funerarily lost

BIYI has written a very clever article titled “The Culture of sàng: a Generation Lying-down?” in China Buzz Report (Elephant Room, 5/7/17).  It begins with a little Mandarin lesson:

The character 丧 is a polyphone in mandarin Chinese. When it is pronounced sāng, it loosely translates to funeral or mourning. When as sàng, it could be referring to either losing certain things or people (“丧失”), or a conglomeration of negative emotions such as feeling depressed, angry, disappointed and vexed.

And the sàng culture we are talking about here really takes both meanings: it is, very vaguely, the idea that you’ve lost something and are feeling horrible about it.

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Haba: mysterious Mandarin morpheme for “pug”

There’s a town called Hǎbātún 奤夿屯 (where tún 屯 means “village, hamlet; camp; station”) in Chāngpíng qū 昌平区 (“Changping District“) of Beijing.  The name sounds odd and the first two characters are unusual.  It is said to date back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) when it was a Mongol military encampment.  Southerners supposedly referred to the Mongols as “hǎbā”.

I’ve also often wondered about the origin of the name “hǎbagǒu 哈巴狗” (where gǒu 狗 means “dog”), which is the Chinese name for “pug” (it is also called bāgēquǎn 巴哥犬 [where bāgē 巴哥 literally means “ba brother” and quǎn 犬 is another word for “dog”]).  Is it possible that the hǎba 哈巴 of hǎbagǒu 哈巴狗 is related to the Hǎbā 奤夿 of Hǎbātún 奤夿屯?

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Limerick Poems and Civil Wars

This is a St. Patrick’s Day guest post by Stephen Goranson.


The five-line nonsense verses with AABBA rhymes existed long before they were called Limericks, it’s generally agreed, but why they got that name lacks consensus.

Let’s start with an example:

There was a young rustic named Mallory
Who drew but a very small salary.
He went to the show,
But his purse was so
That he sat in the uppermost gallery.
Tune: wont you come [up] to Limerick

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Copasetic

This is a guest post by Stephen Goranson.


The source of “copasetic,” meaning “fine,” has been sought in Yiddish, Hebrew, Creole French, Italian, Chinook, and in a putative assurance from an accomplice of a thief in the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago that the house “cop’s on the settee.” But, probably, a novelist coined the word. There is good reason to think that Irving Bacheller invented the word for a fictional character with a private vocabulary in his best-selling and later-serialized 1919 book about Abraham Lincoln in Illinois, A Man for the Ages. Despite extensive searches, and conflicting rumors, there is no known earlier attestation.

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Caucasian words for tea

In Appendix C of The True History of Tea, a book that I wrote with Erling Hoh, I showed how all the words for “tea” in the world except two little-known Austro-Asiatic terms can be traced back to Sinitic.  The three main types of words for tea (infusion of Camellia sinensis leaves) may be characterized as te, cha, and chai.  I won’t repeat all of the philological and linguistic data in this post, but you may find the essentials nicely summarized here:

An evening with Victor Mair” (“Pluck Tea”, 6/1/11), also in this Wikipedia article, and in this blog post on Languages of the World by Asya Pereltsvaig:  “What will you have:  tea or chai?” (9/28/14).

Here’s a map of words for tea in European languages.

If you want more detail, go to Appendix C of the book, but — unless you have exceptionally good eyes — you’d be well advised to enlarge it on a photocopier because that part of the book is in double columns of very fine print.

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Multiculturalism meets international trade

From Bill Thomas via John Rohsenow:

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“Dog” in Japanese: “inu” and “ken”

This post intends to take a deep look at the words for “dog” in Japanese, “inu” and “ken”, both written with the same kanji (sinogram; Chinese character): 犬.

I will begin with some basic phonological and etymological information, then move to an elaboration of the immediate cause for the writing of this post, observations from colleagues, and a brief conclusion.

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Pell-mell

When, about 40 years ago, I first read the “Basic Annals of Xiang Yu (232-202 BC)” ( Xiàngyǔ běnjì 項羽本紀) in the The Scribe’s Records (Shǐjì 史記, ca. 94), the foundation for the 24 official dynastic histories that followed it, I was struck by this sentence:   `Yúshì Xiàng wáng dà hū chí xià, Hàn jūn jiē pīmí, suì zhǎn Hàn yī jiāng.’「於是項王大呼馳下,漢軍皆披靡,遂斬漢一將。」(“Then King Xiang shouted loudly and galloped down, causing all of the Han army [to flee] pell-mell, whereupon he cut down one of the Han generals”.)

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