Oracle

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Bryan Van Norden sent in this photograph taken at the Hong Kong International Airport:

Oracle is an American computer technology corporation that produces an object-relational database management system called Oracle RDBMS. The database takes its name from a project that founder Larry Ellison had worked on while employed at Ampex. Whoever came up with the Chinese name for the company didn't think very hard about what they chose.

jiǎgǔwén 甲骨文 ( lit., "shell bone writing", i.e., "oracle bone script"), which refers to the inscriptions on ox scapulae or tortoise shells from the Shang Dynasty (ca. 16th-11th c. BC). This was the first stage in the development of the Chinese writing system.

Here are some Chinese terms for "oracle" in its usual senses of "divinatory prediction; prophecy; prognostication":

shényù 神谕

yùyán 预言

yùbào 预报

yùshì 预示

There are many other possible Chinese translations of "oracle" if we widen the scope of consideration to include the deity / priest(ess) / sage / holy person who issues the prophetic pronouncement as well as the shrine or temple where he / she is situated.

Of all the available Chinese translations for "oracle" as the name of one of the world's largest and most advanced computer technology corporations, jiǎgǔwén 甲骨文 ("oracle bone script") is probably the least appropriate.

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22 Comments »

  1. Max Pinton said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 12:49 am

    I was going to say that this seems like something that plopped out of Google Translate, but I see that even they give 神谕. Puzzling.

  2. Michael Dunn said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 2:29 am

    Could somebody have thought "oracle bone script" was an appropriate term for an IT company? I can see an argument for it.

  3. Giles said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 4:41 am

    There is the computing term "shell script", I suppose, though it's not particularly related to what Oracle do.

  4. Roderick said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 5:52 am

    Western consumer brands are often translated in a way that has a good meaning in (Mandarin) Chinese, most famously, Coca-Cola. Perhaps Oracle see themselves differently.

  5. GH said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 7:26 am

    So "oracle bone script" doesn't have the same cachet in Chinese that classical references – Delphi, Kerberos, Athena, etc., etc. – have in Western culture?

    Even without that prestige, it doesn't surprise me that an IT company would want to associate itself with ancient technology or wisdom. For as much as the industry frequently picks names that sound cutting-edge and futuristic, it also often looks back to its own pre-history (e.g. "Pascal", "Ada"), or the history of technology in general (e.g. "Steam"). That we have computer "tablets" and write on some of them with a "stylus" is surely in part because of this tendency, aside from the obvious physical metaphor.

    As an important step in the development of Chinese writing and an early example of symbol manipulation, oracle bone script could be considered a distant precursor to Oracle's business of computer programming and data administration. What could be more fitting?

  6. leoboiko said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 7:30 am

    @Dunn, Giles: But a "script" for the shell is a list of instructions, rather like an actor's "script" (腳本 jiǎoběn, says Wiktionary); whereas the "script" of "oracle bone script" is in the sense of "writing system; graphic symbols for language" (文 wén above).

    The Icelandic word for "computer" is tölva, a portmanteau of tala "number" + völva, a kind of female oracle.

  7. Jesús said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 8:34 am

    By the way, "Oracle" read backwards is "El caro", which in Spanish means "the expensive one"

  8. Nuno said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 11:30 am

    The only chinese exemple that comes to mind is Cangjie (a shape-based computer input method for chinese characters). From Wikipedia:

    "Invented in 1976 by Chu Bong-Foo, the method is named after Cangjie (Tsang-chieh), the [four-eyed] mythological inventor of the Chinese writing system; the name was suggested by Chiang Wei-kuo, then Defence Minister of Taiwan."

  9. DMT said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 12:25 pm

    My own reaction on seeing this same poster at HKIA was to think "what a clever way of translating 'Oracle' into Chinese!" The playful dissonance between the Chinese and English names is the whole point.

    By way of contrast, Peter Hessler's book Oracle Bones has been translated into Chinese as Jiaguwen, which strikes me as a boringly literal rendering of the title that loses all the ambiguous poetic resonances that led Hessler to choose this title in the first place. (Not that I could necessarily come up with anything better…)

  10. cameron said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 12:55 pm

    I'm simply baffled that anyone, let alone a scholar as learned as Dr. Mair, would claim that the word oracle has the "usual senses of 'divinatory prediction; prophecy; prognostication'".

    To be sure it can be used in those senses, but to my mind, and a scan through some on-line dictionaries confirms my understanding, is that an oracle is primarily the priest, priestess, or other functionary who provides the prophetic utterances. The next meaning would be the temple or sanctuary where the utterances are provided.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 1:57 pm

    No need to be baffled:

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/oracle

    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/oracle

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/oracle

    http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/oracle

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oracle

    And especially in the case of Chinese:

    http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E7%A5%9E%E8%AB%AD

    http://translate.google.com/#en/zh-CN/oracle

    http://fanyi.baidu.com/#en/zh/oracle

    The usual translations of "oracle" into Chinese are those I listed in my original post:

    shényù 神谕 (lit., "divine / numinous instruction / decree")

    yùyán 预言 (lit., "prior / beforehand speech")

    yùbào 预报 (lit., "prior / beforehand report")

    yùshì 预示 (lit., "prior / beforehand revelation")
    In my original post, right after listing these usual translations, I also listed the other senses that you mention. Never did I say that the above usual translations are the only senses of "oracle".

  12. KevinR said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 9:01 pm

    I read Oracle as refering to Western sense of (people) conduits through whom the gods spoke. Looking at the "Oracle bone script" page linked above, I think that there is a possible reading of jiǎgǔwén being a (script) conduit through which the gods spoke.

    Of course, that suggests that Oracle might well have been called haru (haruspicy) or exta (extispicy) based on a different western conduit.

  13. Obo said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 11:33 pm

    From "The Making of a Name: The Inside Story of the Brands We Buy" by Steve Rivkin, Fraser Sutherland, p. 159:

    "Oracle launched itself in China as Jia Gu Wen. It sounded nothing like Oracle, but, uncannily, had the same name as an early form of Chinese written language, dating back more than three thousand years. Not only was it the most advanced way to store information in its time but was used for prophecy and forecasting. Nothing better could fit the profile Oracle wanted to present."

  14. Obo said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 11:56 pm

    Going further back, to May 2002: http://www.brandrepublic.com/news/145157/

    "Oracle recently unveiled a new corporate identity for the PC market – incorporating the Chinese characters for 'Jia Gu Wen', which is the literal translation of the word 'oracle', into its existing corporate logo."

    Campaign Asia apparently has an article about the logo process, which was apparently done in-house, but it's behind a paywall: http://www.campaignasia.com/Article/186556,oracle-tweaks-brand-identity-in-new-drive-into-china.aspx

  15. Obo said,

    March 22, 2014 @ 12:23 am

    Madden, Normandy. "Ancient symbolism in new Oracle logo. (Asia)." AdAgeGlobal May 2002: 12.

    'Oracle, in fact, has gone by the "Jia Gu Wen" name in some mainland districts for awhile, admits Chris Hummel, Oracle's VP-marketing, Singapore.

    But, as Oracle executives inadvertently discovered during a brainstorming session with their Chinese country managers, the meaning of this phrase goes back centuries, to a time when tortoise shells and ox scapulas were used to record the prophecies and divinations from an oracle during the Shang Dynasty (16th to 11th century B.C.). These scripts are considered to be the earliest written language in China.

    The opportunity to align the company with powerful symbolism, and in such an important market, proved irresistible, prompting Oracle to make the "Jia Gu Wen" name official in China.'

    Still no idea about the origin of jiaguwen's association with Oracle, however.

  16. PeterL said,

    March 22, 2014 @ 1:47 am

    "Oracle" has a technical meaning in computer science complexity theory, although I have no idea if that's why the name was chosen for the Oracle RDMBS. The traveling salesman problem (find the shortest way to visit a set of cities) has a simple solution if an "oracle" can tell the salesman at each stage the best way to proceed. (More details for those who care in Wikipedia.)

    This use of "oracle machine" seems to be translated as 預言機/预言机 in Chinese and 神託機械 in Japanese.

  17. JS said,

    March 22, 2014 @ 2:04 am

    @Obo, GH
    Indeed it is not at all surprising that "an IT company would want to associate itself with ancient technology or wisdom," and such thinking at Oracle is confirmed by Obo's sources. The problem is in the specific choice, which is laughably clunky: "Shell and Bone Script" as the name for the company, parallel not to a company named "Delphi" but to one named "Priestess or Sibyl of the Oracle". (I can imagine the conversations in which Chinese managers expressed misgivings and the Western guys were all, "No, that's exactly what we want to evoke!") By contrast, Nuno's Cangjie is an example of a name selected from the same domain… that doesn't sound like shit.

  18. mollymooly said,

    March 22, 2014 @ 7:04 am

    Maybe it was originally some pirated versions of the product that were sold in mainland China, and under the clunky name; and then when the real Oracle showed up they decided (rightly or wrongly) to leverage the existing brand awareness rather than start from scratch.

    I can't think why the Rivkin/Sutherland quote uses the word "uncannily", unless Oracle chose the Chinese name completely at random.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    March 22, 2014 @ 12:19 pm

    @mollymooly

    Thank you so much for pointing that out about "uncannily"! I was dying for somebody to notice that.

  20. The Tumbleweed Farm said,

    March 22, 2014 @ 7:07 pm

    Now I'll have to think of one our database servers as of a giant tortoise…

  21. Robert said,

    March 27, 2014 @ 8:08 pm

    @PeterL

    The name oracle in computer science was actually chosen by Alan Turing for computability, and was later adapted to computational complexity, after it had been invented.

  22. Matt McIrvin said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 6:34 am

    "Of all the available Chinese translations for "oracle" as the name of one of the world's largest and most advanced computer technology corporations, jiǎgǔwén 甲骨文 ("oracle bone script") is probably the least appropriate."

    For the Oracle corporation, on the other hand, it's perfectly appropriate.

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