Flirtatious Evacuation

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Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and countless other social networking services and video / music sharing sites are blocked and banned in China (presumably because they would otherwise contaminate the minds of China's citizens and lead to social unrest, as has apparently happened in the Middle East).  But all such banned and blocked services and sites have their heavily policed and controlled Chinese knockoffs, so life goes on, after a fashion.

The main Chinese replacement for YouTube, which is so wildly popular and influential in the rest of the world, is called YouKu .  Brendan O'Kane, who lives in Beijing, does some work for YouKu.  Yesterday, he sent me the following message:

While looking through the Youku homepage for recent videos to highlight in the company's monthly newsletter, I saw the headline "中国空前规模海外撤侨." Misreading the last two characters as 撒娇 sājiāo ("whine in a repellent fashion that some find alluring"), I clicked through to see what on earth the story could possibly be about, and was comforted (after I realized my error) to see that the majority of the first page of comments (http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMjQ2MzUxODA0.html) was dominated by native speakers who, like me, had misread 撤侨 chèqiáo ("evacuate overseas Chinese"). So were the second and third pages.

Reading through the comments pages to which Brendan refers, it is indeed amusing to see how so many native speakers of Chinese laughed at themselves for misreading chèqiáo 撤侨 ("evacuate overseas Chinese") as sājiāo 撒娇 ("flirt; behave coquettishly") in the YouKu headline.

Here's a transcription and translation of the whole headline:

Zhōngguó kōngqián guīmó hǎiwài chè qiáo
中国空前规模海外撤侨
"China evacuates overseas Chinese abroad on an unprecedented scale"

(I realize that "overseas" and "abroad" are redundant, but qiáo 侨 means "overseas Chinese" and hǎiwài 海外 means "overseas, abroad".  If I were getting paid for it and weren't a bit rushed as I prepare for a trip to Japan, I could come up with something less literal and more felicitous.  The idea is that this evacuation of Chinese living abroad was carried out overseas by China on an unprecedented scale.)

By the way, as I've probably explained before on Language Log, YouKu (yōukù) 优酷 superficially seems to mean "outstandingly ruthless / oppressive / cruel," but punningly and actually is understood to signify that "YOU're cool," where the first character is a Pinyin faux ami (French friends, did I spell that correctly?) for English "you" and the second character is a well-established, ubiquitous pun for English "cool".

As for why so many people read chèqiáo 撤侨 ("evacuate overseas Chinese") as sājiāo 撒娇 ("flirt; behave coquettishly"), the former gets 1,390,000 ghits, while the latter receives 11,600,000 ghits.  The visual similarity of the two expressions, combined with the vastly greater frequency of sājiāo 撒娇, is what causes this common misreading, even when the context makes it inappropriate.

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14 Comments »

  1. Ginger Yellow said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 9:09 am

    By the way, as I've probably explained before on Language Log, YouKu (yōukù) 优酷 superficially seems to mean "outstandingly ruthless / oppressive / cruel,"

    Kind of funny, considering the reason YouKu exists.

  2. Neil Dolinger said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

    I think the PRC version of The Onion has to jump on this!

    Would a more true-to grammar translation of the headline be "Unprecedented Evacuation of Overseas Chinese" — NP vs. complete sentence?

  3. Neil Dolinger said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

    Sorry, "true-to-grammar".

  4. the other Mark P said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 2:21 pm

    presumably because they would otherwise contaminate the minds of China's citizens and lead to social unrest

    Not necessarily a good presumption. Lots of Chinese industries are blocked for outsiders. I doubt they are concerned that foreign banks will contaminate minds, yet they only allowed to enter as part of a Chinese concern.

    I would rather posit that it is part of an overall nationalist and authoritarian Communist party which is not letting go in a hurry. If social unrest was the prime reason, they would not allow the local versions either.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 5:21 pm

    @the other Mark P
    "If social unrest was the prime reason, they would not allow the local versions either."

    The local versions are easy to control.

  6. marie-lucie said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 6:47 pm

    VM, faux ami is right. The plural is faux amis. Both are pronounced /fozami/.

  7. dalt said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 11:15 pm

    Professor Mair is probably the only person on earth who sees "outstandingly ruthless" in 优酷. The possibility of 优 functioning as an adverb modifying a following adjective is practically nonexistent. Also, 酷, when used alone, almost always means "cool" in Modern Standard Mandarin. For native speakers like me, the first possible meaning of 优酷 that comes to mind is simply "outstanding and cool".

  8. Ethan said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 11:40 pm

    I basically agree with Professor Mair's interpretation on the Facebook question, though I think that protectionism is a factor as well. As to dalt's reading of "优酷," I'm no expert but that's what it's always meant to me as well.

  9. Brendan said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 11:58 pm

    For what it's worth, Youku's preferred gloss of its name in English is "what is best and what is cool." I offer no opinion on the philological validity of this.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 8:41 am

    @Dalt "The possibility of 优 functioning as an adverb modifying a following adjective is practically nonexistent."

    Not so:

    http://hktv.cc/cd/hanyupinyin/?q=outstandingly
    http://hktv.cc/cd/hanyupinyin/?q=%E4%BC%98
    http://hktv.cc/cd/hanyupinyin/?q=%E9%85%B7&srch=go

    Countless more references are readily available.

    When I wrote that Youku *superficially* means "outstandingly ruthless", it should have been obvious that I was not asserting that is how most people interpret the name. Of course, Youku knows what IT means by the English facet of its name; we have to trust what Brendan tells us about that, since he has gotten it straight from the horse's mouth.

    Nor should we ignore something else I alluded to in my post, namely, that the Pinyin faux ami of YOU as English "you" is definitely operative at a very prominent level in the name Youku (Chinese knockoff of YouTube).

    Finally, the English word "cool" has not yet utterly cannibalized kù 酷. While the vast majority of trendy youth (and even some middle-aged folks) may now only see English "cool" when they read kù 酷, there are still plenty of us around who recognize, and even sometimes use, its original meanings of "cruel, ruthless". Granted, that's not what Youku had in mind when it invented its moniker.

  11. dan bloom said,

    February 27, 2011 @ 6:05 am

    This is the beginning of the end of the Chinese dictatorship of communist China, Their Moses, er, their Gorby, the Chinese Gorbachev, will arise soon and set his people free. Name? Li Kequiang. 55. He is the man to watch in these Jasmine-scented times.

  12. minus273 said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 10:22 am

    酷 isn't dead yet: at least in literary-sounding 过酷 and friends.

    I still fail to see an example of 优 being used in the adverb sense in Mair's examples.

  13. Wentao said,

    April 28, 2011 @ 8:44 am

    The interpretation of the name 优酷 reminds me of two other puns: the brilliant 非死不可 for Facebook and the rather rude 你2B for YouTube.
    Also, many Chinese netizens render the latter as "You to be", and "Skype" as "sky-pee". The reason of this mispronunciation is completely unknown to me. A wild guess would be the influence of the ubiquitous Nike?

  14. Peter said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 10:55 pm

    @Wentao

    Mandarin doesn't have any "closed" syllables (i.e., syllables ending in stop consonants, such as "tube" or "skype"), so you get syllable telescoping in some people's speech (skype -> si-kai-pi, or something like that).

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