Pwimming poot

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Usually an unintelligible or partially intelligible Chinglish sign is due to faulty translation, whether human or machine. But not always. Recently, when I was rushing from my room at the Kucha Guest House in Xinjiang (the Uyghur Autonomous Region in the far west of China) through a huge greenhouse to the dining room for breakfast, I was stopped in my tracks by the following sign:


The Chinese text clarifies what the sign points to:

游泳池
yóuyǒngchí
"swimming pool"

But "pwimming poot" is obviously not a translation error. Rather, it must have been an orthographical mistake.

As the comments on a recent Language Log post indicate ("Cursive and Characters: Dying Arts," 4/29/2011),  cursive handwriting can vary widely across cultures, even for the same language and writing system. In particular, I've always been intrigued by Chinese cursive handwriting styles for the Latin alphabet. One common characteristic of Chinese Latin-alphabet cursive is relevant here: the lower case "s" is apt to have a long tail hanging down to the left.  If we take a small "s" like the example given here,

add a longish tail at the bottom left, and make the main body of the letter a bit rounder, it is easy to see how it could be mistaken for a "p".

As for the transformation of "pool" to "poot," both "t" and "l" have a tall, slender axis. If there were a smudge or stray mark across this axis of the "l", it might readily be taken for a "t".

Now the probable history is clear enough. The translator handed the sign maker a handwritten form of "swimming pool"; and the sign maker, who probably knew no more English than MikeTheDudeHenry knows Latin, interpreted the letter sequence as "pwimming poot".

There is only a difference of two letters (the first and the last) between "swimming pool" and "pwimming poot", but that might be enough to throw off a reader who can't decode the Chinese version of the sign. This is especially the case because "pwimming poot" sounds so whimsical that one wishes that it might actually mean something just the way it is written.



14 Comments

  1. Ellen K. said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 9:22 am

    Well, I (who know no Chinese) found "pwimming poot" not at all opaque. I instantly recognized "pwimming" as "swimming". Which made "poot" quite clear as well.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 9:43 am

    BTW, that's J. P. Mallory reflected in the background of the sign. The sign was posted high up on a wall, so I asked Jim, who is 6 inches taller than me, to take the photograph.

  3. Greg Bowen said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 11:47 am

    @ Ellen

    I think the hotel context also makes it more interpretable, as directions to the swimming pool are a fairly common feature in hotels.

  4. Sabrina said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 11:53 am

    Of course the poot is quite clear in the pool. The bubbles tell everyone you pooted.

    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=poot

  5. Mark said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

    In a number of fonts the lowercase ell has a top-left serif and a bottom-right serif. Worse, if it was taken from a cursive font as you surmise from the "s" then the lead-in from the "o" in cursive is often middle height for the l rather than arising from the baseline. It would look a lot like a "t" even without distortion.

    Maybe they were redoing an old sign and matching letters rather than trusting an online translator? That would explain cursive for a source.

  6. Army1987 said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 12:40 pm

    I didn't even notice the T at the end (but then again, I'm the kind of person who passed a sign reading “seven days without praying makes one weak” thinking “WTF?” a dozen times before being pointed out that the penultimate letter wasn't an E).

  7. Nik said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 4:12 pm

    It's a printed sign, so if the owner of the pool asked someone in a chat room, or used a translator he wouldn't possibly get it wrong, so it must have come from a handwritten form or a handwriting like font, being a public facing sign, like the Chinese sign, the owner must decide on a non-cursive form of font, meaning, unless he copy-pasted the online translation to Word, chose a cursive font, printed it out– not sending it to the email of the sign maker possibly b/c you're in a place where internet's cut off b/c of riots — handed it to the sign maker and that's where the mis-reading came.

    Or lots of journalist came around to report the woes of the minority, and the Chinese leisure activity entrepreneur snapped to the chance to ask one of them to write down the English word for swimming pool, she ( I think woman have better handwriting, as do most Chinese people I know for Chinese) wrote it down nicely and he rushed to the sign maker, and bam, mis-reading ensued.

    Think I can adopt this to the stage?

  8. ian said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

    Something similar here, the capital A in DAOP DOWN likely just a misreading of a capital R: http://www.flickr.com/photos/how2what4/5177607696/

    Of course, that doesn't explain what kind of a bathroom would require both "defence masks" and "safety belts".

  9. Henning Makholm said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 5:42 pm

    An ornate script capital S can look like a P to the uninitiated, too.

  10. Terminologia etc. » » Samsung Galaxy S, R, W, M o Y? said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 2:18 am

    [...] In Language Log, le sfortunate conseguenze di lettere non riconosciute correttamente: * Pwimming poot e Cemel [...]

  11. Vladimir Menkov said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 11:09 am

    As far as I remember, in the late 1980s, if a Russian newspaper had an occasion to print an ad with some Latin lettering in it, there would be a very good chance that all "g"s and "q"s would be randomly mixed.

  12. iTEFL said,

    September 1, 2011 @ 6:50 am

    true. there're so many spellings as such around China. so who believes Chinese know English while they always wanna show off? while they educate their youth in English since they're in Grade three in primary school? while many masters in language in mainland China say they look on the usage as a international variety, i.e. China English (not Chinglish)? (i guess they merely see the understandable English they themselves speak or write, neglecting what their citizens, the majority, speak).

  13. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

    [...] of Jafaican, or fake Jamaican; Julie Sedivy authorized her dealer; and Victor Mair swam in a pwimming poot in [...]

  14. Andy said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 10:38 am

    I quickly read it as a swimming pool, but I'm uncertain that it is filled with water…

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