Fennel fry stupid eggs

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Meena Vathyam sent in this photograph from Shanghaiist:

This one is very easy to solve. The sentence actually means:

huíxiāng chǎo bènjī dàn 茴香炒笨鸡蛋
(“fried free range eggs with fennel”)

The translator misparsed the last part as bèn jīdàn 笨 鸡蛋 (“stupid egg”) instead of the intended bènjī dàn 笨鸡 蛋 (“eggs from free range chickens”).

Bènjī 笨鸡 (“free range chicken”) is a northeast topolectal word for what in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) is normally referred to as tǔjī 土鸡 (lit., “local / native chicken”).  I’ve also heard this type of fowl referred to as cháijī 柴鸡 (lit., “firewood chicken”).  In Shandong this type of poultry is called cǎojī 草鸡 (lit., “grass chicken”).

The semantics of the epithet “stupid egg” were discussed at length in “Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping: presidential language notes“.

[Thanks to Cao Lin, Cheng Fangyi, and Rebecca Fu]



14 Comments

  1. Gianni said,

    April 9, 2013 @ 9:38 pm

    I am just wondering if this 笨 is related to cage-free. Most of the case, fowl cages in south China hinterland were made of bamboo, and 笨 ben4 has a BAMBOO-radical.

    So what is the etymology of 笨 ben4?

  2. Theophylact said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 11:53 am

    Perhaps “free-range” = “local” = “native” = “naïve” = “stupid”?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

    @Gianni

    The character for bèn 笨 (“stupid”) is relatively young. It’s not on the oracle bones, nor is it in the bronze inscriptions. I think that the earliest it appears may be in the late seal script. The word bèn (“stupid”), however, is probably old. Axel Schuessler’s ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese (p. 160) gives Written Tibetan blun-pa (“dull; stupid”).

    In the Shuowen dictionary (ca. 100 A.D.), 笨 is glossed as the inner, white surface of bamboo. I’m not sure where Xu Shen got that, but he appears to have been thinking along the lines of “plain as the inner white surface (i.e., the basis) of bamboo”, hence “simple” (see the last paragraph below), hence “stupid” — which seems rather far-fetched to me.

    In its coverage of bèn 笨, the Hanyu fangyan da cidian [Unabridged Dictionary of Sinitic Topolects], vol. 4, pp. 5512a-13b, does not give the meaning of “local, native, uncaged, free range”. I suspect that this is a fairly recent usage that developed to contrast such chickens with those raised on modern poultry farms and fed a diet of chicken feed, injected with hormones, and so forth. After all, before modern times, “cage free” was the norm.

    As to why bènjī 笨鸡 has come to mean “cage-free / free-range chicken”, I suspect that it was a topolectal attempt to say “simple chicken” (cf. bèndàn 笨蛋 with the meaning “simpleton”).

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

    @Theophylact:

    Excellent!

    “free-range” < "local" < "native" < "naïve" < "stupid" I especially appreciate the step between "naïve" and "native".

  5. Victor Mair said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

    From Ben Zimmer:

    http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/02/09/dining/20100210-chinese-slideshow_7.html?_r=0

    via:

    https://twitter.com/PopSciEats/status/322050291597967360
    (thanks to Paul Adams)

    The NYT says that “stupid chicken” is an “accurate translation” of bènjī 笨鸡. Well, we might say that it is an “accurate Chinglish translation”, but after all of the above explanation, I hope that no one will think that it is an “accurate, idiomatic English translation” of bènjī 笨鸡!

  6. Keith said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 7:20 pm

    When I was in Shandong, I was treated to what they called cháijī. I did not hear the word cǎojī.

  7. Matt said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 8:08 pm

    In the Shuowen dictionary (ca. 100 A.D.), 笨 is glossed as the inner, white surface of bamboo. I’m not sure where Xu Shen got that, but he appears to have been thinking along the lines of “plain as the inner white surface (i.e., the basis) of bamboo”, hence “simple” (see the last paragraph below), hence “stupid” — which seems rather far-fetched to me.

    Not to dispute this judgment (it sounds pretty far-fetched to me too), but the explanation reminded me of the Japanese word hakuchi 白痴 “idiocy, an idiot.” I understand that it was originally borrowed from Middle Chinese; in Japan it has since been used as medical jargon for “profound retardation”, to translate the title of Dostoyevsky’s Идиот, etc., but it isn’t heard much these days. Is there some tendency to connect “white, plain” and “dumb” in Chinese that might have inspired Xu Shen’s just-so story?

  8. Victor Mair said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 8:27 pm

    @Matt

    The disyllabic term báichī 白痴 (“witless”) goes back to the Three Kingdoms period (3rd c. AD) and is used fairly often by the Tang (medieval period). The fact that the second syllable is written with a character that has the sickness radical is significant. I think the “white” for the first syllable indicates “plain; simple; empty”.

  9. JS said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 12:16 am

    I don’t know the word which Shuo wen and later dictionaries were glossing by 竹裏 ‘inner layer of bamboo’,but fanqie suggest it wasn’t an antecedent of Mandarin ben4 (from voiced *b- > Mandarin 4th tone) but rather a *p- word (that is, a homophone of ben3 本 ‘root’).

    As for free-range chickens, I’ve come across some suggestions online that they were first termed ben3ji1 本鸡; this might make better sense (~’basic/bare-bones chicken’?), and the author below even reports parallel usages in reference to other organic/free range food products:

    本鸡

  10. Noogie said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 9:35 am

    It may be the case that the free range chickens really are stupid when compared to the caged variety. The caged birds can’t go out to roam and play, so perhaps they concentrate more on their studies.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 8:07 pm

    @JS (first paragraph)

    from South Coblin:

    In other words, the fanqie readings given in the received lexica would not yield MSC [Modern Standard Chinese] bèn. So this modern syllable is not descended from any of those old readings. That’s hardly surprising, since the modern word for “stupid” appears to be of late medieval origin and has no connection with the old word that SW and the later lexica are glossing.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    April 12, 2013 @ 6:48 am

    In my reply to Matt, I intended to add that the usage of báichī 白痴 to mean “idiot” in a medical sense, especially in the way it is defined by psychiatrists, is modern, and may probably be characterized as a round-trip borrowing through Japanese (i.e., it existed in earlier Chinese with the meaning “witless”, was matched by the Japanese with “idiocy”, then borrowed back by the Chinese with the new, modern meaning).

    From Che-chia Chang (a specialist on the history of Chinese medicine):

    I only know that the earliest entry in a English-Chinese dictionary using “白癡“ [VHM: in the sense of “idiot”] is in 1916, and the Japanese usages:

    *裁判所構成法(明治二三年)〔1890〕一五条「瘋癩者白癡者」

    *化銀杏〔1896〕〈泉鏡花〉八「式(かた)の如き白痴者(ハクチシャ)なれば」

    In the full-text database of TCM [VHM: Traditional Chinese Medicine] books (over 300 titles), there is no example of this usage.

  13. TCS said,

    April 15, 2013 @ 9:57 pm

    I had previously seen free-range chicken rendered as 走地雞 rather than the other terms listed above. Is that another regional variation?

  14. W. said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

    本鸡 stands for 本地鸡/local chicken as people in Zhejiang would call it

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