One's deceased father grind

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Reader Crystal's friend recently came across the following message which they believe was machine translated from Chinese:  "I'm a junior, ready to one's deceased father grind".

Ready to WHAT?

Perplexed, Crystal and her friend attempted to determine where this bizarre wording may have come from.

We couldn't figure out what it meant.  Presumably "one's deceased father grind" is some kind of machine translation gone wrong, but I'm not quite sure of the details.  Searching online, it seemed like it might correspond to Chinese 考研, but we can't quite figure out how this translation came about.

What's more, this phrase is all over the web!  I searched for "one's deceased father grind" in quotes on Google, and I found examples like this.

It's apparently a book titled "Music one's deceased father grind series: western music history (Chinese Edition)".  But there are plenty more!

That's actually a very good start, and it made my work a lot easier.

The name of the book that Crystal and her friend found on Amazon is Xīfāng yīnyuè shǐ 西方音樂史 (The History of Western Music).

It is in this series:  Yīnyuè kǎoyán shū 音乐考研书 (Music XX Series), and is published by Xīnán shīfàn dàxué chūbǎn shè 西南师范大学出版社 (Southwest Normal University Press).

Before I reveal what the series title really means, I must point out that the problem does indeed lie in what to do with kǎoyán 考研.  It's not in zdic, and the examples and explanations in iciba are garbled beyond all hope.

Google Translate has "PubMed" (that is really weird! — but many other sites have the same definition).

Bing Translator has just "grind", without "one's deceased father".

Baidu Fanyi gives "the postgraduate entrance examination", which is serviceable, and Wiktionary has "to sit an entrance exam for a graduate program", which is even better.

Now, kǎoyán 考研, with 12,800,000 ghits, is a very common term, so you'd think that Chinese lexicographers would have settled on an acceptable, sensible standard.

To put the matter simply, kǎoyán 考研 is short for kǎoqǔ yánjiūshēng 考取研究生 ("take an examination to qualify as a graduate student").  It's sort of like saying "take the GRE", except that in China the graduate qualifying exams are in specific subjects, music in this case.   Books like Xīfāng yīnyuè shǐ 西方音樂史 (The History of Western Music) under discussion are compiled for use in exam preparation.  But how did the translators get from kǎoyán 考研 to "one's deceased father grind"?

It only took me about 1.5 seconds to figure it out.  Here's the solution:

Since kǎoyán 考研 does not appear to be a well established lexical item, although — in terms of its frequency in current discourse — it should be, the translators rendered the individual syllables of this word separately, thus:

kǎo 考 ("test; examine; give / take [an exam]; quiz; study; investigate; inspect; check; verify; a surname; old; father; [one's] deceased father")

N.B.:  This character originally meant "old", and from that came to mean "father", and then "deceased father".  It is a flipped variant of the high frequency character lǎo 老 ("old").

yán 研 ("research; study; grind")

While "one's deceased father" is totally off the wall when it comes to explaining the meaning of kǎoyán 考研, preparing for the GRE or other graduate school exam is definitely a grind.

To return to the initial conundrum, the message that Crystal's friend came across actually means "I'm a junior and am getting ready take the examination for graduate school".


  1. Richard W said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 4:23 pm

    The Wiktionary definition comes from CC-CEDICT.
    I wrote that definition in 2010:

    It was copied over to Wiktionary later, with attribution:

  2. Richard W said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 4:26 pm

    Two other entries in CC-CEDICT that aren't in some other dictionaries are:
    保研 [bao3 yan2] /to recommend sb for postgraduate studies/to admit for postgraduate studies without taking the entrance exam/
    读研 [du2 yan2] /to attend graduate school/

  3. Yan said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 4:44 pm

    I know how this came about: in classical Chinese, "kao" (sorry I can't type Chinese right now, but it's the same character as "exam" or "test") is an euphemism for "one's deceased father," and the character "yan" certainly has the meaning of grind, or a shortened form of graduate program. If you put this back, it makes sense: I'm a junior, ready for the exam for entering graduate school. The machine translation is unbelievable: how does it dig out the classical meaning of "kao" and string it together with the meaning of grind for "yan?"

  4. Richard W said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 6:49 am

    >How does [the machine] dig out the classical meaning of "kao" and string it together with the meaning of grind for "yan?"

    That's not so hard to explain. Although 考研 is a common enough word, it isn't found in many dictionaries. Since the machine can't find 考研 in its dictionary, it assumes that there is no word 考研, and that it's actually two words, 考 and 研. Not being a very cleverly programmed machine, it doesn't know that something like "take an entrance exam" would be suitable for 考 here, so it more or less randomly picks "one's deceased father" instead. Similarly, the machine is not smart enough to know that 研 would be better rendered here as "research" than "grind".

  5. Yuanfei said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 7:45 pm

    Just wondering the etymology of 考: since when and why "exam" can be derived from "old" or "deceased father;" or is there such connection; or if a character has several meanings, are those meanings more unrelated than I thought?

  6. Victor Mair said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 9:49 pm

    From Richard W:

    I have a theory about how "PubMed" came to be Google Translate's top suggestion for 考研.

    考研 is a common word, but it only came into common use over the past 20 years or so (see People wanted to find out how to say it in English, so they looked up their dictionaries, but found it wasn't there. So they turned to a machine translation website. Due to a paucity of data (such as dictionary entries, parallel Chinese-English texts containing the word 考研) the machine (not necessarily Google's at that early stage), failed to identify a suitable English word or phrase, and instead aligned 考研 with another word in some research-related parallel text. (PubMed is a search engine for biomedical researchers.)

    Once that mistake was made, it became entrenched, because thousands of people started using "PubMed" in translating 考研, on the basis of that machine translation, as in these examples:
    1) "After my analysis and reflection, I think PubMed is a little far from the present."

    2) An educational institution website with menus labeled
    首页 HOME
    关于我们 ABOUT US
    我们的动态 NEWS
    精品课程 COURSES
    考研 PUBMED

    Machines like Google Translate, in scanning such bilingual webpages, noticed this correlation between 考研 and PubMed, and took it to mean that the words have the same meaning.

    By the way, note that although Google Translate has "PubMed" as its first suggestion, if you click on "PubMed", four alternative suggestions appear: Postgraduate, Entrance examination, Study section, and Kaoyan.

  7. Crystal said,

    September 21, 2014 @ 10:19 am

    It's pretty amazing to me that "one's deceased father grind" and "PubMed" are both used as translations for the same word. Thank you for the post, Professor Mair!

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