Pizza and pasta, backwards and forwards

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From Anne Henochowicz:

Along with the photograph, Anne sent these paragraphs of explanation:

DC's Chinatown is a joke–the original was moved from Pennsylvania Ave. for the construction of the Reagan Building, and then the Metro dealt the knockout blow sometime in the latter 20th c. The real Chinese communities in DC live in the suburbs: Fairfax, VA and Rockville, MD, primarily.

So our Chinatown is little more than an arch and Chinese signs on Hooters and the Goethe Institut. (There are a few cultural and residential holdouts.) Last night, I was walking along H St. NW past Vapiano's, an Italian-style bar and restaurant, and couldn't help but pause at this sign. Would love to see your analysis of their choice of words for "pizza" and "pasta," and of course on the inversion of characters.

This isn't the first time we've dealt with reversed characters on Language Log: "Massachusetts is red(-faced)" (6/5/09), "Hooked on pot" (7/9/13). What's particularly interesting about the present case is that the characters of the top two lines of Chinese on the sign have been individually reversed, not the whole lines. The third line is in its proper orientation. Strange!!

But that's just the beginning of the strangeness of this sign.

Here's what the three lines (in their proper orientation) say:

bómiàn 薄面

tuánbǐng 团饼

jiǔbā 酒吧

It is obvious that these are meant to correspond to the English words just below:




Well, you could hardly mess up 酒吧 (13,000,000 ghits), which is the standard Chinese word for "bar". Poking around on the web, however, all I can come up with for 团饼 are things like "crumby-cake", "mission pie", and "round cakes" (which is more or less the literal meaning of the two characters). I've never heard anyone call pizza 团饼. For 薄面, all that I can come up with on the web are, at best, "thin noodles" (where simplified 面 = traditional 麵 ["flour; dough; noodles"]) and "meager sensibilities" (lit., "thin face", in contrast to "thick face"), "blushing face", "please do it for my sake" (i.e., to help me save face — mine is so meager), etc., where simplified and traditional 面 are the same and mean "face". I've never heard "pasta" referred to as 薄面.

So what do Chinese call pizza and pasta? Here are long lists for both, with a few notes.


Yìdàlì miàn 意大利面 / 意大利麵

Yìmiàn 意面 / 意麵

Yìfěn 意粉

tōngxīnfěn 通心粉

Yìdàlì tōngxīn miàn 意大利通心麵 / 意大利通心面

Yìdàlì tōngxīn fěn 意大利通心粉

Yìdàlì miàntiáor 意大利面条儿

Yìdàlì miàn 義大利麵

Yìdàlì miàn zhìpǐn 意大利面制品

miànshí 面食

pàsītǎ 帕斯塔


1. tōngxīn 通心 ("tubular" [lit., "through / open heart / center"]), the adjective for describing macaroni, etc.

2. fěn 粉 ("powder; noodles / vermicelli made from bean or sweet potato starch")

3. Yìdàlì 意大利 is, of course, "Italy" or "Italian"

4. tiáor 条儿 means "strip(s)"

5. The Chinese words for pasta can sometimes be very specific:

luóxuán miàn 螺旋面 ("helical / spiral / corkscrew pasta") for fusilli,

húdié miàn 蝴蝶面 ("butterfly pasta") for farfalle (bow-tie pasta)

6. I have not provided simplified and traditional versions of all entries in these lists, but have merely included the entries in the form in which they were provided to me by my informants.


bǐsà 比薩 / 比萨 (one informant notes that, though sometimes written this way, few people pronounce it as such, but instead pronounce it as the next entry)

pīsà 批薩 / 披萨

bǐsàbǐng 比萨饼 (apparently a localism spoken mainly by older folks)

pīsàbǐng 披萨饼

pizza (the favorite way to refer to "pizza" among younger, hip folks)

pizzabǐng pizza饼

bìshèngkè 必胜客 = Pizza Hut, but many people refer to pizza this way because Pizza Hut was so popular when it first arrived in China, and it is still quite popular now; Cantonese bit1sing3haak3

One of my informants had this to say about the relative popularity of pizza and pasta in China: "I think pasta is less well-known/popular than pizza because of its hard mouthfeel." Make of that what you will!

Note from Jing Wen:

By the way, it seems that qiāncéng Yìmiàn 千层意面 ("thousand layered I[talian] pasta") is very popular in China. It is something like lasagna, with a lot of cheese. Western food is now very popular in China. There are many new Western food restaurants in Beijing as well as Japanese and Korean restaurants.

Here, courtesy of Bob Bauer, are Cantonese words for "pizza":

批 pai1 'pizza' (short form for Std. Ch. 批薩 pai1 saat3)

大批 daai6 pai1 'large pizza'

披莎 pi1 saa1, pi1 saa1/4 'pizza' (phonetic loan from Eng. pizza)

薄餅 bok6 beng2 'pizza' (semantic translation [VHM: "thin pie"])

意大利薄餅 ji3 daai6 lei6 bok6 beng2 '(Italian) pizza'

Perhaps, with such a swirling plethora of Chinese words for "pasta" and "pizza", the persons responsible for the Vapiano's sign just threw up their hands and contrived their own words, and were so dizzy that they reversed some of the characters.

[Thanks to Fangyi Cheng, Rebecca Fu, Jing Wen, Jessica Fan, Karen Yang, Dingru Huang, and Ziwei He]


  1. Anne Henochowicz said,

    November 17, 2014 @ 1:23 pm

    A reader corrected my glaring error: Chinatown was moved in the 1930s to construct Federal Triangle. The Reagan Building came along much later. I sent this photo and text quickly from my phone, so apologies for the mistake.

  2. JS said,

    November 17, 2014 @ 2:10 pm

    Presumably the (wrong) words intended were 薄饼 and 面团? Quite a jumble…

  3. Theophylact said,

    November 17, 2014 @ 3:06 pm

    I walked past that sign an hour ago, on my way home from lunch at Full Kee.

  4. Brett said,

    November 17, 2014 @ 8:27 pm

    This has nothing to do with the signage, but I just wanted to comment on how impressive the cooking at Vapiano is. I discovered a different location (a block away from the National Science Foundation headquarters) and had lunch there. They will make an alfredo sauce from scratch for your pasta while you wait, and it's quite tasty.

  5. Helen Wang said,

    November 18, 2014 @ 6:20 am

    I wondered if 团饼 was implying 团聚饼 , and 薄 was hinting at Naples (Napoli, Naboli – renowned for its food) or home-made pasta (which is often thinner). Vapiano's website is liberally sprinkled with "homemade", "handmade" and "freshly baked" descriptors, so maybe 薄面 and 团饼 are "homemade" creations too?

  6. Vanya said,

    November 18, 2014 @ 7:25 am

    Vapiano has made it to the US? That chain is all over Germany, Austria and even Poland, and I don't get the popularity. It isn't particularly cheap, and you wait almost as long for your food as if you were sitting at the table, but you have to stand in line so you get no chance to socialize. If I had a nickel for every time an American expat has told me "Vapiano would never work in the US" I would have about 15 nickels. Curious to see if, bad Chinese aside, Vapiano works over there.

  7. Gianluca said,

    November 18, 2014 @ 12:27 pm

    I'm Italian, and I've never heard of "Vapiano" before as the chain quite obviously never made it to Italy. The same goes for Pizza Hut or Starbucks. As most of you probably know, "Vapiano" sounds like an imperative tense plus an adverb: "Va' piano", which can be translated as "go slowly", or "procede carefully". I don't know it that was the intended pun.

    "Pasta" is a very generic term to an Italian mothertongue speaker: a restaurant offering "pasta" would sound, roughly, like a restaurant generically offering "meat". Therefore restaurants in Italy do not normally advertise "pasta" per se, as it is considered staple food here: they might advertise their local pasta dish, like "pizzoccheri" or "casoncelli", or "orecchiette", but a "pasta" restaurant would look rather odd.
    On the other hand, "pizza" is often advertised in restaurants that are not immediately recognizable as pizzerie, so customers know that the premises can prepare pizzas as well.

    Thank you once more Prof. Mair for a very intersting contribution, and best regards from Milan.

  8. hwu said,

    November 22, 2014 @ 1:34 am

    Totally agree with @JS, if you use Baidu transation to translate pasta or pizza, you will find 面团 and 薄饼 exactly listed in the answers.

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