Unwearied effort however beefsteak

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I spotted this colossal translation fail at the top of the Chinalawtranslate home page.

Colossal though it may be, the same mistranslation also appears here, amidst an amazing collection of names of dishes seen on actual menus in China. The same mistranslation is also found here and is in the second item here as well.

The correct translation should be zīrán niúpái 孜然牛排 ("cumin beefsteak"), where zīrán 孜然, which may also be written as zīrán qín 孜然芹 (qín 芹 means "celery"), is "cumin".

How in the world do we get from "cumin beefsteak" to "unwearied effort however beefsteak"?  It's a long story, so bear with me.

zī 孜 ("be as diligent as possible; make unwearied effort"), so that's where the "unwearied effort" comes from.  Note, however, that it normally only takes on this meaning when duplicated (zīzī 孜孜) and then usually in quadrisyllabic expressions, e.g.:

zīzī bùjuàn  ~~不倦 ("diligently tireless")

zīzī yǐqiú ~~以求 ("diligently seeking / striving")

This is a very old usage, going back over two thousand years, and continuously employed up to the present time.

There are about a dozen expressions that follow this same model 孜孜XX and mean roughly the same thing, while there are about another dozen expressions where the pattern is reversed (X)X 孜孜 and the 孜孜 in the latter order often functions as an intensifier .  I list those that are easily accessible here without Romanization or translation:

孜孜无怠 孜孜不怠 孜孜不辍 孜孜汲汲 孜孜以求 孜孜不懈 孜孜不已 孜孜无倦 孜孜不倦 孜煎 孜孜矻矻

汲汲孜孜 幸孜孜 念孜孜 喜孜孜 苦孜孜 乐孜孜 意孜孜 苦苦孜孜 美孜孜

So much for zī 孜 ("be as diligent as possible; make unwearied effort"), which yields the "unwearied effort" part of the whimsical name of this dish.

The "however" part comes from the rán 然 of zīrán 孜然.  But rán 然 can only mean "however" in certain syntactic contexts where it functions as a conjunction (or adverb), not after zī 孜.  Although rán 然 joins with other morphemes to form disyllabic conjunctions, it cannot do so with zī 孜.

suīrán 雖然 ("though; although; despite; nevertheless")

guǒrán 果然 ("really; indeed; as expected; sure enough")

jìrán 既然 ("since; as")

rán'ér 然而 ("however; but; yet")

zìrán 自然 ("nature; natural[ly]")

Next question, how do we get "cumin" from zī 孜 ("be as diligent as possible; make unwearied effort") + rán 然 ("however")?  Since there's no way those two morphemes can add up to "cumin", one suspects a borrowing.  It is somewhat reassuring that Wikipedia tells us that zīrán 孜然 ("cumin") comes from Uyghur zire زىرە , but right away we've got problems.

First of all, although it is superficially comforting that cumin is also known in English as "zeera" or "jeera" (see notes 1 and 2 here), at the same time it's disquieting.  Why?  English borrowed this word from Hindi, and Hindi got it from Persian, so it is also highly likely that Uyghur borrowed it from Persian, which is the source of an enormous number of loans in Uyghur.

According to Brian Spooner (personal communication),

Zira is the normal word for cumin in Persian, and cumin is used in probably the majority of Persian and north Indian dishes….  It gets into English through the British Indian use of Persian before 1835, like many other Persian words.

I suspect that Uyghur zire زىرە must come from Middle Persian zhīra / zīra [forgive my perhaps not perfect Romanization] (or perhaps some other Middle Iranian language such as Sogdian [though the Sogdian word for cumin, zyr’kk, doesn't look very promising as a source for the Uyghur word] or Khotanese).  There's also a cognate, jīra, in Sanskrit, but the Sanskrit word for cumin (more on that below) must have come from Iranian, where it is known already in the inscription of Cyrus at Persepolis (late 6th c. BC [?]).

The modern Turkish word for cumin is altogether different from the Persianate Uyghur word.  Today the most common word is kimyon, while there are also some local formations such as boyotu ("grass / weed growing along the banks of a water" (?), or çörek otu for "black cumin".  Zire is mentioned in Ottoman sources as a Persian borrowing, clearly indicating a final vowel; it is not in use today.

The most common Sinitic word for cumin, so far as I know, is xiǎo huíxiāng 小茴香 ("small fennel / anise"), but it gets only 606,000 ghits, whereas zīrán 孜然 receives receives more than twice as many ghits with 1,330,000.  This indicates that, although it is a borrowing, zīrán 孜然 is deeply embedded in Chinese cuisine, most likely via recipes that entered the repertoire through Persianate sources, including Uyghur and imperial Mongolian dishes.

How early did the Chinese know an Iranian word for cumin?  In his celebrated Sino-Iranica (Sino-Iranica. Chinese Contributions to the History of Civilization in Ancient Iran, Chicago 1919), pp. 383-384, Berthold Laufer mentions shíluó 蒔蘿 (“cummin; caraway”).  Although this word is now used for "dill" in modern Mandarin, it is undoubtedly a borrowing from the Middle Persian word for cumin, zhīra / zīra.  The first attestation of shíluó 蒔蘿 I am aware of dates to 1624 (Jǐngshì tōngyán 警世通言 [Stories to Caution the World]), though it may well have occurred before then.

Now, what troubles me is the nasal final of the separate Chinese borrowing, zīrán 孜然.  Perhaps it offers some clue to the precise language from which the Chinese borrowed the term, one that had either a nasal or nasalized final.  Or perhaps it got its additional -n due to some (rhyming?) analogy, and maybe only recently?  Or due to topolectal influence?  Or could it be that, since Mandarin does not have a *ra syllable, ran may have been the closest approximation in the topolect that borrowed zhīra / zīra (or one of its later realizations) as zīrán 孜然.  In any event,it is somewhat puzzling that zīrán 孜然, with Mandarin retroflex approximant /ɻ/ substituted for foreign /r/ was chosen to transcribe zhīra / zīra (or whatever its descendent form may have been at the time the borrowing occurred).  Why not zila?

The Indian forms that include a nasal such as jaraṇa, jīraṇa, and jīrṇa are found with lexicographers and unattested elsewhere.  It is unlikely that they would have had any impact on the question at hand inasmuch as they were (a) developed in India and (b) only locally used (if at all).

For what it's worth here's the second definition in Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary for jīra, from the root √jṛī:

=°raṇa, L; Panicum miliaceum, L. Jīraka, m. n. =°raṇa, Suṣr. i; iv, 5, 35; vi; VarBṛS. li, 15; (ikā), f. = jīrṇa-pattrika, L. Jīraṇa, m. = jir°, cumin-seed, L.

where L. = "lexicographers"; Panicum miliaceum = millet; Suṣr. = Suśruta-saṃhitā, an important medical text dated to the 6th century BC; VarBṛS = Varāhamihira’s Bṛhat-saṃhitā, a 6th century CE encyclopedia including info on agriculture; and jīrṇa-pattrika = "large cumin-seed leaf."

Reflections by Leopold Eisenlohr:

According to this entry, jīraṇa and jīrṇa have the same meaning as jīra, and both include the retroflex ṇ which could possibly transform into the dental final in Chinese. One of the meanings of the root √jṛī is "to crackle like fire," and I don't know if that has to do with the flavor since cumin isn't very fiery in comparison to other spices, but then again that was before the importation of a lot of the spicy things we associate with Indian food.

The other line of reasoning that could be followed, which I think is erroneous, is that the dental final comes from the Arabic ending ة a[t], which ends many feminine nouns. It's not always pronounced but often shows up in foreign loans, so that what might be said qudrah in Arabic (though spelled qudra(t)) becomes qudrat in loans. That could be a dental final source if we take the source into Chinese to be zīrat, but this is kind of a pointless argument since I don't think zīra(t) / زيرة  was ever a word in Arabic, but might only be a possible formation from the Indo-Persian zīra / zīreh.

Although we haven't solved all of the problems surrounding the origins of zīrán niúpái 孜然牛排 ("unwearied effort however beefsteak"), at least the main stumbling blocks have been elucidated.

[Thanks to Leopold Eisenlohr, Brian Spooner, Dieter Maue, Stefan Georg, Erika Gilson, and Alexander Vovin]


  1. Yerushalmi said,

    December 17, 2014 @ 8:16 am

    I wish I could eradicate the word "fail" as used as a noun.

  2. Keith said,

    December 17, 2014 @ 9:06 am

    One of the meanings of the root √jṛī is "to crackle like fire," and I don't know if that has to do with the flavor since cumin isn't very fiery in comparison to other spices

    Cumin, caraway and fennel seeds make snap, crackle and pop noises when roasted, and when crushed with a mortar and pestle or between the teeth.

  3. Norman said,

    December 17, 2014 @ 10:49 am

    My understanding, contrary to what Google Translate says, is that in Chinese cuisine, xiǎo huíxiāng 小茴香 is used to refer to fennel seeds, rather than cumin.

  4. Jeff said,

    December 17, 2014 @ 11:38 am

    I'll be sure to explain all of this to everyone at the holiday parties.

  5. Shubert said,

    December 17, 2014 @ 12:43 pm

    Very informative!
    suīrán 雖然 ("though; guǒrán 果然 ("really; jìrán 既然 ("since; as")
    rán'ér 然而 ("but; yet") zìrán 自然 ("nature; )
    There is a way to summarize above. Plus, one of these differs from the rest.

  6. Kevin McCready said,

    December 17, 2014 @ 4:14 pm

    Hovermouse on pic 4 'nother "fail" = "click to embiggen"

  7. Dan said,

    December 17, 2014 @ 4:55 pm

    @Kevin McCready: I don't know why you'd say that; it's a perfectly cromulent word.

  8. Kevin McCready said,

    December 17, 2014 @ 9:38 pm

    @Dan Colorless cromulent fails dream furiously.

    Which reminds me @Victor, dreaming in Nepali doesn't indicate Nepali competence, though fun. I once dreamt I was conducting my own beautiful symphony with an orchestra. And my flying ability is good 2.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    December 17, 2014 @ 10:52 pm

    @Kevin McCready

    It's different. You can't fly or conduct a symphony when you are awake, but I was fluent in Nepali when I was awake.

  10. maidhc said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 1:07 am

    Was that one of those Persian words that Atatürk had eliminated from Turkish?

  11. cameron said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 9:53 am

    It's notable that Persian kept the ancient name for cumin. Most European languages have variants of Latin cuminum and Greek kyminon, which were themselves borrowings from an ancient Semitic language. (The exceptions among the European languages are the various languages that refer to cumin as a variant of caraway.) I suppose cumin was too central to Persian culture for its word to replaced by a borrowing from Arabic.

  12. Max Pinton said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 4:51 pm

    "… since Mandarin does not have a *ra syllable …"

    This got me wondering: for a language with such a dearth of syllables that it had to resort to using tones, why are so many seemingly valid initial + final combinations unused in Mandarin?

    In Japanese, a few possible syllables like y+i and y+e aren't used because they're considered homophonous with other syllables (i and e), but looking at a Pinyin chart it seems like there are plenty of valid syllables that aren't used.

    This is probably a dumb question. After all, there are spellable sounds in English that aren't used. But they could be.

  13. Shubert said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 12:28 pm

    @Max: A good point.

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