Sandwiched in an escalator

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From Toni Tan:

Having just written about hundreds dying in a sandwich press, I was afraid that the poor woman in the above picture was going to get sucked into the evil escalator and die.  But it's her clothing that she has to pay attention to:

xiǎoxīn yīwù jiārù 小心衣物夹入
("careful [not to let your] clothing [get] caught in [the escalator]")

The translation problem arises from the fact that jiā 夹 has the following meanings:  "press from both sides; lined (on both sides); place in between; carry something under one's arm; clip; clamp; folder; double-layered; sandwiched between; pick up (food with a pair of chopsticks); grip (a piece of iron with tongs)", etc.  Unfortunately, faced with such a plethora of possibilities, translators all too often pick "sandwich", maybe because they're familiar with it as a food term.

Cf. Victor H. Mair, "Phonosymbolism or Etymology: The Case of the Verb 'Cop'”, Sino-Platonic Papers, 91 (January, 1999).  (free pdf)


  1. Thomas Rees said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 12:45 pm

    The linked pdf seems to be missing pp. 2-5

  2. Victor Mair said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 1:03 pm

    @Thomas Rees

    Thanks for letting me know. It will take at least two weeks to repair that, since the tech person for SPP is currently travelling.

  3. Matthew McIrvin said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 1:13 pm

    The translation actually seems pretty clear to me.

  4. Rubrick said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 5:45 pm

    When it comes down to it, we are all clothes sandwiches. Well, most of the time.

  5. Ken said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 9:43 pm

    Or "chothes sandwiches", as the case may be. I assume that's just a misprint.

  6. Joyce Melton said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 11:28 pm

    How many people read "clothes sandwich"? That's not what it says.

  7. John Rohsenow said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 4:05 am

    We know that fluent native speakers of English do read right "over"
    misspellings (as I had done, until you pointed it out), but it seems
    that other non-native readers of English might be even MORE confused!

  8. Victor Mair said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 9:46 am

    @Matthew McIrvin

    Ever since I read your comment about the translation being "pretty clear" to you, I've been racking my brains trying to figure out how that could be so. What part of the English speaking world are you from?

  9. Brett said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 10:23 am

    I don't think the translation makes any sense, but it would be very difficult for a fluent English speaker to misunderstand the sign as a whole.

  10. Matt McIrvin said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 12:49 pm

    I'm in the US, but "chothes sandwich" together with the picture got the point across. Your clothes might get caught between things like the middle of a sandwich. It's not optimal, of course.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 4:09 pm

    For a fluent English speaker who knows no Chinese, the translation by itself doesn't make sense. I think that the picture by itself — with the red circle — is fairly clear. Adding the "Be careful" makes it even clearer, but the "chothes" would start to make one wonder. If you were actually about to step on the escalator and saw the "sandwich", it might make you hesitate and perhaps even trip and hurt yourself.

  12. Eidolon said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 8:33 pm


    Change the sign to "be careful, clothes may be sandwiched". Remove the Chinese but keep the picture.

    Is the sign now passable as proper English?

  13. BobW said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 11:36 am

    Reminds me of the time I was on an escalator that quit working – I was trapped for hours!

  14. Marc said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 12:23 pm

    >"translators all too often pick "sandwich", maybe because they're familiar with it as a food term."

    It's used quite often in technical writing/translation (e.g., so my guess is that if a human translator was involved in this, it was probably been someone with this technical meaning.

    It's difficult to imagine someone familiar only with the food concluding that it would be appropriate in this case.

  15. Marc said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 12:35 pm

    Ah-ha. No editing. I thought it was a preview.

    >it was probably someone with this technical background.

  16. Bruce said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 10:53 am

    There's a basic principle that a warning sign accomplishes something if the person reading it can fashion a simple remedy to the hazard. In this case, the problem seems to be women's skirts catching in the escalator mechanism, and so a hand in the picture shown drawing the skirt away from the side might do more than a proper translation of that sign. Otherwise the person is on the escalator facing the hazard with no remedy and no wiser about what to do.

  17. Licia said,

    February 15, 2015 @ 4:36 pm

    Meanwhile in Milan, English speakers travelling on the subway are warned to “Beware of long clothes”.

  18. Mark S. said,

    February 22, 2015 @ 1:58 am

    A corrected version of issue no. 91 of Sino-Platonic Papers is now online: Phonosymbolism or Etymology: the Case of the Verb “Cop”, by Victor H. Mair.

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