Kingsoft Strikes Again

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Yesterday, I received this message from a young person who has been corresponding with me about ancient DNA and the movements of peoples across Eurasia during the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age:

The police reaved my computer due to I reprinted a news report of US about the National Day of China yesterday. I came back home from police department just now. They said they will check my computer exhaustively. I'm afraid about my thesises on each area. It is not constitutional to do like that. All acts in violation of the Constitution and the law must be investigated. But this is in China. I doubt [VHM: he means "I suspect / fear"] that they will install a detectaphone on my computer and destroy my essays. I feel like crying but shed no tears. The only feeling is indignation for an intellectual.

Although the young man's English is generally quite good, my immediate assumption was that the third word of his message was a typing error for "removed" or that he simply misremembered some other word meaning "seize." However, considering that quirky archaisms are rampant in Chinese use of English, a phenomenon that I have often documented on Language Log, e.g. here and here, I thought that I had better give the young man the benefit of the doubt, so I trudged over to my dictionary and looked up "reave."

Sure enough, there it was: reave "to seize and carry off forcibly". That immediately led me to think of "bereave," which comes from the same Germanic root (< IE reup- / reub- "snatch"), and then I remembered William Faulkner's novel The Reivers, based on another spelling of the same root, meaning "the robbers".

But where had my young Chinese correspondent unearthed this archaic term? Surely any Chinese-English dictionary worth its salt would offer for QIANG3ZOU3 搶走, which is the Mandarin term he must have been thinking of, something like "take away by force." However, when we turn to Kingsoft, which is far and away the most popular translation software in China, this is what we find:

It seems that my young Chinese correspondent avoided the first definition proffered by Kingsoft, "go off with," because it didn't sound forcible enough for what the police did to his computer. Moreover, the phrasal verb "go off with" primarily means "elope" or "run away with someone," though it could also signify "leave with" or "steal." None of these are satisfactory for what my young Chinese correspondent wanted to express.

He then would have turned to "rap," the second suggested translation for QIANG3ZOU3. Being in his early twenties, he is certainly aware of rap music, which is extremely popular in China, so he would shy away from that translation too. Not what happened to his precious computer! Nor is "rap" appropriate in its primary sense of "hit or strike sharply."

"Rap" in the sense of "seize" is either the present tense or a back formation from "rapt" (past participle), which indicates that one's soul or spirit has been carried away. The American Heritage Dictionary appendix of IE roots lists "rapt" as deriving from a separate IE root, rep-, meaning "snatch," but I'd wager that it is from the same root as "reave" (IE reup- / reub- "snatch").

Poor young man! Kingsoft left him with no other choice to represent QIANG3ZOU3 in English but as "reave." Why couldn't they have given correct, accurate, appropriate English terms such as "confiscate, appropriate, seize," and so forth? Remember, this is the same ubiquitous software that spawned the epidemic of mistranslations of GAN1 ("dry") and GAN4 ("do") as "fuck."

Listen, if someone with computer skills and linguistic acumen is out of work and / or wants not only to become fabulously wealthy but perform the humanitarian service of rescuing China from embarrassment and English from abuse, I suggest that he or she create a credible, reliable alternative to Kingsoft. I'd be happy to serve on your board of advisers / trustees and invest several thousand dollars to boot — for a fair return!

[Hat tip to Stefan Krasowski for the screen shot].

[Update — The three definitions, or rather English translations (1. go off with, 2. rap, 3. reave), for QIANG3ZOU3 offered by the current version of Kingsoft must be considered by the proprietors to be an improvement over the 2002 version, which has "rend away":

I find "rend away" primarily in Biblical contexts with the meaning of "tear away," i.e., (forcibly) detach. ]


  1. john mcf said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

    In popular culture, the reference would be:

  2. Mike Anderson said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

    After all that explanation, I like "reave." Perhaps your Chinese friend is starting a trend!

  3. Sili said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

    Apropos of nothing "at røve" is Danish for "to rob". (Not be confused with "to røve" "two arses".)

  4. Charlie C said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

    Oh for a reliable Kingsoft replacement! Actually, the tool has great potential. It is very easy to use and is minimally invasive — when it works. Of course, as pointed out, a large number of the dictionary entries are hilarious or just plain wrong. Other entries are word-for-word copies from more reputable sources. But in addition to that I have found that my English version of the software doesn't work. While in China, I used the Chinese edition. Returning to the U.S., I managed to purchase an "English" edition. Most of the useful functions don't work any more, and the "support" web site doesn't reply. I'd kick in a few bucks for a good replacement too, or even a competent reimplementation of the current tool (with an overhauled dictionary).

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 6:00 pm

    When you "trudged over to your dictionary", I hope it was the big Century dictionary and you put it in your lap. See James Thurber's story "What Do You Mean It Was Brillig?". It would need some revision to be published nowadays.

  6. mollymooly said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 6:25 pm

    OED gives two separate rap="make off with" verbs for the two etymologies proposed above. I'm more familiar with the cognate "rape" in this sense, as in "The Rape of the Lock". I suppose we should be grateful Kingsoft does not give this.

  7. HeyTeach said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 6:53 pm

    I'm in a bit of shock, here. Instead of bemoaning the lack of suitable terms for this young man to use, why were you not outraged at the government control of thought/language/information distribution? Law of the land aside, what they did to him was immoral — yet when you say "poor young man!" you refer to his lack of options in expressing the act of invasion and confiscation, not that it was done to him at all. Then you used his minor linguistic plight as a springboard to promote your own idea for monetary gain. I was a little disgusted that you were more concerned for the Chinese ("embarassment") and English ("abuse") languages than you were for the abuse your correspondent suffered.

    I know this is a forum for liguistic issues. But we're also human.

  8. Eric said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

    To quote Neal Stephenson: "Don't be [a] jerk, this is China."

  9. Sili said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

    Now that you mention it, Eric. (I doubt I can do the embedding, myself.)

  10. Jonathan said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 7:30 pm

    According to the OED, 'rap' in the meaning 'to snatch away' is of uncertain origin, with a possible Middle Low German cognate 'rabben', but 'rapt' is borrowed from Latin 'raptus' and is thus etymologically unrelated. An obsolete word 'rap' meaning 'to affect with rapture' is backformed from 'rapt'. 'Rap' meaning 'hit' is probably derived from the noun 'rap', which itself is probably of onomatopoeic ('imitative') origin; parallels exist in Scandinavian. 'Rape' in its usual meaning is borrowed from Latin 'rapere'.

    Chance correspondence strikes again!

  11. semuren said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 10:35 pm

    I have to agree with HeyTeach, while the linguistic aspect of this in interesting, not commenting upon the background of the correspondence does seem odd.

    I have to throuw a little cold water on the idea that someone could make money producing a better version of the KingSoft software. First, it would be pirated. I think Kingsoft has (and maybe still has) a promotion where it was prices at RMB 28 (about US $4 now or $ 3.50 a few years ago when I bought it). This low price was an effort to encourage people to buy the real version, but the pirated version could still be had for about RMB 10. Second, there might be less of a demand for "correct" English in China than native-speakers of English think. I suspect that idiosyncratic usages pre-date mass use of machine translation software/electronic dictionaries. (I have encountered several people who insist on "cumcuber" for "cucumber" and so suspect that this usage might have appeared in some textbook from a generation ago.) Also, much of the English used in China is more about indexing an impression of sophistication or cosmopolitan internationalism in communication between native speakers of Chinese, than it is about using English as a tool for referential communication.

    I hope your correspondent gets his computer back, with his work in tact and without any free extra software from the PSB.

  12. Nathan Myers said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 11:46 pm

    HeyTeach: I suspect Prof. Mair was (and is) obliged to leave the facts uncommented upon by his need to travel in China himself. What could he say that might reveal his feelings more starkly than his need to studiously not comment on the horrifying details? At least his correspondent is out of jail.

    I suspect this is what Eric meant. Some of us need it spelled out more.

  13. Alan said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 12:18 am

    His use of "doubt" is intriguing as well — I associate its use in the sense of "fear, suspect" primarily with Shakespeare. Kingsoft are even fonder of throwback usages than I'd thought…

  14. Geof said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 1:23 am

    Alan: Actually it's much simpler than that – "suspect" and "doubt" are represented by the same term in Chinese.

  15. Alonso Day said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 1:49 am

    (yawn) Yeah yeah, so our translation databases are a little rusty. Keep giving it time. It's only been since British/French/American victory and concessions from the Opium Wars (1840s) that foreigners were even ALLOWED to study Chinese! Only since 1950s that decent pinyin romanization has existed. Our cultures are drawing closer together with each passing day…

  16. Graham said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 3:44 am

    @ Alan: 'His use of "doubt" is intriguing as well' – this use of 'doubt' is common in Scotland. The Oxford Reference Dictionary marks it as "traditional British archaic or dialectal".

  17. Bob Ladd said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 3:56 am

    Or to quote CIcero instead of Neal Stephenson: "Cum tacent, clamant" (usually translated as 'by their silence they shout aloud'). I found Prof. Mair's bare presentation of the background to his linguistic point far more eloquent than a blogsworth of indignation.

  18. Brendan said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 5:47 am

    @Graham, @Alan: the use of "doubt" there is probably from the underlying Chinese 怀疑, a verb that can mean both "to doubt" and "to suspect." Many fairly fluent Chinese speakers of English have problems with this one, so it isn't necessarily the result of Kingsoft — though it could be that as well.

  19. Marco said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 7:34 am

    I, for one, find myself immediately rather fond of this word, and am determined to use it frequently.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 8:04 am

    I also should have noted that "rob" < IE reup-.

  21. dwmacg said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 8:26 am

    I agree with Marco. Perhaps this entry should be filed under a new category: "Gained in translation".

  22. Mr. Shiny & New said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 8:31 am

    I suspect that translation software (including many electronic dictionaries) will cease to be a viable business for most casual use once machine translation such as Google Translate becomes more powerful. I know that I often look up words in a Chinese-English dictionary, find multiple suggestions, then have to go back and forth between the Chinese synonyms and English synonyms until I find the one that's just right. Whereas Google Translate can translate the word in the context of a sentence, and suggest different translations as appropriate (sometimes). As this approach improves I feel it will take the market out of other software.

    Then there's Wiktionary, which like Wikipedia could scuttle many traditional dictionaries (and the electronic versions).

  23. John Walden said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 8:40 am

    When Robert The Bruce had stabbed his enemy he said "I doubt that I have slain Red Comyn", meaning "think" in Scottish English, and in Scots I expect. His friend Kirkpatrick said "Doubt? Then I'll make sure", interpreting "doubt" as having its English English meaning.

    And isn't "reaving/reiving" from the Borders?

    I prefer a society where where thinking, suspecting, doubting and fearing are not easily confused.

  24. Andrew said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 11:47 am

    John Walden: I had never read the Bruce anecdote that way – although 'doubt' as Bruce uses it definitely has a positive rather than a negative meaning, it still implies uncertainty, since you wouldn't say 'I think' if you were absolutely sure about it, so 'I'll make sure' is a reasonable response.

  25. HeyTeach said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

    @ Bob Ladd and Nathan Myers:

    Thanks for your comments and clarification, adding the pieces that were missing for me. Obviously that Prof. Mair needed to be circumspect in his comments on the facts was not something I considered, or realized the need to consider. I'm happy to have my horizons broadened a bit.

  26. Harry said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 5:39 pm

    How quaint, someone who thinks fortunes can be made from bilingual dictionaries, just as the entire industry is going down the drain at a rate of knots! What a brilliant idea, just write a better dictionary and the world will beat a path to your door clutching fistfuls of dollars! American humour is clearly more foreign to Brits than I dreamed possible.

    As to whether this whole, strange posting is some kind of elaborate exercise in doublespeak, most of us have no way of knowing, but publishing his criticisms of the state, or even highlighting his plight at all, seems a strange way of helping this poor man's case.


  27. Matt said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 9:07 pm

    Obligatory Penny Arcade link.

  28. dr pepper said,

    September 25, 2009 @ 12:20 am


    OED gives two separate rap="make off with" verbs for the two etymologies proposed above. I'm more familiar with the cognate "rape" in this sense, as in "The Rape of the Lock". I suppose we should be grateful Kingsoft does not give this.

    Yeah, that was my immediate thought too.

    Hmm, awful title idea for a movie about political disappearences: The Rapture.

  29. Dave Wilton said,

    September 25, 2009 @ 11:47 am

    "Reave" isn't so archaic. Besides the aforementioned Firefly reference, the OED shows it is in current use in Scotland and there is a 2001 cite from India–hinting that it may be current in Indian English.

  30. KJP said,

    September 25, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

    @Mr Shiny, Harry: Kingsoft isn't just a dictionary. The reason it's popular is that it gives you a pop-up translation of English words when you hover your mouse over them in another program – you see a translation without having to go to a website and copy anything into a search box.

    @some other commenters: it's not Chinese dictionaries in general that suck, it's Kingsoft. There are much more reliable English-Chinese dictionaries online (nciku in particular is far better), but the convenience of Kingsoft's instant-translate mode means that's what people use.

  31. Victor Mair said,

    September 25, 2009 @ 12:48 pm

    I wanted to thank Oliver Lutz Radtke for the second screenshot that I added.


    Reave Is Spreading

    Matt Anderson sent me a few (badly translated) English articles using it on Chinese websites.

    This one (I think) is in reference to Hmong bride kidnapping (the article is titled "Common of Miao Zu marriage"):
    "During this, prevent bridegroom to let Fu Fu even people reave. If was reaved, they can rise bridegroom Tibet, the person that let get married get married cannot marry a bride on time."

    And here's another one about ethnic minority wedding customs – this time Tibetans from Qinghai:
    "If the boy took a fancy to a girl, he is not to propose to the girl first, eulogy spits the heart of Bai Ji's love, try to reave the cap on girl head however."

    But it doesn't only show up in articles about marriage customs:
    "On Feburary 14, they help on two friends again, held a knife to rob Rui Mou 20 yuan of money, because disrelish money little, they 'detain is worn' Rui Mou arrives its are domiciliary, reaved 180 yuan of money. On Feburary 26, they grabbed 2 mobile phones again."

    "With QQ the TM that is a two brands, office only is pair of MSN imitate, reaved the market share of the crowd of one part white-collar that belongs to Microsoft originally, make the strategy that MSN is forced to begin a change to be in China."

  32. Harry said,

    September 25, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

    @KJP: that's very handy but what powers it but a dictionary?! The rest is software, and while I'm no computer expert I wouldn't have thought that adding the pop-up functionality was rocket science. What matters is how good your raw materials are, and that's what takes time, specialist knowledge and lots of cash to do properly. That kind of slow-burning investment was never easy to come by and, unless the economic climate in China is very different to the rest of the world… well you know the rest.

    The fascinating question is whether, as China embraces the English language, little fortuitous quirks like this will catch on and become part of Chinese English. If this, er, idiosyncratic text is in such widespread use as it seems, there could be every chance.

  33. Aaron Davies said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 11:58 am

    One of the rare occasions when an LL contributer was able to take a blatantly political story and stick to the legitimate linguistic issues. I, for one, applaud. I can get political commentary 100 times more easily than linguistic online.

  34. Harry said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 8:50 am

    Wow. The phrases "blatantly political" and "legitimate linguistic issues" say it all. How dare these people go around being oppressed and distracting us from legitimate linguistic issues? But in a world where it's so hard to source the precious commodity of linguistic analysis unpolluted by humanitarian (sorry "political") concerns, it's good to know that Aaron is satisfied with the purity of the entertainment merchandise he's receiving.

  35. Lareina said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

    Kingsoft did suck……..=(………..this is why paper dictionary is a lot better………
    the new version that was out on Sep had a function of translating the whole sentence (or maybe the old version had it just i dont know)
    BUT it makes no sense….they just puzzled each single meaning for every word together – cant believe it, like "qiang zou' would be like ' rob go'….ugh!
    Srsly prof, you should have like a set of software produced for translating chn into eng – i d be the 1st to buy it…….i m a lot more fanatic abt software than abt paper dictionary………………lol

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