No word for "serve" in Chinese?

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Michael Rank sent in this photograph taken at the Shanghai restaurant in Dalston, London E8:

The sign on the wall says:

lóumiàn yuángōng zhùyì!
qǐng zài Serve yǐnpǐn qián
jiǎnchá qīngchǔ suǒyǒu bēi
shìfǒu qīngjié cái kě shǐyòng


floor staff note!
before serving drinks please
carefully examine all glasses
[to see] whether they are clean, only then may they be used

Of course, the thing about the sign that leaps off the wall is the English word "Serve" right in the middle of all the Chinese characters. We'll talk about that in detail below.

More than "Serve", however, what gave me pause about this notice are the first two characters, lóumiàn 樓面, because they don't make sense to a speaker of Modern Standard Mandarin.

The traditional Chinese characters, the mixing of English and Chinese, and the wording are very Hong Kong-ish to me, so I assumed that 樓面 is probably a Cantonese expression. Sure enough, I found it in CantoDict (sheik):

lau4min6/2 floor; dining area; waiter

It's similar to diànmiàn 店面, an expression you will encounter in Shenzhen (big, new city near Hong Kong), which seems to mean "store; restaurant; hotel" — whatever establishment on the street that you're standing in front of, i.e., "shop front" or "storefront".

For "serve drinks", you definitely couldn't say *fúwù yǐnpǐn 服務飲品, which would be unidiomatic; that "serve" is for expressions like "wèi rénmín fúwù 為人民服務" ("Serve the People"), the famous Maoist dictum, though you could, for another purpose, say "yǐnpǐn fúwù 飲品服務" ("drinks service").

I suppose that you could also say "duānshàng yǐnpǐn 端上飲品", "sòngshàng yǐnpǐn 送上飲品", or just "shàng yǐnpǐn 上飲品" for "serve drinks", but they lack the gentility, civility, and courtesy of the English term.

The following notes are from Bob Bauer:

English "serve" (which may be pronounced something like [soev] or [soef]) has been borrowed into Cantonese because it connotes the specific meaning that is deemed to be necessary for this particular context. Of course, it's possible to talk about serving spirits to diners using a Cantonese phrase; however, given that serving spirits in a high-end restaurant to diners who may regard themselves as connoisseurs is both an art and a science, doing so requires that the waiters/servers have both considerable knowledge about diverse varieties of quality-brand spirits (some of which are typically foreign in origin), as well as finesse in presentation; as a consequence, the Cantonese locution would lack the directness, specificity, and precision that are felt to be appropriate in this context.

In addition to borrowing "serve" directly, Cantonese has also borrowed "server" as soe1 faa2 (cited on page 75 of "Putonghua Cantonese English Converter" by Kataoka and Lee, 2014).

As for 樓面 lau4 min6/2, it has two meanings: 1. floor area in a restaurant; 2. waiter, server.

This is a particularly interesting Cantonese word (note the changed tone on the second syllable which indicates the process of word derivation has been at work here), and also enters into a few other combinations:

1. 樓面部長 lau4 min6/2 bou6 zoeng2 'captain in a restaurant who greets customers, assists in managing the main floor area that is accessible to customers, and promotes the work there'

2. 樓面工 lau4 min6/2 gung1 '1. the work in the main floor area of a restaurant, such as that of a waiter, waitress, cashier, etc.; 2. waiter or waitress in a restaurant'

3. 樓面侍應 lau6 min6/2 si6 jing3 'waiter or waitress who works in the main floor area of a restaurant'

4. 做樓面 zou6 lau4 min6/2 'to work as a waiter or waitress in a restaurant'

Here is the full lexical entry for 樓面 lau4 min6/2 from the ABC Cantonese-English dic. ms.:

.hw lau4 min6/2
char 樓面
ps N.
1seealso 面 min6/2
1df main floor area in a Ch. or European restaurant that is accessible to customers
1exchar 佢哋想裝修樓面
1exrom keoi5 dei6 soeng2 zong1 sau1 lau4 min6/2
1exeng They want to re-decorate the dining area of the restaurant
2clf 個 go3
2seealso 伙記 fo2 gei3, 企枱 kei5 toi4/2, 企堂 kei5 tong4/2, 樓面部長 lau4 min6/2 bou6 zoeng2, 樓面工 lau4 min6/2 gung1, 樓面侍應 lau6 min6/2 si6 jing3, 侍應 si6 jing3, 侍應生 si6 jing3 sang1, 侍仔 si6 zai2, 喂咜 wei1 taa2, 揸水煲 zaa1 seoi2 bou1, 做樓面 zou6 lau4 min6/2
2df waiter, waitress, or server working in a Ch.-style or Western-style restaurant
2exchar 有個女仔樓面攞塊枱布出嚟幫我抹乾淨張枱
2exrom jau5 go3 neoi5 zai2 lau4 min6/2 lo2 faai3 toi4/2 bou3 ceot1 lai4 bong1 ngo5 maat3 gon1 zeng6 zoeng1 toi4/2
2exeng A waitress with a table-cleaning cloth came out and wiped the table clean for me
ser 1000003044
ref WKB1997:155; ZYK1997:221; BWR1998:192; ZN1999:195; CE2005:559; HB2005:248; ROZ2009:132; RSBfmInternet15072011

All of those annotations and notes at the end of the entry look rather forbidding in this format, but when typeset, they will be beautiful to behold. For all those who have been waiting patiently for the publication of Bob Bauer's ABC Cantonese-English dictionary, which we have several times mentioned on Language Log, the manuscript is complete, and Bob will soon be sending the electronic files to Tom Bishop at Wenlin to do the typesetting.

[Thanks to Rebecca Fu, Fangyi Cheng, Wei Shao, Jidong Yang, and Jing Wen]


  1. Wentao said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 12:10 am

    Personally I feel 上饮品 would work in this context. It is natural but perhaps less refined than the English. Apart from 端上, how about 呈上, or, at the risk of being overly servile, 奉上? They definitely sound out of place in the case of this sign, but may be acceptable translations of "serve" in the general sense.

  2. Wentao said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 12:11 am

    Also it came to me that 提供 might work on this sign too. Although it's a little ambiguous because the object of this verb is not necessarily the customer.

  3. Helen Wang said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 12:21 am

    I read 楼面 as "front of house" (and 楼面员工 as "front of house staff") – suggesting direct translation from English.

  4. Bathrobe said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 12:28 am

    One thing that caught my attention is the grammar of the Chinese:


    (Roughly: Only after checking carefully before serving whether the glasses are clean can they be used)

    (Roughly: Please check carefully whether the glasses are clean before serving)

    would be ok in Chinese, but I've noticed that the two structures can be combined into one without anyone feeling that it's unnatural. In English, a request and a statement would be awkward (probably ungrammatical) within the same sentence.

    That, of course, is why the post uses a translation on the lines of: "Before serving drinks please carefully check whether all glasses are clean, only then may they be used", which interprets the sentence as two separate structures not as one.

  5. Brett said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 10:40 am

    I immediately found myself wondering how "To Serve Man" was translated.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 5:09 pm

    From a Shanghai native who spent much of his twenties in the Beijing:

    My impression is that 楼面 (it does mean "floor") is originated in the south, perhaps Hong Kong. Whoever posted this note must have had the feeling that the word "serve" does not have a good counterpart in Chinese, a feeling that I share. I also guess that, in this particular restaurant or hotel, most staff members know some English, especially the vocabulary needed for performing their daily professional duties. That's probably why the English word is used here.

  7. Calvin said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 8:49 pm

    Having worked in the Chinese restaurant business, I can offer couple observations:
    1. The word "serve" actually means "prepare and serve" the drinks. Most Chinese restaurants don't have a designated bartender. Usually it falls to the waiter/waitress who took the order to prepare and serve the drink (or ask a more experienced co-worker to do so). Notice the sign is displayed above the liquor bottles, well-placed to remind staff to check the glass before pouring drink.
    2. A more accurate translation for 樓面 in the context is "dining room staff". It refers to captain (部長) and waiter/waitress (侍應) only. Cashier (收銀) and maître d' (帶位) are not considered as 樓面 (they usually work in the front reception/waiting area outside of the dining room). I am most certain these words came from Hong Kong. I heard them even at the time when most of the restaurants in China were state-owned, and waiter/waitress was called 服务员.

  8. Jeffrey Willson said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 8:15 am


    I think this is a good example of how modern Chinese preserves sentence structures from Classical Chinese that would be unidiomatic in Western languages. The idiomatic translations that you gave each have a subordinate clause and a gerund, but the original Chinese does not subordinate in the same way. Broken up into clauses:

    請在Serve飲品前 Please, before serving drinks (prep + verb much like a gerund)
    檢查清楚 Examine until certain
    所有杯是否清潔 Are all the glasses clean?
    才可使用 Only then may they be used.

    In Classical Chinese, you don't really have subordinate clauses. You have clauses in coordinate position, and when they are closely paired, there is an implied subordination of the first one. I think the same principle is at work here.

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