Don't eat the water

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Sveinn Einarsson spotted this photograph of a scene at one of the refugee camps on the Chinese side of the China-Burma border on Tencent News:

Although the sign looks professionally made by some kind of an official Chinese organization (perhaps the PLA), Sveinn wondered whether it "possess[es] an obvious linguistic mistake", namely, that chīshuǐ 吃水 should be hēshuǐ 喝水 ("drink water").

First, let's transcribe and translate what the sign says, and then I'll discuss the difference between chīshuǐ 吃水 and hēshuǐ 喝水 ("drink water").

bùyào chī shēngshuǐ  不要吃生水 ("don't drink unboiled water")

yào chī kāishuǐ 要吃开水 ("you should drink boiled water")

When we start learning Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), it's true that we are taught that hē 喝 means "drink" and chī 吃 (also written as 喫) means "eat".  The difference is clear, just as with "eat" and "drink" in English.  Topolectally and historically, however, chī 吃 can also sometimes mean "drink", though in contemporary, mainstream usage it normally means "eat".

drink water
hēshuǐ 喝水  17,400,000 ghits
yǐnshuǐ 饮水 17,200,000
chīshuǐ 吃水   1,150,000

drink tea
hēchá 喝茶 10,800,000
yǐnchá 饮茶  1,610,000
chīchá 吃茶     555,000

So we have these three main Sinitic terms for "drink":  hē 喝, yǐn 饮, and chī 吃.  Is there any way to differentiate among them?

Without undertaking a special study, but just relying on my memory of things that I've read during the past five decades, hē 喝 is a post-medieval northernism which borrows an old character meaning "shout" (pronounced hè in MSM), chī 吃 is a fundamentally medieval usage that survives in some conservative and colloquial contexts, and yǐn 饮 is a classicism that remains popular particularly in southern speech forms, for example, Cantonese jam2 caa4 飲茶 ("to drink tea; to go out for dim sum"), which has been borrowed into English.  See:

For kāishuǐ 开水 ("boiled water"), see:

A final note: the girl in the picture is drinking unboiled water directly from a spigot.  Either she's not paying attention to the sign or she can't read it.  I suspect that a lot of other people follow her example, since the row of spigots are perfectly positioned for them to do that.


  1. Mark S. said,

    March 17, 2015 @ 11:43 pm

    Is there a way to differentiate hits for "chīshuǐ" (吃水) from longer compounds that speak of consuming solid food rather than liquids (e.g., chī shuǐguǒ / 吃水果: "eat fruit")?

    Similarly, chīchá (吃茶) vs. chī cháyèdàn (吃茶葉蛋).

  2. John said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 12:08 am

    The number for 飲水 is surely distorted by the existence of the word 飲水機 "drinking water dispenser"?

    Personally, my only encounter with 吃 used for water is in the story/saying 三個和尚沒水吃, which I learned in elementary school.

  3. Matt said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 12:36 am

    Like many a Chinese classicism, 吃 survives in Japanese, sort of — in the form of the variant 喫, it turns up in words like 喫茶店 (kissaten, consume-tea-shop = "cafe") and 喫する (kissuru, a rather pompous way to say "consume, imbibe, inhale, etc.").

    Oddly, the actual character 吃 now mostly appears in words relating to the mouth/throat not working as it should, like 吃る (domoru, "stutter") and 吃逆 (shakkuri/kitsugyaku, "hiccup").

  4. yg1 said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 6:02 am

    Do you eat or drink soup, in English? I was surprised when first learning Mandarin that drink soup is a more common phrase. Eat milk, in Mandarin, was another that surprised me, particularly when referring to a mother breastfeeding a baby, but kind of makes sense. I don't think any language is absolutely clear cut with eat and drink.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 7:05 am

    Mark S. is correct to point out that we gain some unwanted ghits from constructions like chī shuǐguǒ 吃水果 ("eat fruit"). On the other hand, we lose some from constructions like chī shēngshuǐ 吃生水 itself, where a modifier is inserted between chī 吃 and shuǐ 水.


    Although the yǐn 飲 ("drink[ing]") of yǐnshuǐ jī 飲水機 ("drinking water dispenser") is not a verb, it is an adjectival verbal with the meaning under discussion.

  6. Richard Futrell said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 9:03 am

    It's interesting to me that nearly all languages seem to have an eat/drink distinction, even though it's perfectly redundant if you have the direct object of the verb.

    Are there any languages in which a generic verb like "consume" is the most frequent usage? Someone once told me that Bengali is that way.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 9:07 am

    From South Coblin:

    In many Central and Southern Chinese dialects the same word is used for both “eat” and “drink”. This is also true of a number of Southwest Mandarin varieties, and in these Mandarin lects the word in question is of course 吃. I would think that a sign made in that area along the Burmese border could well have been written by a speaker of this type of Southwest Mandarin.

  8. Anthony said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 9:08 am

    In Turkish, you drink cigarette.

  9. Leo E said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 9:25 am

    @Richard Futrell
    Yes, Bengali is that way – the verb khaoya is used the same for water as it is for bread. Jol khabo = "I'll have some water;" mach khabo = "I'll have some fish." As Anthony said, in Turkish you 'drink' a cigarette, which is the same in Hindi: pina. But in Bengali it's also khaoya: sigret khabo: "I'll have a smoke." So it does seem to be a catch-all word for consuming.
    But the related word khaowar, "food," wouldn't be used for just drinks. If you said "khaowar niye ashi?" (shall I bring some food?) it would mean solid food. I've just heard the English word "drinks" used if liquid is meant.

  10. Rachel said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 11:01 am

    Matt, that use of 吃 to mean "stutter" also exists in Mandarin: 口吃 'a stutter, a stammer'.

    I'm also reminded of the times when the consistency of the thing consumed makes it unclear what verb to use. Main example: 喝 overlapping with English 'to eat' when you're talking about soup: 'eat soup', '喝汤'.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 11:39 am

    From Zhang Xing:

    Indeed, in Bengali "eat (khaya)" is used as a verb for quite a lot of things: food, drinks, cigarettes, even kisses:)

  12. Victor Mair said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 2:45 pm

    In some topolects of Mandarin, such as Pekingese, one can also "eat" a cigarette:

    chīyān 吃烟/煙 357,000 ghits

    A couple of sample sentences taken directly from Lao She's Rickshaw Boy:


    Yǒu shíhòu tā kàn biérén hējiǔ chīyān pǎo tǔyáozi, jīhū gǎndào yīdiǎn xiànmù.


    "He almost envied the others their drinking, smoking and whoring."

    Note the tǔ 土 ("earthy") and yáozi 窑子 ("brothel"), both of which appeared in the "Pekingese and Putonghua" post a few days ago:

    Tā háishì děi bù chīyān bù hējiǔ, shuǎngxìng lián bāo hǎo cháyè yě bù biànyú hē.


    "So he still kept off tobacco and alcohol and couldn't even bring himself to drink better quality tea."

    Vocabulary notes:

    děi 得 ("should; must")
    lián 連 ("even")
    bāo 包 ("pack[age]")


    In MSM the following terms are used for "smoke cigarettes":

    chōuyān 抽烟 12,000,000

    xīyān 吸煙 2,410,000

  13. Nicholas Feinberg said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 3:03 pm

    @Anthony: Elizabethan English seems to have also used 'drink' for the act of smoking tobacco, at least sometimes; I'm not sure when it fell out of use.

  14. julie lee said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 3:16 pm

    Very interesting, "ate a cigarette" , "ate a kiss". In Mandarin there are such phrases as _chile yige erguang_ "ate (i.e., got) a slap in the face" .
    Once I was translating a political text and translated the Chinese _chi_ "eat' and _tun_ "swallow", (meaning "annexed a country, conquered and annexed), into "eat" and "swallow" in English, e.g., "Hitler ate Sudetenland" "Italy invaded and swallowed Abyssinia". The American proofreader was amused at this usage. In chess, when you take an opponent's chess piece, it's called _chi _"eating" it in Mandarin.

  15. richard said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 4:24 pm

    Yes, in my wife's native Yiyang topolect (in the Xiang family, I believe), there is one verb, cha, that means both eat and drink. Eg. "Chawan la!" means, roughly, "Let's eat," referencing rice (wan) as the canonical food, "la" as an exhortative particle, but you also "Cha la" to drink tea (la, different tone from the other la) and "Cha se" to drink water. I am guessing on the romanization, since few people bother romanizing Yiyanghua.

  16. JQ said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 4:56 pm

    In Cantonese one also "eats a smoke" (食煙)

  17. Victor Mair said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 6:31 pm

    From Geoff Wade:

    In many parts of (English-speaking ) Southeast Asia, people often simply use "take" to refer to consume (eat or drink)

    Do you take meat? Have you taken lunch?

    Do you take alcohol?

    This is of course shared by some forms of English but I do not know the etymology or range or whether it is a form of borrowing from another language.

  18. Usually Dainichi said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 7:20 pm

    The spam filter seems to really hate me:

    Adding to Matt's comment, the situation in Japanese is further complicated by the fact that choosing a character for a morpheme can be a complicated process in Japanese.

    A slightly archaic way to say "smoking" in Japanese is タバコをのむ tabako-wo nomu, the morpheme-by-morpheme translation of which is "drink tobacco".

    I deliberately wrote のむ (nomu, drink) without assigning a character, since even Japanese natives would be confused about what character to use in this case. The options would include:

    飲む, the most common one, but mostly used for actual drinking.
    呑む, usually used in a more figurative sense, like 要求と呑む (yookyuu-wo nomu, accept the requirements).
    喫む, note, this is the variant of 吃 mentioned by Matt before in a special use here, probably influenced by the word 喫煙 (kitsuen, lit. eat/drink-smoke, smoking, the imported version of 吃烟 mentioned by VM previously).

    Japanese also has a figurative use of 食らう (kurau, eat, of which I'm not sure of the exact etymological connection to the more common 食う, kuu, eat):

    大目玉を食らう, oo-medama-wo kurau, lit. eat a big eyeball, take a big scolding
    パンチを食らう, panchi-wo kurau, take a punch

  19. julie lee said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 7:54 pm

    A bit off-topic:

    When I was a graduate student in New York and roomed with a Chinese family, my landlord (head of the family) had the disconcerting habit of always asking me: "_Youmeiiyou chifan?" (Mandarin for "Have you eaten?" , i.e. Have you breakfasted, lunched, or dined), whenever we met I told my mom about it, and she said: "Oh, in some dialects or topolects of China, 'Have you eaten?' means 'Hello'."

  20. Bathrobe said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 8:08 pm

    吃水 is also used in at least two other contexts:

    The displacement of a ship (吃水量).

    Absorption of water. Concrete is said to 吃水 for some years after it has been laid/applied.

  21. Bathrobe said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 8:15 pm

    When I was in Hainan, a fellow from Shaanxi told me that he regarded the failure of the Hainanese to distinguish drinking from eating as a sign of a lower level of culture.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 8:46 pm

    From Bob Bauer:

    Cantonese speakers say 飲水 jam2 seoi2 'to drink water', but 食水sik6 seoi2 'potable water, water for drinking'.

    I was reminded of this last night on my walk when I came upon a very large pipe recently constructed above ground and on which were pasted at regular intervals sheets of A4-sized paper with the phrase "臨時食水管" lam4 si4 sik6 seoi2 gun2 'temporary potable-water pipe'.

  23. BZ said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 12:34 pm

    While Russian distinguishes eating and drinking, there is no word for potable or drinkable, and the word for edible is used in their place. Admittedly, I don't think I've ever heard (as opposed to read) "potable" in English, so I'm not 100% sure how it's pronounced ("pote-able" vs "pot-able")

  24. John Swindle said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 3:02 pm

    @BZ: I say "pote-able." Some say "portable." "Portable water" almost makes sense. When the water main breaks, the authorities send around a truck with drinking water to supply the affected households until service can be restored. Potable water, come and get it. More generally, it's pretty normal to carry around drinking water.

  25. Matt said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 8:03 pm

    To tag-team back onto the erstwhile (?) Dainichi's comment, here's another rare but not unheard-of way to write "nomu" as in "smoke a cigarette": 吸む. This makes the elevated/historical way of saying "smoke" more accessible to the non-historical reader by writing it with the Chinese character used to write the contemporary way to say "smoke" (suu, "inhale").

  26. J. Goard said,

    March 20, 2015 @ 2:42 am

    English "smoke" (a cigar, etc.) is a pretty weird semantic extension, when you think about it. The other verbs are all pretty natural: smoking meat is affecting it by use of smoke, just like heating or glazing or spicing; intransitive smoking is producing smoke, again an extremely common pattern. But N => V where V is "cause (something else) to produce N" seems pretty rare. "Burping" a baby, I guess. But still, you'd think we'd use "burn" or "suck" or "eat" instead.

  27. brandon seah said,

    March 20, 2015 @ 7:50 pm

    I suspect that a large part of the google hits for 飲水 comes from the set phrase 飲水思源

  28. Victor Mair said,

    March 21, 2015 @ 2:05 pm

    @brandon seah

    For those who don't read Chinese:

  29. Dave Cragin said,

    March 21, 2015 @ 10:56 pm

    In Mandarin, you also "eat medicine" chi yao 吃药. One explanation of this is that Traditional Chinese Medicine 中药/zhong yao can have considerable bulk.

    Julie lee – As you note, it's also been explained to me that the many variations of "have you eaten" are mainly rhetorical way to say "hi" around lunch time. It's similar to the use of "how are you?" in the US. (i.e., it's often said without expecting a sincere response).

    When I teach at Peking U and the students return from the lunchtime break, I greet them with 吃过了吗? chi guo le ma? and they laugh.

  30. P'i-kou said,

    March 22, 2015 @ 2:03 pm

    Shanghainese also has 吃 (roughly [tɕɪʔ], high tone) for food, drink, cigarettes and also 吃生活, literally 'eat life' meaning 'get a beating'. The latter seems to be a more general Wu 吴 thing since it's also found in Lu Xun.

    I guess that would also be the Wu verb to signify what the spam filter is doing to me.

  31. Matt said,

    March 24, 2015 @ 8:09 pm

    Is there a good etymological explanation for why "吃生活" came to mean "get a beating"?

  32. Derk Zech said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 2:16 pm

    The use of 喝 for "drink" and 吃 for "eat" are not these characters' original meaning – they are both 假借字.

    These words were originally 欱 (hē) and 喫 (chī), but they were later borrowed and merged into 喝 (hè) and 吃 (jí) as the old forms were forgotten. So, while the character representation is relatively new, the words themselves precede being a "post-medieval northernism" or "medieval usage."

    Another example of such 假借字:
    胖 (pán, pàn) and 肨 (pàng) → 胖 (pán, pàn, pàng)

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