"Horse of Cart"

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Tom Mazanec has been seeing a series of strange ads all over the Shanghai subway.  They're for a company that does one-on-one oral English practice over Skype, called 51talk.com.

 Tom observes:

1. They're making a pretty funny and complicated joke about the ways people study English. The "Horse of Cart" ad, in particular, is great: not only does the bad English learner implicitly mess up the name of "House of Cards," but does so in a way that invokes the idiom "putting the cart before the horse." And I guess watching American TV shows before you learn English well is doing just that!

(Note, too, how the Chinese name for the show Qípái wū 棋牌屋 ["House of Chess and Cards"] is a slightly wrong version of the real show's Chinese name, Zhǐpái wū 纸牌屋.)

2. This also shows just how popular American TV shows have become in China, especially among internet-savvy urban youth. The ad is very well targeted at a specific audience. This is reinforced for me by the use of the slangy term chāolàn 超烂, which I'd translate as "really sucks" or (more literally) "is super sloppy/rotten."

3. The use of N for jǐ 几 ("a few; several; some") is really weird to me. I understand that this comes from algebra, but why? Both are very simple characters. Any ideas on why they would use one over the other?

The sentence in which "N" appears reads thus:

Zhuīle N bù Měijù, Yīngyǔ hái chāolàn… 追了N部美剧,英语还超烂…
("You've chased after N American TV series, but your English still sucks…").

I suppose they chose "N" over "几" to make the ad seem more mathematical / scientific and international.

The next line reads:

Shìguò "zàixiàn wàijiào 1 duì 1" ma? 试过"在线外教1对1"吗
("Have you tried 'online foreign teachers 1 on 1'?")

Here's another ad in the series:

Tom remarks:

The second ad, about the dictionary, speaks to a common misunderstanding of language learning –- one that you've addressed on the blog several times. Learning lists of words in any foreign language doesn't mean you really learn the language. They talk more about their semi-immersive approach on their website, and contrast it with the way English is taught really ineffectively in Chinese schools.

Here the first line to the right of the dictionary says:

Bèile N nián dāncí, yīngyǔ hái chāo làn 背了N年单词,英语还超烂
("You've spent N years memorizing individual words [from a dictionary], but your English still sucks…").

The second line is the same as in the first ad.

Tom further notes:

The company's name in Chinese is Wú yōu Yīngyǔ 无忧英语 ("Worry-free English"), and I wonder if the 51 of the website name is another number pun (wǔyī = wúyōu). It's a bit of a stretch, but so are all the other number puns I hear, such as wǔ èr lǐng 520 = wǒ ài nǐ 我爱你 ("I love you"), or yī sān yī sì 1314 = yīshēng yīshì 一生一世 ("for life"). In any case, it would be yet another clever touch.

See "Mandarin by the numbers" (6/8/13).


  1. Xiao Shi said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 7:37 pm

    Remember that 一 can also be read as yao, which is much closer phonetically to you… I read it as a pun also for 我要

  2. JC said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 7:37 pm

    The use of "N" was a trend back about 10 years ago when people were starting to use online chatrooms. Not exactly sure why, but I'd use it to mean "a large amount of" without feeling I'm making my expression more scientific or international. More online-y, at best. But nowadays the expression reminds me of gradeschoolers.

  3. cameron said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 8:02 pm

    The use of the character 'N' in the text reminds me of an idiom that I hear Indian and Pakistani speakers of English use all the time. The say "n number of" rather than "any number of". I've often described this as a sort of algebraicized eggcorn.

  4. ahkow said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 8:11 pm

    With that name, I would read 51.com as wu3 yao1 五幺.

  5. R Fandango said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 11:56 pm

    With the caveat that I suggest this from a rank outsider's perspective (I know no Chinese), I wonder if "N" could simply be a shorthand way of representing the character 几 borrowed from something like mobile phone texting? If one were to extend the hook on the right hand side of the character upwards in a straight line, the result would not be at all dissimilar from a capital N. Is that a possibility? Just that I'd think the use of "n" to mean "some number" is a bit of an esoteric one to be borrowed directly into slang in another language, at least with no other influencing factors.

  6. Michael Watts said,

    June 1, 2015 @ 12:48 am

    51talk.com seemed to me like the equivalent of 51job.com, which was explicitly supposed to mean 我要job.

  7. K Chang said,

    June 1, 2015 @ 1:05 am

    The "N" thing was supposedly from the algebra, like "N-th degree" sort of how we American would use "x" like "solve for x". I seem to remember that expression from way back when, like 20 some years ago, and probably predated even that in Taiwan. Though it seemt o have suddenly popped up in China about 2010ish, when media started using it to be shorthand for "Once in a decade", "Once in 50 years", "Once in a century", "once in a millenia" all got shortened into "Once in N years" N年一遇. Supposedly netizens in China lamented the popularity of the expression as "media laziness" and "loss of Chinese culture" and whatnot.


    P.S. I'm pretty sure the first sign reads "qi pai shi" 棋牌室 "Room of Boardgames (i.e. Chess, Checkers, Mahjong, etc.) and Playing Cards", not 棋牌屋.It may have been an intentional mistranslation, as Chinese has no tradition of building "houses" with playing cards. In Chinese, 棋牌屋 would be a place where such games are played (a rec room or a club).

  8. K Chang said,

    June 1, 2015 @ 1:53 am

    It's worth pointing out that in the 2nd ad, while the "book" indeed says dictionary, the Chinese version actually says 英漢詞典 or English-Chinese Phrase Dictionary which is not the same as 字典 (word dictionary)

    Which brings up yet another odd observation, as 英漢 literally means English-Hanzi (Han words) instead of English-Chinese 英中. Sort of goes back to how Chinese seem to have multiple terms for itself depending on needs. Culture? Use TangRen 唐人. Language? Use hanzi 漢字. 

  9. Nuno said,

    June 1, 2015 @ 2:34 am

    To me N部美剧 reads as "countless American TV series" or "all those American TV series", whereas "几部美剧" would seem to just mean "a couple of American TV series". After all in Algebra n is used to represent an arbitrarily high number. So the less teen-speaky version of N would be not 几, but 无数.

  10. Tom said,

    June 1, 2015 @ 5:49 am

    I understand that 51 would normally be read as wǔ yāo (=我要) in these sorts of puns, but I was trying to find a way to fit in the company's name (Wúyōu Yīngyǔ 无忧英语) as well. I guess it was too much of a stretch.

    @K Chang:
    Thanks for noticing the typo in my transcription.

    Your hypothesis sounds sensible to me.

  11. Iamaom said,

    June 1, 2015 @ 7:59 am

    The 51 pun is explained in their youtube videos:


  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 1, 2015 @ 8:49 am

    cameron: Along the lines that K Chang said, I hear Americans say "x number of" for "some number of", so I don't think an eggcorn for "any" needs to be involved.

  13. Brendan said,

    June 1, 2015 @ 2:45 pm

    The "棋牌室" there is kind of odd — isn't the Chinese title of "House of Cards" 紙牌屋?

    Regarding 'N' — the eggcorn for "any" hadn't occurred to me, but it turns up often enough in constructions like "N多" or the ones mentioned above by K. Chang that I think it's really just algebra-style shorthand for some unspecified but outlandishly large number. Either way, I read it the same way as Nuno: "You've watched a bajillion American TV shows…"

    (I'm not entirely sure that "N" is teen-speaky, incidentally. I've heard people in their 30s and 40s using it unselfconsciously.)

  14. K. Chang said,

    June 1, 2015 @ 3:25 pm

    @brendan, that's why I think it was intentional mis-translation, in that even if they got the right words they still got the wrong term.

    The Chinese accepted title has the feeling of weak structure and is not a regular Chinese phrase, thus forcing the readers to use the literal meaning, and is an accurate translation of the original title.

    The mis-translation gave the wrong impression, has nothing to do with the show, but is similar enough to be plausible, which seems to be another layer of humor on the part of the copywriter. Add it to misreading of the actual English title only enforced the joke of how "lan" (broken/rotten) English mentioned in the first sentence.

  15. cameron said,

    June 1, 2015 @ 9:43 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: I've never heard an American say "x number of". An American would say "any number of" or, in a more formal mathematical context, "arbitrarily many".

  16. Tye said,

    June 2, 2015 @ 12:00 am

    I have heard "x number of" on occasion. I don't use this expression but my fellow teachers in a planning meeting might say, "If we have x number of students we'll just put them in groups of four."

  17. Rod Johnson said,

    June 2, 2015 @ 4:46 pm

    I've definitely heard "X number of." Not to mean (at least, as I understand it) "any number of" but "some number, but exactly which number who cares about, of."

    One of the most motivating moments in my dissertation years was when someone introduced me as an Nth year grad student. :(

  18. Rod Johnson said,

    June 2, 2015 @ 4:49 pm

    … as discussed here.

  19. DMT said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 5:24 am

    I tend to think of 超 and 烂 in 超烂 as Taiwanese rather than mainland slang. How long have these expressions been popular in the PRC?

  20. enkiv2 said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 10:56 am

    Using 'N' is idiomatic in english among programmers, at least. This may be an international use coming from mathematics — because it's not unusual for people to also use generalized forms of mathematical terminology like "order of magnitude" or "orthogonal" in everyday speech when they're used to using them in technical speech.

  21. K Chang said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 12:47 pm

    @DMT good question! I used Google to search for that expression and use the custom range feature to check. In 2000 is RARELY used in China, and mostly in Taiwan, but seems by 2005 China kinda started adopting it en masse

  22. Nick Lamb said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 4:16 pm

    In particular (among programmers and allied professions) 'N' is used in contrast to 'X' to indicate that the variable is a natural number – that we're definitely not dealing with fractions. A person may own "N cats" or have seen "N Harry Potter movies" or slept with "N different people" but they spilled "X gallons" of milk on the floor because we don't know it was an integer number of spilled gallons.

  23. Wentao said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 2:12 pm

    I believe 棋牌室 is an intentional, jocular mistranslation of "House of Cards", in which I personally find a hint of tongue-in-cheek political satire: it is a ubiquitous place in China where middle-aged and older people, including retired but still influential party cadres, can be found to socialize and play mahjong.

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