Ghosts and spirits

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From the Bali Airport Duty Free Section (photo taken 2/21/16):


The English word "spirits" is translated into Mandarin in two different ways, but neither of them is right for this context:


guǐshén 鬼神 ("supernatural beings"; lit., "ghosts and gods / spirits")


jiǔjīng 酒精 ("alcohol" [as a chemical for industrial, medical, hygienic, etc. use])

On a sign in a duty free store, one would normally refer to "spirits, alcohol, liquor" in Chinese as something like:

jiǔ 酒 ("alcohol; liquor")

jiǔpǐn 酒品 ("alcohol products")

jiǔlèi 酒類 ("[different] types of alcoholic [beverages]")

For an earlier Language Log post concerning the mistranslation of an alcohol related term, see:

"Ethanol tampons " (12/5/14)

[h.t.:  Mark Swofford; thanks to Maiheng Dietrich, Melvin Lee, and Liwei Jiao]


  1. KWillets said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 1:11 pm

    Coincidentally I was looking up 神 just the other day in Korean. There's a TV health show called 나는 몸신 이다 (I am a Body God) which seems to show a difference in usage, where it's a bit more acceptable to call oneself a god than in English. Is that usage also common in the original Chinese? (There's also a K-drama titled "A Man Called God" that uses the same character and also seems to get a little overblown in translation, although it's also just terrible.)

    Here's the show (check out the dual Hangul/Hanja logo):

  2. Chris C. said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 4:44 pm

    "Spirits" doesn't mean merely alcoholic products though; it means specifically distilled beverages like whisky (and whiskey,) vodka, gin, brandy, etc. It does not refer to fermented beverages that have not been distilled, like wine and beer.

    Both displays here are full of cognac.

  3. Michael Watts said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 6:10 am

    When did it become unacceptable to call yourself a god in English?

    It was evidently fine in 2003:

  4. ajay said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 7:13 am

    Are there many languages in which the word for "ghost, soul" is also the word for "volatile distilled liquid"? (Spirit used to mean more than just alcohol; aviation fuel was 'aviation spirit').

  5. KWillets said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 12:26 pm

    @Michael maybe "acceptable" is the wrong term. It seems simply to be more common or less superlative in Korean. It seems to lean more towards "spirit" in meaning.

  6. tw3xpat said,

    February 27, 2016 @ 1:30 am

    Actually "spirits" has a few other, more common and specific alternatives (in TW at least). For hard liquor those would be 洋酒 (Western booze) and 烈酒 ("strong spirits"–whisky, vodka, Gaoliang, etc). Most liquor stores proper are called 洋酒行 ("western liquor" stores) here in .TW

  7. Robert Dye said,

    February 29, 2016 @ 11:15 pm

    I used to translate a brother-priest's homily into Spanish for him. To speed up, I would sometimes run it through Google Translate, and then go through and correct it.

    One of my favorite errors was the translation of "the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" as "el padre, el hijo, y el alcohol santo." (The father, the son, and the holy alcohol.)

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