Beginning of the Semester Blues

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The following picture appears on the cleverly named "Ni Howdy" blog:

Since some folks are confused by the wording, and since Ni Howdy doesn't explain the sign, it behooves me to do so. The Chinese part of the sign reads:

Wēnxīn tíshì 溫馨提示 ("Gentle Reminder")

Cāo kè zhōng 操课中 ("Exercise Class in Session")

Qǐng wù dǎrǎo 请勿打扰 ("Please Do Not Disturb")

The English part of the sign only translates the last two lines of the Chinese. There's no problem with the third line, but we have a colossal slip-up with the second line. Cāo 操 basically means "to grasp, hold, operate, control, manipulate," but it also has the very general meaning of "make an effort to do" and the more specific connotation of "exercise," which is the intended meaning here, hence "exercise class." However, cāo 操 also has the vulgar meaning of "to fuck," which is what leads to the mischief here. I think that most translators and most translation software can probably handle cāo kè 操课 moderately well, and would probably come up with something like "exercise class," "military drill," and so forth. What seems to have thrown off the translator or the translation software is the zhōng 中 at the end of the line. Zhōng 中 usually means "in, inside, within, center," and so forth, but in the language of signs and notices it often signifies "in session, going on," etc.

The troublesome cāo 操 of this sign is the same word that is punned as "grass" in the name of the naughty mythical creature called the "grass mud horse," for which see Mark Liberman's dissection in "Franco-Croatian Squid in pepper sauce", 3/12/2009.

Incidentally, although Ni Howdy or someone else has blackened out most of the name at the top of the sign, enough remains for me to determine without any hesitation that it belongs to a physical fitness club.

[A tip of the hat to Anne Moreau.]


  1. J Greely said,

    September 5, 2010 @ 11:47 am

    Microsoft Bing Translator returns "fuck lesson". If you give it the entire sign at once, you get "Warm tip drills in do not disturb".


  2. Jonathan Badger said,

    September 5, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

    Speaking of mistranslations, Dr. Ashens is reviewing yet another "popstation" (a series of strange Chinese electronic games with oddly translated names and instructions) — this one entitled "Retieval Mankind's Batman". Any idea of what this was meant to mean? Obviously, "Retieval" is a misspelling of "Retrieval", but that doesn't really help.

  3. Rodger C said,

    September 5, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

    "Batman Saves Humanity"??

  4. bryan said,

    September 5, 2010 @ 5:22 pm

    温馨提示 = Gentle Reminder

    操课中 = Class is in session
    操课 doesn't necessary have to mean "Exercise class". The verb 操 = "exercise / drill", is used here to show that they will have some sort of activity or project going on. "Exercise class" AKA Gym class = 运动课 instead of "操课". Please DON'T use online translators, otherwise, it will translate as the slang Chinese version of the "F word" in English. Totally incorrect and inappropriate depending on where it will appear.

    请勿打扰 = Please DON'T disturb.
    This in Chinese usually has emphasis on the 勿, which is a command for someone to NOT do something.

  5. Ingrid Piller said,

    September 5, 2010 @ 8:37 pm

    Maybe a more likely explanation is that it has been photoshoped?! Without any ethnographic evidence, the non-existence of this kind of stuff off the internet is just as likely as their actual occurrence …

  6. William Crane said,

    September 5, 2010 @ 9:37 pm

    Photoshopping this would have been difficult to do without leaving some evidence behind. Think of the infamous photos of Iranian missles being launched. While the modification of that image was rather crudely done and was easily discernable, the range of shading across this image would pose a challenge for an amateur and getting the edges of the characters to match those of the text would be a task for an expert.

  7. Xmun said,

    September 6, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

    Could someone please explain to me why "Ni Howdy" is cleverly named.

  8. Bruce H. said,

    September 6, 2010 @ 8:07 pm

    Mandarin for "how are you" is sometimes romanized as "ni how ma", more often as "ni hau ma".

  9. xah lee said,

    September 6, 2010 @ 8:37 pm

    i think the proper word for fuck is 肏.

  10. Uncle Paul said,

    September 6, 2010 @ 10:06 pm

    Isn't Ni Howdy cousin to Howdy Doody?

  11. dirk alan said,

    September 6, 2010 @ 11:46 pm

    if i skip class there is a reason. be polite.

  12. Nick Lamb said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 6:47 am

    Ingrid, the apparently incongruous presence of "Fuck" might make you think that if you hadn't seen countless other signs mistranslated in the same way. As in many languages* there are a lot of slang ways to talk about sex in Chinese, the only unusual thing is that someone has "helpfully" included the slang translations in Chinese -> English dictionaries.

    * Consider the fairly ordinary English words 'do' and 'shag' which can both be treated as verbs meaning "to have sexual intercourse with", a similarly robotic translation of signs like "Do not smoke" or "Shag carpets 50% off" could be equally hilarious as these Chinese examples.

  13. chris said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

    @Nick Lamb: "Do" and its long list of meanings (including a sexual slang meaning) was the first thing I thought of when I saw the long list of meanings for "cao", including a sexual slang meaning.

    Sometimes a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do…

    @Jonathan Badger: perhaps "Batman Returns"? That was the title of a movie and therefore, plausibly, a spinoff video game, and the meaning is close enough to "retrieval" to be a plausible slip. I can't account for the "Humanity's", though.

  14. Diane said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 9:09 pm

    I read the English to mean, roughly, "I don't care about the class so leave me alone." Something you might say to an overly helpful roommate trying to wake you for an early class.

    But I guess that was not the intended meaning.

  15. M Henri Day said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 9:43 am

    Let me complement «bryan»'s analysis above by pointing out that the proper romanisation of 温声提示 is «wensheng tishi», where the first word (first two glyphs) refers to a mild or, indeed, gentle voice. The verb «tishi» means to point out something – here to do so in a gentle or refined manner. «Gentle reminder», is to my mind a rather apt translation….


  16. well said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 10:30 pm

    I'll just point out that the original romanization (wēnxīn tíshì) was actually the proper one, as was the original translation. The character in question is xīn 馨, not shēng 聲 (声 in simplified form).

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