Mildew Country

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Here is a photograph of some Chinese anti-American protesters from "The complete guide to China's propaganda videos blaming the West for almost everything", by Zheping Huang, Quartz (8/8/16):

What's going on with that transcription of the name for America?

Měi(méi)guó 美(霉)國

Anybody who has taken first-year Mandarin will know that the Chinese name for America is Měiguó 美國 and that that "means" "Beautiful Country".  Of course, the "měi 美" ("beautiful") part of the name is actually the transcription of the sound "-me-" in "America".  This is all the more obvious from the earlier, and fuller, Chinese transcription of the name "America", Yàměilìjiā 亞美利架 ("America"), which has been around since at least the latter part of the 18th century.  See "Spelling with Chinese character(istic)s, pt. 2 " (6/16/16).

Lately, because of conflicts with America on many fronts, but principally over the ruling on China's claim to ownership of the Nánhǎi 南海 ("South Sea") by the Hague Tribunal (International Court of Justice), in favor of the Philippines (who brought the suit) and against China, which America accepts and China ignores, China is sending out a lot of anti-American propaganda hate.

Now, if the Chinese characters may be said to convey meaning, it simply will no longer do to call America "Beautiful Country" (Měiguó 美國).  That's why some folks have taken to calling America "Mildew Country" (Méiguó 霉国) or glossing Měiguó 美國 as Měi(méi)guó 美(霉)國 ("Beautiful –> Mildew Country").

To afford a greater appreciation of the semantic range of "méi 霉", I list here some other possible translations of the character besides "mildew":  mo(u)ld, fungus, bacterium, germ, must ("the unfermented or fermenting juice expressed from fruit, especially grapes"), musty, bad luck.

I don't know if it will catch on and stick, but "霉国" already garners 106,000 ghits.  If you read Chinese and want to see some of the nasty things that are being said about this"霉国" ("Mildew Country"), take a look at a few of these posts on Weibo, etc.  A lot of it has to do with the South Sea.

A final note:  it's convenient for those who want to denigrate America orally that měi 美 ("beautiful") is 3rd tone and méi 霉 ("mildew") is 2nd tone.  Clear distinction there.



14 Comments

  1. Ari Corcoran said,

    August 8, 2016 @ 2:24 pm

    As a matter of historical interest, what happened to the naming of America during the Korean and Vietnam wars?

  2. Wentao said,

    August 8, 2016 @ 2:51 pm

    @Ari Corcoran
    I have very limited knowledge of the political lingo of those times, but my impression is that 美帝国主义 mei3 di4guo2zhu3yi4 "American imperialists" (美帝 mei3di4 for short) is quite ubiquitous throughout Mao's era, at least in official contexts. This expression has lost a lot of its pejorative tone today and some people use it humorously. If they have a less affectionate attitude towards the US, they would substitute 美 with the Japan-influenced, more neutral 米 (mi3, "rice"). 米帝 gives 550,000 Google hits.

  3. hanmeng said,

    August 8, 2016 @ 3:06 pm

    I wondered why the signs are 繁體字. In case anyone wondered, the 民建聯/DAB (民主建港協進聯盟/Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong), which supports the PRC, is in Hong Kong.

  4. leoboiko said,

    August 8, 2016 @ 3:07 pm

    I like this phenomenon where a character is used as a phonogram, but the meaning of the morpheme it usually represents is still relevant to the context, and lingers around like some sort of semantic perfume.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    August 8, 2016 @ 4:20 pm

    @leoboiko

    You might call it semantic interference.

  6. Fluxor said,

    August 8, 2016 @ 5:28 pm

    亞美利架 should be 亞美利加.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    August 8, 2016 @ 6:44 pm

    I was referring to the early (late 18th century) form that I cited in this post:

    "Spelling with Chinese character(istic)s, pt. 2" (6/16/16)

    Yàměilìjiā 亞美利架, all with mouth radicals.

  8. ~flow said,

    August 9, 2016 @ 5:46 am

    "Yàměilìjiā 亞美利架, all with mouth radicals."—(U+555e) 啞, (U+20e0d) ⿰口美, (U+550e) 唎, (U+35ce) 㗎, FWIW.

    Sadly, this blog still breaks on 32bit Unicode codepoints (i.e. those above U+ffff). Any plans to fix that? We'll be able to discuss, among other things, Tangut, Cuneiform, Hieroglyphs and tens of thousands moar CJK glyphs here once that overhaul is in place.

  9. leoboiko said,

    August 9, 2016 @ 9:19 am

    @~flow: I had the same issue with my blog, which , like Languagelog, is unfortunately based on WordPress. WordPress just generally sucks. There's a plugin to fix its Unicode brokenness, but I haven't tested it yet.

    A workaround is to go back to the 1990s and use &#x(nnnnn); sequences: "𠸍" = 𠸍 .

  10. leoboiko said,

    August 9, 2016 @ 9:22 am

    Ops, WordPress converted my escaped escape sequence into an unescaped escape sequence. I meant, of course, &#x20e0d followed by a semicolon.

  11. flow said,

    August 9, 2016 @ 11:59 am

    @leoboiko: now that was meta… ;-) good to know there's a way to quantum-tunnel heavy elements through this impermeable anti-astral WP/PHP veil of Latin-1-esque 90's naïvety.
    Also always *fun* to preview one's comment being displayed correctly below the input box—only to moan seconds later upon realizing that *all those hand-crafted thoughts* coming right after that first inadvertent beyond-U+FFFF-codepoint in the text have *gone for good*.

    One wonders whether all those lost fragments are, actually, (1) lost in transmission to the server, (2) lost upon attempt to save them in the (MySQL? RLY??) database, (3) lost on retrieval from that DB, or (4) on transmission back to the client?

    Given how deeply broken PHP is, especially when it comes to Unicode (http://stackoverflow.com/questions/571694/what-factors-make-php-unicode-incompatible, http://www.slideshare.net/andreizm/the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly-what-happened-to-unicode-and-php-6), it could happen anywhere in the app.

    Whatever. 啞𠸍唎㗎, yay!

  12. Daniel Tse said,

    August 11, 2016 @ 11:44 pm

    Although if the picture is from HK, mildew 霉 is pronounced mui4 while 美 is pronounced mei5 — differing in coda as well as tone.

  13. Wang Yujiang said,

    August 12, 2016 @ 8:51 am

    @hanmeng
    In Hong Kong, no matter you are supporting PRC or not, traditional characters 繁體字 are in official written language.

  14. Wang Yujiang said,

    August 12, 2016 @ 9:16 am

    @Victor Mair
    About one hundred years ago, the Chinese translation of America is 亞美利架, all with mouth radicals, and then it changed to 亚美利亚, because they are easier to write. Now it shortened to 美国 or 美. At present almost nobody write 亚美利亚.
    As for 霉国, it is not a correct Chinese phrase. You can't find it from any Chinese dictionary. In linguistics, 霉国 is a homonym, but here it is more like an anti-America carton.

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