Don't Kettle

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This is a sign from Hong Kong:

In Mandarin, the words at the bottom read:

Yánjìn chá bào 嚴禁茶煲

The literal translation of that would be "Forbidden / Prohibited Teapot."

This morning in my "Language, Script, and Society in China" course, I asked the members of the class to write down on a piece of paper what they thought the sign meant.  I should mention that about one-third of the class are native speakers of Chinese from various parts of China *other than Hong Kong and the province of Canton* (including a couple of post-docs and an ABD), while most of the rest of the class has five or more years training in Mandarin.  Here are the results of my "poll":

1. no tea kettles
2. no chit chatting
3. speaking is prohibited
4. (using this [whatever this hot pot is]) to boil tea is forbidden
5. We can't boil water or tea
6. Don't boil water tea.    ["water" is crossed out]
7. Boiling water is forbidden.
8. No teapots
9. Tea cattle strictly forbidden
10. Stop boiling water in kettles
11. No hot tea allowed
12. Brewing tea forbidden
13. tea is dangerous
14. Teapots are strictly forbidden
15. No boiling tea
16. Forbidden boiling tea
17. Teapots strictly prohibited
18. Please do not use / place electric tea kettles here!
19. It is prohibited to warm water for tea.
20. No tea pot
21. No Hot Tea!
22. No steaming tea
23. Please do not heat tea
25. Tea boiled is prohibited

Now, if you read the words in Cantonese, you get this:  jim4 [gam1 gam3 kam1] caa4 bou1
嚴         禁         茶   煲    The result is a perfectly intelligible expression to speakers of Hong Kong Cantonese:  "Trouble is strictly prohibited / forbidden," where caa4 bou1 is the transcription of English "trouble."  Having just returned from a week in Hong Kong, having spent long periods there in previous years, and about to go back again in a couple of weeks, I can vouch for the currency of this type of transcription of Cantonese, English, and other languages with Chinese characters in Hong Kong.  The Hong Kong Cantonese seem to revel in this kind of word play.

[A tip of the hat to Wicky Tse]


  1. Jonathan Badger said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    In Montreal, there's lots of French/English wordplay like this — I remember an ad for a summer event using the expression "chaud time" (pronounced like "showtime")

  2. Chandra said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

    So the picture is a kind of Cantonese rebus, then?

  3. Chandra said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

    @Jonathan Badger: When I was a French Immersion teacher in Ontario I did up a whole fairytale that way ("Lit d'eau raide rat dingue où de" = "Little Red Riding Hood") and had my students read it out loud. They had a lot of fun with that.

    I've also thought often about getting a t-shirt made up with a picture of a seal and an egg. Think about it…

  4. Sawney said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

    phoque oeuf???

  5. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

    Hak mir nisht ken tshaynik – 'don't knock me a teakettle', i.e. stop banging on, giving me grief.

    Meant to be from the rattling sound the lid of a teakettle makes when it's boiled but hasn't been taken off the hob. As Michael Wex put it in Born to Kvetch: "An intelligent Scotsman looked at his kettle and came up with the Union Pacific; an intelligent Yiddish speaker looked at a similar kettle and started to complain about someone else's complaining."

  6. richard howland-bolton said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    Chandra: There is a whole book of these.
    Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames: The d'Antin Manuscript

  7. jfruh said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    I have to admit I'm still confused. What does it mean to forbid "trouble"?

  8. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Don’t Kettle [] on said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

    […] Language Log » Don’t Kettle – view page – cached November 4, 2010 @ 11:37 am · Filed by Victor Mair under Lost in Translation Tweets about this link […]

  9. a George said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

    I think that "9. Tea cattle strictly forbidden" is the most instructive and useful teaching of this small "poll". This tells so much about what the ear hears and expects to hear, and it points to where oral language instruction should focus.

    When my mother first came to Sweden she became convinced that the Swedish word for 1000 was 'typse', because that is what she heard. Her father apparently slapped her for persisting. Listening closely, in some parts of Sweden, there is a small diaphragmatic 'slap', not a glottal stop as such, that gives an abrupt ending to the vowel not dissimilar to a p. And the final 'n' disappeared in the confusion of it all.

    But I am so happy that jfruh and I will get an answer soon.

  10. Colin John said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

    I can add:
    'N'Heures Souris Rames' (also in French) and
    'Mörder Guss Reims: The Gustav Leberwurst Manuscript' in German.

    My favourite of the French ones is between:
    'Et qui rit des curés d'oc'
    'Mais ris! Mais ris! Quoiqu'on traie, ris!
    Hardes je garde en gros'

  11. pagodat said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    I have to admit I'm still confused. What does it mean to forbid "trouble"?

    I was wondering that too. I was thinking maybe it means something like "horseplay" … or is it something other than that?

    This kind of language-specific iconography reminds me of the open-source software projects that tried iconifying "log files" with a little drawing of a log (the kind that you see in a fireplace), until people pointed out that that pun doesn't work in other languages and the icon would be more confusing than helpful for users of the software whose idiomatic English skills aren't that strong.

  12. Chandra said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

    @Richard/Colin: Thanks for the titles. I'm not teaching those classes anymore, but it would still be fun to have a look.

    @Sawney: Y où art quoi y te correcte!

  13. Yuval said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

    I would have gone with either "no whistling", or "no pot (smoking)".

  14. Chandra said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

    Okay, total tangent here, but I've just discovered a new entertaining pastime: putting cross-language fairytales through Google Translate. The 'Mais ris' one above gives:

    'But laugh! But laugh! Though milking, laugh!
    I keep large herds'

  15. Stephen Nicholson said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

    There seem to be shades of cockney rhyming slang, but without the intermediate step.

  16. Peter Austin said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

    "The Hong Kong Cantonese seem to revel in this kind of word play" — they sure do. Years ago there was a shop in Hong Kong whose name in English was "Unisex" and whose name in Chinese characters when read with a Cantonese pronunciation was yiu nei sek '(I) want to kiss/love you'. Drove my then (Cantonese) mother-in-law crazy.

  17. Steve G said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 3:49 pm

    My first thought on the sign and the initial translation was that someone really hates Bertrand Russell…

  18. Rowboat said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

    Mild probably unintentional bonus layer: in German, a polysemous word used playfully like this is called a Teekesselchen, after a game in which a word has to be guessed based on descriptions of its various meanings. (Apparently this originally came from an English book of parlour games; but it seems the game, at least under this name, is not as well known in Anglophone circles now as it is in German.)

  19. Bobbie said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 4:32 pm

    PLEASE — what is the pun of the original? I still don't get it!

    NO bovine animals allowed?

  20. groki said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 4:37 pm

    according to what a goog for images using 嚴禁茶煲 found, it's a "Living Sticker": bumper sticker? refrigerator magnet? window decal?

    in any case, I hope the sticker itself isn't alive. that would be trouble!

  21. mollymooly said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

    But what does "Trouble is strictly forbidden" mean? Is this a joke-shop sign along the lines of "You don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps"? Or it is an obscure euphemism like "commit no nuisance"?

  22. Bwilliams said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

    My grandmother likes to say "ne chevalier pas autour." Maybe tea kettling is similar to "horsing around?"

  23. Mark Mandel said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 5:16 pm

    I was puzzled to, till I got past the list of Victor's students' answers. (Underlining added, if it shows up on the page as it shows up on my preview.):

    In Mandarin, the words at the bottom read:
    Yánjìn chá bào 嚴禁茶煲

    Now, if you read the words in Cantonese, you get this: 
    jim4 [gam1 gam3 kam1] caa4 bou1 嚴 禁 茶 煲 
    The result is a perfectly intelligible expression to speakers of Hong Kong Cantonese:  "Trouble is strictly prohibited / forbidden," where caa4 bou1 is the transcription of English "trouble." 

  24. Sawney said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 5:30 pm

    If the red no symbol were taken away, would it mean that 'you can cause as much trouble as you want' or simply 'have a cup of tea'?

  25. Rubrick said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

    Teapot — that starts with "T", which rhymes with "P"…

  26. kkr said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 8:08 pm

    嚴禁 is pronounced "jim4 gam3".

    alternate readings you see in the dictionary aren't just used at random, they're for specific semantic contexts.

    "jim4 kam1", this is like mispronouncing "shui hua" (說話) or "hui ji" (會計) in Mandarin.

  27. a George said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 8:09 pm

    @mollymooly+Bobbie+pagudat+jfruh; I am probably the densest of the lot, but I cannot see any wordplay either! Is this an internal list-owner's joke? Mark Mandel got waylaid by his preview; my browser does not support his Underlining. I am sure it is perfectly intelligible, but where is the joke?

  28. Carl said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 8:14 pm


    No, because 厳禁 means "strictly forbidden."

  29. Carl said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

    The joke is that the Cantonese pronunciation of teapot sounds like the English word trouble, so in Cantonese speaking parts of China, the characters for teapot are used to mean monkeying around.

  30. Jon said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 5:32 am

    Miles Kington devised a slogan for the French navy:
    "To the water, the time has come!", or
    "A l'eau, c'est l'heure!"

  31. a George said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 10:42 am

    @Jon: – I would have thought that was for the girls on the shore to say

  32. Fluxor said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 11:28 am

    @ jfruh & pagodat: Although 茶煲 is a transcription of of the English word "trouble", I think a better translation is "a pain in the butt". So the sign is saying "no being a pain in the butt". This adjective is most often applied to women.

  33. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    I can barely imagine a situation where someone would put a sign reading "No being a pain in the butt". Probably there would be other signs that said "Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on our part" and "Our complaint manager is Ms. Helen Waite. If you have a complaint, go to Helen Waite." Is that the sort of context you'd see this sign in?

  34. IMarvinTPA said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

    In Mandarin, this sign says "Tea Kettles are strictly forbidden."
    In Cantonese, this sign says "Trouble is strictly forbidden."
    The picture leads you to believe the former while saying the latter.

    As for what does "Trouble is strictly forbidden" mean in English, well I would expect the person who posted the sign would expect you not to cause trouble and behave yourself (and laugh at the picture.)


  35. notrequired said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

    As if posting a sign like that could keep troublemakers away…

  36. Fluxor said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 11:47 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: Exactly. The sign isn't meant to be serious.

  37. Victor Mair said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 12:49 am

    @kkr thanks

    Matt Anderson called my attention to the fact the the blog Sinoglot linked to this "caa4 bou1" post, and a commenter there included a link to a trailer for the 1987 Hong Kong movie "An Autumn's Tale" 秋天的童話:

    As the person who posted the link says, translating from Cantonese, "At around 2:04 in the trailer, Chow says, 'Women are really caa4 bou1 茶煲.' The woman responds, 'What do you mean, caa4 bou1 茶煲?' Chow replies, MAFAN '麻煩! Trouble! Can’t you speak English?'"

    ( )

  38. Bob C said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 11:33 am

    Talk about a tempest in a teapot.

  39. perspectivehere said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 2:04 pm


    I thought of Autumn Tale too but the Sinoglot commenter beat me to it.

    Chow Yun-fat uses 茶煲 again at about 2:38 in the same video (你也都唔好茶煲我 "Don't you bother me either.")

    This reminds me of a joke circulating twenty-plus years ago among English-speaking Mandarin-language students:

    Q: "Why do Japanese like to live in cities?"

    A: "Because they're urban."

    Is it still told or was it too groan-inducing to survive?

  40. Cleo said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

    That Chow Yun Fat reference is widely known amongst the Overseas Chinese community as well as in HK but it's as irritating as Austin Powers' catchphrases and reaally really OLD. I knew Cha Bo when I saw the sign but I thought to myself that no one else would be thinking that.

  41. Cleo said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

    I shudder to think how many more decades Austin Powers' catchphrases are going to endure. Eeek.

  42. Xmun said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 10:04 am

    This post ruined my enjoyment of a performance of Dido's aria "When I am laid in earth" (from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas) that I watched on TV last night. Just when the singer began repeating the words "No trouble", the image of a prohibited kettle sprang before my eyes:

    When I am laid in earth,
    May my wrongs create
    No trouble in thy breast;
    Remember me; but ah! forget my fate.

  43. Kragen Javier Sitaker said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 11:16 pm

    I am merely posting to add my voice to the chorus asking for explanations of "trouble". Is this a "mind your manners" sign? A "do not question authority" sign? A "do not concern yourself" sign? A "do not exert any effort" sign? A "do not bomb Britain" sign? The "being a pain in the ass" explanation given by other posters suggests the first; but in what context are people particularly unlikely to forget their manners, yet remember them if thus admonished?

  44. David B Solnit said,

    December 2, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

    Note the possible cross-linguistic association between trouble and teapots/kettles, as seen in the Yiddish expression Hak mir nisht kayn chaynik (please excuse the transcription), "Don't knock me a teakettle," figuratively having various meanings which could well include "Don't give me any trouble."

    (Wish I'd thought of this sooner).

  45. marie-lucie said,

    February 20, 2011 @ 8:42 am

    phoque oeuf???

    The vowels are wrong – they should be the reverse.

    in some parts of Sweden, there is a small diaphragmatic 'slap', not a glottal stop as such, that gives an abrupt ending to the vowel not dissimilar to a p.

    I have encountered something similar, in quite another language (South Tsimshian, in British Columbia): I kept hearing stipkw'Lí:n for what should have been stikw'Lí:n 'rabbit' ("L" here = lateral fricative). I guessed that was due to ancipatory glottal and labial position before the (pre-)glottalized [kw], but the Swedish example does not have a labial or labio-dental. I wonder if this has been documented in yet other languages: is "diaphragmatic slap" the right explanation?

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