Does the new iPhone 7 slogan mean "precisely penis" in Chinese?

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Let me explain why.

When the iPhone 7 was launched in America, the slogan was simply "This is 7."  No problem.  Straightforward.  Crisp, clear, and memorable.

In the Sinosphere, marketers came up with three different versions:


7, zài cǐ. 7,在此。("7, is here".)


jiùshì 7. 就是 7。("is precisely 7".)

Hong Kong

zhè, jiùshì iPhone 7. 這,就是iPhone 7。("this is precisely iPhone 7".)

[N.B.:  all four of the versions (for America, China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong) are preceded by "iPhone", hence "iPhone" on one line, and "This is seven" immediately beneath it on another line for the American version; ditto for the other three versions, the three Chinese versions all having "iPhone" (in English) on their first line too, followed by one of the three versions of the slogan on the second line.]

Oddly (for a communist country with a dictatorship of the proletariat), the version for the mainland China market is decidedly literary, but this fits right in with the classical pretentiousness we've documented in the last couple of weeks:

"Pure conversation" (9/5/16)

"Annals of literary vs. vernacular, part 2" (9/4/16)

"Mixed literary and vernacular grammar" (9/3/16)

Aside from being in somewhat opaque (to non-classicists) LS, the version for the mainland doesn't capture the spirit nor convey the sentiment of the original slogan in English.  The demonstrative "this is" of the English becomes the wimpy locative "is here".

The version for Taiwan strikes me as being better, but still not optimum.  (Here I have to enter a caveat concerning jiùshì 就是, which occurs in the versions for Taiwan and Hong Kong.  This usually gets overtranslated as "is precisely / exactly / none other than / the very", etc., though it often is better to render it simply "is / are".)  The Taiwan version is saying "iPhone is precisely 7", but that's not the intent of the original slogan.  If it were up to me, I would have written, "iPhone / zhè jiùshì 7 這就是 7 ("iPhone / this is 7"), just like the English, with the jiù 就 emphasizing the copular function of the shì 是.

Now, why is the version for Hong Kong so much wordier than the other two Chinese versions?  It's for one reason and one reason alone:  because in Cantonese the number 7 can also mean "dork(y)", and that is what is causing all the salacious, snide, snickering over the slogan for the new iPhone.

cat1 (sounds like ts'at) 七 / 柒 (alternate and formal form used on checks, in accounting, and for banking purposes)

"The slogan for Apple’s new iPhone 7 translates into 'This is penis' in Hong Kong" (Zheping Huang, Quartz, 9//9/16)

In defense of Apple, I would point out that practically anytime the number 7 occurs alone in Hong Kong could elicit giggles, depending upon what kind of mind you have and what mood you're in.  Furthermore, the Apple advertising team went out of their way to avoid this possibility by including all of these elements:  this + precisely + is + [redundant] iPhone + 7.  The whole Hong Kong slogan thus clunkily reads, "iPhone 7 / this is precisely iPhone 7".  If you ask me, they overdid the due diligence.


  1. Jakob said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 3:15 pm

    I wonder if it's not that case that many Hong Kongers would actually pronounce the 7 in "這,就是iPhone 7。" in English, rather than Cantonese (the redundant "iPhone" helping). In which case, the giggleworthy associations with cat1 would be bypassed.

  2. Bathrobe said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 4:56 pm

    I assume that 這,就是 is pure Modern Standard Chinese for a Cantonese speaker.

    I don't expect that Apple would actually use Cantonese in its advertising, but would it have sounded worse (in terms of slang) if they had?

  3. Rubrick said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 5:10 pm

    Pity they didn't just go for it and do a "7 Envy" campaign…

  4. John said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 6:19 pm


    I would think that only people with English as their first language who can also speak Cantonese sufficiently well (i.e. those with HK roots but brought up in an English-speaking country) would pronounce the numeral 7 as "seven" when speaking Cantonese.

    Btw, "seven" pronounced in a Hong Kong accent perhaps Jyutping-ized se1fan4 refers to the ubiqitous 7-Eleven convenience stores you find in HK.


    Yes, and probably not but there is no good Cantonese equivalent of 這 in this context without doubling the number of syllables. I suppose they could have said 這, 就係 but that would sound weird as a mixture of Cantonese and Mandarin. It may be for the same reason that the mainland slogan is 在此 and not 在这里.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 7:03 pm

    Taking a stab at Cantonese:

    ni1go3 hai6 cat1 呢個係七

  6. Eric P Smith said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 10:30 pm

    Trivium: the number 6 in English treads a similar tight-rope, with words like sexagenary and sextuplets.

  7. Lugubert said,

    September 10, 2016 @ 1:38 am

    Eric P Smith: Even more so in Swedish, where 6 = 'sex'.

  8. flow said,

    September 10, 2016 @ 3:17 am

    Professor, I think now would be a good point in time to talk about what 是 means in MSM, diachronically and cross-linguistically. How is it that 是 used to mean (only?) 'this' but now means 'is' (in the sense of the copula)? What is a (the?) 'copula' anyway? Does every language have one, are there languages with none or several?

  9. Victor Mair said,

    September 10, 2016 @ 7:58 am

    From Abraham Chan:

    I suppose it is rather difficult to translate while keeping the original flavor, but at least literally it is just:

    ni1 bou6 zau6 hai6 cat1

  10. Victor Mair said,

    September 10, 2016 @ 8:14 am


    Thank you very much for your good suggestion.

    About a decade ago, a former student of mine, Jeff Rice, wrote a brilliant paper on LS shì 是 with the meaning "this" evolving to "this is", and gradually displacing / replacing the LS copula yě 也 (equational word — most grammarians do not see it that way, treating yě 也 merely as a "final particle" — but I consider that a cop-out and have always viewed yě 也 as a sentence final copula in sentences like this: A B yě 也 ["A is B"]) for my class.

    There have been countless times when I have mentioned Jeff's wonderful paper to students and colleagues, and wished that it had been published long ago. From time to time, I still encourage him to publish this important paper, and have repeatedly offered to bring it out in Sino-Platonic Papers, where it would be seen by tens of thousands of readers.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    September 10, 2016 @ 8:17 am

    From Carmen Lee:

    How about adding "!" at the end? And use a different font /color etc. for "七"? Would that bring out the subtlety / excitement implied in the original English of "Wow! It's a SEVEN!"

    It reminds me of: "Is that a bird? Is that a plane? It's Superman!". So how should one translate "It's Superman" to retain the awe and wonder?

  12. flow said,

    September 10, 2016 @ 9:17 am

    @VHM thanks! So let's hope for Jeff Rice to come out with that paper of his. He cannot possibly deny a chance to get published in the Sino-Platonic Papers, can he, and with the thing already written, can't be too much work, can it?

    In the meantime, are there any further sources that elaborate a bit on 也 as a copula in final position? Where does that view put the other classical sentence-final particles? Are those anything like the modal particles of German? What does that view tell us about Classical Chinese / Literary Sinitic / LS sentence structure (assuming there 'is' 'the one' LS; my superficial impression is that it's more like a family of rather artificially constructed, written-only modes of expression)?


  13. Victor Mair said,

    September 10, 2016 @ 10:47 am


    Wonderful questions!!

    Jeff Rice's paper will answer many of them.

    Eventually I hope that there will be comparative studies between Sinitic and other language groups, not just in the lexicon (where we've already seen a lot of scholarship, and about which I'll soon be making a post concerning a major new study), but also with regard to morphology, grammar, and syntax.

  14. Rich said,

    September 10, 2016 @ 12:48 pm

    This is 7 = This is 柒 (in Cantonese) = This is dumb
    7, 就是7 = 柒. This is 柒 (in Cantonese) = Dumb. This is dumb.
    7,在此 = 柒在此 = Dumb, right here
    這,就是iphone, I actually pronounce 這就是 in Cantonese pronunciation.
    The same phenomenon also applies to Samsung's note 7.
    Note 7 sounds like 碌柒 in Cantonese, which means dumb.

  15. Rich said,

    September 10, 2016 @ 12:59 pm

    When iPhone 9 and Note 9 release, we will bump into the same problem in Cantonese.
    九 also sounds like another obscenity in Cantonese, which means "cunning dick".

    This is 9= This is 鳩 (in Cantonese). This is a dick/this is cunning.
    9. This is 9 = 鳩. This is 鳩. Dick. This is a dick. / Cunning. This is cunning.
    It even sounds worse for Samsung Note 9
    Note 9 sounds like 碌鳩, which also means penis.

    Numbers to avoid in Cantonese
    4 = 死 = dead
    7 = 柒 = dumb (柒 means penis literally. But in fact it means dumb)
    9 = 鳩 = dick
    19 = 濕鳩 = cunning
    24 = 易死 = easy to die
    67 = 碌柒 = dumb
    69 = 碌鳩 = dick

  16. David Marjanović said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 6:45 am

    What is a (the?) 'copula' anyway? Does every language have one, are there languages with none or several?

    There are certainly languages without any. Perhaps closest to home, Russian does without one; the word actually cognate to is has strengthened in meaning to "there is", "exists" (nowadays even in the plural), and is also used to replace "(I) have" by the construction "at (me) there is".

    Just yesterday on Wikipedia, I read that 也 replaced an earlier copula, 惟 (nowadays read wéi), which was not sentence-final but occupied the usual verb position (between subject and object, then as now) and survives as part of the contracted LS negation 非 fēi.

  17. Rodger C said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 11:48 am

    @David M: Aren't those Russian constructions inherited from PIE? "At (me) there is" is also still normal in Celtic.

  18. WSM said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 11:53 am

    @ David Marjanovic – I'm not sure the non-final copula was ever "replaced" by 也, for example from the 史記: "「余為伯鯈。余,爾祖也。…」" which is a nice example of (an evolved form of) the prepositional copula happily coexisting with 也, however you choose to interpret it. 也 does sometimes seem to just be a final particle though; it's particularly interesting to observe its appearance in lyric poetry (詞) in phrases such as "春去也", where it seems to be added for emphasis.

  19. julie lee said,

    September 12, 2016 @ 1:06 pm


    Would it be grammatical in Literary Chinese to say
    “余為爾祖也” or "余為伯鯈也" , where the 也 would signal the end of a declarative sentence, like a full stop (period), since in the olden days there were no punctuation marks like periods, commas, question marks , etc. ?

  20. WSM said,

    September 12, 2016 @ 3:30 pm

    @julie lee – I *think* so: has examples such as :

    盗贼罪人蓄积无已,此二族为祟也 (1)

    水為道也 (2)

    破瓢為卮也 (3)

    There are some difficulties however. First: it isn't clear that 也 is actually functioning as a copula here, as (1) could easily be interpreted as a final particle added for emphasis, even though (2) and (3) come from commentaries where it's unlikely the 也 is a rhetorical embellishment. Second, while 為 seems clearly to mean, concretely, "I am" in the example you quote, it also means more abstractly "to constitute" or to "serve as" (a la 作為 in MSM), and can be hard to tell the two meanings apart. For example there are lots of constructions that begin along the lines of "其為人也…" ("as for the kind of person that he was, …") where 也 is not a copula and 為 does not assert simple existence or identity (the clause certainly is not stating that "he is a person").

  21. julie lee said,

    September 12, 2016 @ 6:16 pm

    Thanks, WSM.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 6:48 am

    From a Cantonese friend:


    iPhone – in Cantonese it sounds like "aiFung"


    The same as I suggested above in the fifth comment, except that I used "七" where he used "7". His version is more likely to avoid salacious snickers, because Hong Kong people might well pronounce "7" in their version of "seven" instead of as "cat1".

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