Chicken is down

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From Li Wei on Facebook:

This morning I have received this greeting countless times already:

Jī nián dàjí


lit. "chicken year big auspicious / propitious", i.e., "may the / your year of the chicken be greatly auspicious!"

As Li Wei's Facebook post suggests, Google Translate renders the greeting as "Chicken is down." (Google Translate even renders just "dàjí 大吉" ["greatly auspicious"] as "down", which is really bizarre; Baidu Fanyi has "close down", while Microsoft Translator has "Gil".)  While it's unclear how this translation came about, we can be grateful to Li Wei for spreading the good word.

I had previously playfully rendered jī nián 鸡年 as "Year of the cock" (1/4/17), but I honestly prefer "year of the chicken" to the usual "year of the rooster" for the reasons (having to do with sexism) adduced in that post.  We might also say "year of the (domestic) fowl", but that doesn't have the right ring, and I'm afraid that people would be prone to make bad puns on it.

Going back to Google Translate's version of the greeting, as a China specialist I like "Chicken is down", but it probably doesn't make much sense in this context to most English speakers:  the price of chicken is down (?), chicken has crashed (like Black Hawk), chicken is disabled, etc.

The reason why "Chicken is down" makes perfect sense to me on this day is that it resonates with another widespread Chinese New Year's practice, namely, affixing on your door a poster with fú (Cant. fuk1) 福 ("blessing; happiness; good fortune / luck; prosperity") written on it and then turning it upside down upon the advent of the New Year.  This inversion of the poster with fú 福 written on it is referred to as "fú dào 福倒", because dào 倒 ("upside down; inverted") is thought of here as meaning the perfectly homophonous cognate dào 到 ("reach / go / come to; arrive"), hence fú dào 福倒/到 is interpreted as "good fortune has arrived").

Warning:  倒 can either be pronounced in the third tone in Mandarin, in which case it means "fall; topple", or in the fourth tone, in which case it means "upside down, inverted, reversed; pour; move backwards", though I have met Chinese who think it only has a fourth tone reading.

For 福倒, Google Translate has "Fuk down".

BTW, we already met Li Wei at the end of 2016: "All the way with U in 2016/7" (12/31/16).

Aside from Google Translate's unintentionally clever wording of the Chinese New Year's greeting, it also brings joy to my heart to see Google's use of pinyin for phonetic annotation.  This is one of the most effective ways for Mandarin to, as Sino-enthusiasts are fond of saying, "zǒu shàng shìjiè 走上世界" ("go out into the world").

No matter what, jī nián dàjí! 鸡年大吉! ("may your year of the chicken be greatly auspicious!").

[hat tip Ben Zimmer; thanks to Yixue Yang, Jing Wen, Ruan Qi, and Shuqi Huang]


  1. Gene Anderson said,

    January 28, 2017 @ 12:38 pm

    And this is a Fire Chicken year, and a fire chicken is a turkey, so this is the Year of the Turkey…. Sure looks that way.

  2. WSM said,

    January 28, 2017 @ 1:10 pm

    Pretty strange… could Google's engine mistakenly extrapolated from 关门大吉- the only context I could find where 大吉 is linked to something "shutting down"? I've only ever encountered the "upside down" pun you note in reference to 福.

  3. Ben Zimmer said,

    January 28, 2017 @ 2:35 pm

    WSM's suggestion makes sense, especially considering Baidu Fanyi's translation output of "close down". I see 关门大吉 (guānmén dàjí) glossed as "close down a business for good and put the best face on it", but if it's taken simply to mean "close down", then the translation engine might erroneously decompose it as 关门 "close" + 大吉 "down". (Disclaimer: I don't know any Mandarin.)

  4. Jichang Lulu said,

    January 28, 2017 @ 3:19 pm

    Gil 길 is just the Sino-Korean reading of 吉 (MC (Baxter) kjit).

  5. Thorin said,

    January 28, 2017 @ 7:47 pm

    I like it from a "chicken is hip" context.

  6. Gregory Kusnick said,

    January 28, 2017 @ 8:11 pm

    I'm down with Thorin's interpretation.

  7. Ellen Kozisek said,

    January 28, 2017 @ 9:13 pm

    After reading the literal translation, "Chicken is down" seems to me like slang. Slang that one wouldn't at all expect used by Google Translate.

  8. Michael Watts said,

    January 28, 2017 @ 11:50 pm

    I've been seeing a lot of 鸡年大吉 too. I have a sort of vague suspicion that it's more popular this year because of the similarity of sound between 鸡 jī and 吉 jí. Then again, I do have a sticker on wechat left over from the year of the monkey (猴) proudly displaying the message 猴年大吉.

    In support of the "it's a pun" theory, though, I did find a sticker for this year saying 大鸡大利 instead of the more traditional 大吉大利.

  9. John Swindle said,

    January 29, 2017 @ 6:37 am

    Google is also translating 羊年大吉, which means "May the Year of the Ram be auspicious," as "The Year of the Rat". Maybe their new neural something-or-another system has caught a cold.

  10. Kevin Li said,

    January 29, 2017 @ 6:39 am

    Just for fun, I have checked the German and French translation given by Google Translate for 鸡年大吉.
    In German, they give you "Hahn Tait" and in French, "Rooster Tait". What is "Tait" supposed to mean? Is this just a transformation of the Pinyin "dàjí"?
    I think Google Translate may be simply broken here?

  11. Victor Mair said,

    January 29, 2017 @ 6:47 am

    I applaud the analysis of WSM and Ben Zimmer.

    The evidence presented by Michael Watts supports what we have seen so many times before in other circumstances: punning in China takes place without regard to tones.

  12. Ben Zimmer said,

    January 29, 2017 @ 10:12 am

    @Kevin Li: Best I can tell, 大吉 dàjí is used as a phono-semantic match for the Tait line of mobile radios. Google Translate also gives "Tait" as a potential translation for 大吉 into English if you click on the first choice of "down."

  13. Graham said,

    January 29, 2017 @ 3:18 pm

    A few years ago a Korean-Chinese shopkeeper in Korea explained the inverted 福 as being based on heaven's perspective, looking down upon the earth! He seemed quite sincere in his answer, too—maybe something equivalent to a folk etymology? (No doubt that Prof. Mair's explanation is the right one…)

  14. Thomas Rees said,

    January 29, 2017 @ 6:21 pm

    Fédération Française de Rugby @ffrugby Instagram has “Il parait que depuis hier nous sommes rentrés dans l’année du coq selon le calendrier chinois! On espère que c’est un bon signe pour nous”. The cock is used as the mascot of France sports teams. Apparently it’s a pun on the Latin gallus meaning both male fowl and inhabitant of Gaul.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    January 29, 2017 @ 11:38 pm

    Chinese soldiers get down — doin' the chicken dance:

    The formidable PLA at its best!!!

  16. chris said,

    January 30, 2017 @ 7:31 pm

    If they want to get down, shouldn't they be plucking the chickens rather than imitating them?

  17. Victor Mair said,

    January 30, 2017 @ 7:41 pm

    North American informal

    enjoy oneself by being uninhibited, especially with friends in a social setting.

    "get down and party!"

  18. Josh said,

    January 30, 2017 @ 10:58 pm

    Often times weird translations in Google Translate are because of TV and movie title translations.

    In this case it seems like there's a TV show called 开门大吉, whose official English name is translated as "Open The Door Down". I assume Google Translate parses "开门" as "Open The Door," (incorrectly) leaving "大吉" as "Down."

    This happened once when I was looking for an English translation for the Japanese phrase "一期一会" ichigoichie (which means something like "one chance in a lifetime," or "this moment in time only").

    Entering the phrase into Google Translate and it gives you the very unexpected "Forrest gump." I thought that was hilarious until I looked it up, and lo and behold, 一期一会 is the localized title of "Forrest Gump" in Japan.

  19. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 1, 2017 @ 4:42 pm

    Since no one has said it yet, kudos Josh, problem solved. And a nice illustration that big data ain't no good if it's shit data. And I thought Google's new approach to Chinese was founded on alignment of whole sentences…?

  20. Ben Zimmer said,

    February 1, 2017 @ 10:30 pm

    Glad we got to the bottom of this. Thanks, Josh! Now, if only we knew why they decided on "Open the Door Down" as the English name of the show…

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