VX in Chinese

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By now practically the whole world knows that Kim Jong-nam, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un's older half-brother, was killed by the extremely toxic nerve agent called VX.  VX is much more potent than sarin, which was used by the Aum Shinrikyo cult to kill 12 people and injure thousands of others in the Tokyo subway in 1995.  Apparently, it's not clear why this series of nerve agents is called "V" ( "Victory", "Venomous", or "Viscous" are some of the possibilities).  Since research on these agents is restricted primarily to the military, not much is known about them in civilian circles.  Whatever the "V" stands for, and besides VX, other agents in the series include VE, VG, VM, and VR.

Since V and X are unmistakably letters of the Roman alphabet as used in English, and since it would not be convenient to refer to this toxic agent as O-ethyl S-[2-(diisopropylamino)ethyl] methylphosphonothioate in the media, so far as I know it is being referred to as VX in most languages.  Speakers of other languages are invited to inform us of any workarounds that they may be aware of, especially for languages written in non-Roman scripts.

I was curious how VX is being referred to in Chinese.  Here are three different ways, with the number of ghits for them:

VX shénjīng dújì VX神经毒剂 ("VX neurotoxic agent") 290,000

wéiāikèsī shénjīng dújì 维埃克斯神经毒剂 ("wéiāikèsī neurotoxic agent") 193

wéiāikèsī (VX) shénjīng dújì 维埃克斯(VX)神经毒剂 ("wéiāikèsī [VX] neurotoxic agent") 5

One of my Chinese friends who was reading a newspaper account about the Kim Jong-nam assassination  was confused by the wéiāikèsī 维埃克斯 and couldn't understand what it meant until she later read an English article on the assassination.  Wéiāikèsī 维埃克斯 is the Mandarin approximation of the sounds of "VX" as transcribed in Chinese characters.

Incidentally, when run through online translators in various contexts, wéiāikèsī 维埃克斯 can sometimes also yield "Virex", "Vickers", "Vee Akers", etc.

This is one reason for "creeping Romanization" in Chinese.

Here are a few Language Log posts on this topic:


  1. Thorin said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 10:24 am

    In Arabic it's spelled في أكس (fi 'aks)

  2. Alex said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 8:10 pm

    If a person sees the power point presentations (PPT) created by venture capital (VC) the medical community, and IT (information technology) here one will easily see this acronym trend. PPT is called and written ppt here too, as is VC and IT used much more often than not. If one talks with local doctors and VC one will easily see the use of English terms gaining momentum. Many times for industry specific terms I have asked out of curiosity and for my own sampling "how do you say this term in Chinese?" the answers vary from I dont know or the person gives an answer and says "wo bu queding" i cant be sure.

    Languages need to evolve and absorb. Some are more efficient than others in doing so.

  3. WSM said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 8:28 pm

    Yeah, the obvious contrast here is to Japanese, which has an entire syllabary, katakana, devoted to representation of foreign words. I wonder whether the incidence rate of direct use of English terms within relatively formal Japanese contexts (more significant than teenagers/hipsters wanting to "sound cool") is significantly lower than the incidence of rate of English terms in the equivalent Chinese contexts, because of the long-accepted katakana.

    Phonetic representation of foreign words is one problem for which Chinese characters are indisputably poorly suited. That being said, I'm not seeing Pinyin as much of a better alternative here, at least as long as it remains constrained to the relatively limited set of available phonemes in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM): "wéiāikèsī" is no more intelligible than the character version. Some interesting recent phenomena such as the "duang" and "biubiubiu" incidents point to the beginnings of some flexibility on that score, but until examples start cropping up of using Pinyin to provide representations of English words along the lines of katakana, and/or the Pinyin syllabary expands beyond the confines of MSM (to represent, say, Cantonese), this really doesn't point to a trend of increasing "romanization" per se.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 11:40 pm

    The massively overwhelming preference for the direct use of "VX" over character transcriptions of the MSM pronunciation of those two letters is Romanization within the overall Chinese writing system, and by now it could fairly well be said that the use of Roman letters in Chinese writing is no longer just "creeping". See the references to works by Mark Hansell and by Liu Yongquan in the "Creeping Romanization in Chinese" post cited near the end of the o.p above. Hansell, Liu, and others have demonstrated that the Roman alphabet has long since become a part of the Chinese writing system. The LLog posts cited above, as well as many others, provide numerous instances of the direct use of Roman letters in Chinese writing.

  5. Walter Burleigh said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 12:19 am

    Apparently, it's not clear why this series of nerve agents is called "V" ("Victory", "Venomous", or "Viscous" are some of the possibilities).

    "Vergeltungswaffen", maybe?

  6. WSM said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 8:04 am

    yeah but that's not what "Romanization" means. "Romanization" is the conversion of a non-roman orthography to roman letters, not the use of Latin orthographies in non-roman orthographies.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 10:54 am



    Thanks for agreeing with me about the gradual, ongoing process of the Romanization of the writing system.


    Romanize: To make Roman in character, allegiance, or style.


    Since I've been actively involved in the Romanization of Chinese languages for the last half-century, I know what the term means. If you have been reading Language Log for the last decade, you are probably aware of that by now.

  8. Robert said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 2:49 pm

    FWIW, Wikipedia says the V in VX stands for venomous."

  9. Dave Cragin said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 9:20 pm

    For those interested in a history of nerve agents and other chemical warfare agents, the book “A Higher Form of Killing” is absolutely superb.

    Notably, of the 4 main nerve agents that were stockpiled before the disarmament treaties, 3 were developed by the Germans in WWII: Soman, Sarin and Tabun (the other was VX, developed by the English after the war). During WWII, nerve agents were unknown to the Allies and their use would have been devastating.

    The book explains why despite the many horrors committed by the Nazis, they never used these agents on the battlefield. During WWI, a young German artillery officer was hit with mustard gas and temporarily blinded. This experience gave him an aversion to chemical weapons. His name was Adolf Hitler (there were other reasons too).

    The book also shows copies of letters from Churchill to his Chiefs of Staff, imploring them to use chemical weapons to retaliate against German V1 & V2 rockets (which had conventional warheads). Churchill scolded them for worrying about morality, noting that during WWI, countries switched to chemical weapons and this change in style was no different than a woman changing the length of her skirt.

    Churchill wanted a “cold blooded calculation” on the benefits of using chemical weapons, noting they could hit Germany with 20 tons for every ton that Germany launched in return. Notably, that returning one ton could have been nerve agent. Had Churchill’s advisors acquiesced, the war would have been substantially different.

  10. ajay said,

    March 1, 2017 @ 5:21 am

    The US military came up with a two-letter abbreviation system for chemical agents – see here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CB_military_symbol

    Understandable, because of course there are several agents that could be described as 'tear gas' or 'mustard gas', and the full chemical designation is unwieldy.

  11. GALESL said,

    March 5, 2017 @ 5:57 pm

    "PPT is called and written ppt here too". In my experience, Chinese people say and write "PPT" in English in a way and with a frequency that native English speakers do not, in situations where an Anglophone would use "presentation", "PowerPoint file", "deck" etc. (Native speakers used "PPT" mainly to specify the file format; and moreover that's a format that was supereded a decade ago.) I get this almost every day in my work where a Chinese person will ask me in English "Can you see the PPT?" and I reply "Yes, I can see the slide / file / material etc." Never PPT :) The VC folks should watch "House of Lies" and notice no one ever refers to their decks as "PPTs".

    Another example: "KTV" is Taiwan Chinese, not English; but Chinese people often just assume it's English and say it to an English speaker as though it's English.

    And the "tendency to use three-letter acronyms in English when native English speakers wouldn't" even extends to "acronymizing" something that isn't an acronym at all: saying 'app' as "A P P" /ei-pi-pi/ and writing it in all capital letters (rather than saying "app" /æp/ and writing it in lower case).

    I wonder if this tendency is because these kinds of three-syllable acronyms (with few phonemes and no consonant clusters) fit well with Chinese prosody, become common in Chinese usage and are then imported into Chinese-speakers' use of English.

  12. Eidolon said,

    March 6, 2017 @ 6:47 pm

    "Yeah, the obvious contrast here is to Japanese, which has an entire syllabary, katakana, devoted to representation of foreign words. I wonder whether the incidence rate of direct use of English terms within relatively formal Japanese contexts (more significant than teenagers/hipsters wanting to "sound cool") is significantly lower than the incidence of rate of English terms in the equivalent Chinese contexts, because of the long-accepted katakana."

    I doubt the difference would be that significant. VX, for example, is also popularly represented as VXガス in Japanese orthography, even though a katakana equivalent exists. In fact, even Korean orthography tends to use VX, despite the alphabetic nature of hangul. The phenomenon of using the Roman alphabet to represent acronyms and code names for which the original orthography was 'Roman' is common across East Asia.

    To a degree, the above represents the influence of English as the international language & the Roman alphabet as the default orthography of electronics communication. But it also has to do with the nature of acronyms and code names. Acronyms of the Roman alphabet only function when they're Romanized. A similar argument can be made for code names, of which VX is an example. In such cases, a semantic translation would be preferred over a phonetic transcription, because the phonetic transcription would fail to capture the fact that the acronym or code name is a short hand. But when a standard semantic translation is not readily available or when it just isn't as efficient, the Romanized name becomes the default.

    To this end, it is much more common to see the Romanized forms of acronyms and code names in East Asian orthographies, than it is the Romanized forms of more common words. This effect puts them into a different class than phonetic loans which are also transcriptions, but are typically represented through the native orthography.

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