Epic dictionary fail

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It's been a while since I've posted on Chinglish. In truth, I have an enormous backlog of precious items, some stretching back for years, but I just haven't been able to get to them because I've been trying to concentrate on more substantial topics lately. Today's example, however, is so amazing that I feel inspired to address it immediately.

Consider the photograph on the right, showing a notice on the door of a hotel room's shower stall.

What in the world is going on here? One big Chinese character and all those Roman letters beneath it:


All right, let's go through this methodically. La 拉 simply means "pull," and that is what the sign is telling the person who is about to enter the shower. If you want to get into the shower, PULL the door. Simple enough.

So how did the injunction to "Latin America" come into the picture? Some oaf who was charged with making the sign managed to find lā 拉 in their dictionary and must have been overwhelmed by the plethora of English glosses: pull, drag, draw, haul, help out, implicate, play (a stringed instrument), chat, a verbal suffix, and so forth. Bewildered, they would have spotted near the end of the entry for lā 拉 that it is also an abbreviation for Lāměi 拉美, which is in turn a short form of Lādīng měizhōu 拉丁美洲, which means "Latin America".

Why didn't the oaf choose the first and simplest definition, "pull"? I suppose that they thought that the English (Roman letter) part of the sign is for foreigners, so it might be smart (!!) to use the only obviously foreign definition in the dictionary: Latin America. That's the best defense I can give on behalf of the individual who made this sign. Actually, it's not really a defense, merely one possible explanation for this mind-boggling choice. I suppose it's also possible that they didn't understand any of the English glosses, and simply felt that the longest one must be the most informative.

As for Lādīng měizhōu 拉丁美洲, the Lading part is obviously a transcription ("pull" + cyclical stem / "able-bodied man / cube of meat or vegetable / etc.") for "Latin," the měi 美 is to transcribe the syllable -me- in "America" (see below), and zhōu 洲 means "continent".

Fuller transcriptions of "America" that one may encounter are:

Āměilìkǎ 阿美利卡 (the sound "a" + "beautiful" + "benefit / profit / advantage" + transcriptional sound for "truck" [actually derives from "car"] / "card" / "calorie" — the same character is also pronounced qiǎ which has an entirely different set of indigenous meanings: "checkpost / tollgate / fasten[er] / clip / wedge / get stuck")

Āměilìjiā 阿美利加 (the sound "a" + "beautiful" + "benefit / profit / advantage" + "add" — the last syllable, jiā 加, is pronounced with an initial k- in many topolects)

Měilìjiān 美利坚 ("beautiful" + "benefit / profit / advantage" + "firm / strong / hard / solid / resolute / unyielding" — again, the last syllable, jiān 美利坚, is pronounced with an initial k- in many topolects) = "American", often used for "United States of America".

And all you wanted to do was pull the door so that you could take a shower!

[The photograph was sent in by David Moser]


  1. MHN said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

    That one is great!–particularly because who really needs a sign? It's pull or push or, maybe, slide.

    Perhaps the translator was making a subtle commentary about the strangeness of the shower stall: "You're now entering Latin America…where literary magic realism began."

  2. William Ockham said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 2:11 pm


    There is a very good reason for the sign. The door was put on incorrectly. A horizontal bar will make people push. A vertical bar (like on the inside of the shower door) will make people pull. This is a basic, but very important fact of real world user interface design.

  3. ConnGator said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

    I think it is simpler than that. La looks quite a bit like LA, or L.A. which could be the abbreviation for Latin America.

  4. Darla-Jean Weatherford said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 2:22 pm


    You must be far more experienced in interface design than I am; to me, a bar across a door means "push, pull, or slide until the door opens."

    I translate vertical bars on doors the same way.

  5. SSK said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

    Those three transcriptions of America are wonderfully apt.

  6. Nik said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 3:04 pm

    Any chance the maker of that handle bar label also makes the "Recommendation" handle bar?

  7. jan wohlgemuth said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

    It's not a dictionary fail but a dictionary user fail.

  8. jtradke said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

    @William –

    Given its purpose as a shower door, I doubt it was put on incorrectly. The horizontal bar on the outside is most likely for hanging towels from. Having that on the inside of the shower wouldn't be very useful.

  9. Rick Sprague said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

    @ConnGator: L.A. was my first thought also, but that would only make sense if the sign were created by an English speaker looking up LA in an English-Chinese dictionary.

  10. AL said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

    @Rick & @ConnGator: That explanation still makes sense to me, because it is very likely that the first line of a Chinese-English dictionary would list the pronunciation in English, to which the translator says "I wonder what LA means, because I've never heard the word" and sees that it means Latin America.

    The other option (and my preferred explanation) is that the translator was given a list of signs and assigned the wrong translation to this sign during transcription. Transcription errors are very common. We are not able to suss out such an error with the information we have, providing far more unlikely rationales.

  11. Nelida said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 5:35 pm

    @jan wohlgemuth: YES. Totally agree with you. The failure is the user's, not the dictionary´s.

  12. B.Ma said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 7:11 pm

    So what was the "translation" of 推 on the other side of the door?

  13. Matt said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 8:34 pm


  14. Martin Ellison said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 9:11 pm

    I am surprised that they did not just go down to the local sign shop, which sells standard signs such as 安全出口 EXIT and 男洗手间 MENS WASHROOM with the English translation already attached.

  15. notrequired said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 10:17 pm

    Perhaps the translator was given no information about the context? It's pretty hard to imagine how someone could look at a sign on that door and think: "Hmm, what could the translation be? I'll bet it's Latin America!" But if you knew nothing about the context, no doubt you would be overwhelmed by the number of possible meanings. Or it could be a machine translation.

  16. Don Clarke said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 10:19 pm

    Hey, let's just be grateful the guy didn't use a dictionary that had another meaning for 拉, which is "take a dump".

  17. Jerome Chiu said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 11:16 pm

    Perhaps the designer of the hotel pushes the idea of the "themed shopping mall" (e.g. in "The Elements" in Hong Kong, we have a "Fire Area", a "Water Area", an "Earth Area", and so on) to the extreme and introduces to the world the "themed room", where the easternmost part of the room is Asia and the westernmost part N. America. And the shower area happens to be Latin America.

    Or the designer is reading Doraemon a bit too much, and fantasizes the shower door as an early prototype of the Dokodemo Door.

    But we also know that we shouldn't lazily attribute to (pseudo-)artistic invention or idle imagination what could be attributed to stupidity….

  18. Cheyenne Zhang said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 12:07 am

    Stupidity it is, indeed. But it never ceases to amaze me my countrymen's fetish to put English translation on signs that will never see a non-Chinese reader. No doubt it has everything to do with being trendy and little to do with the consideration for the non-Chinese speakers.

  19. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 12:41 am

    "There is a very good reason for the sign. The door was put on incorrectly. A horizontal bar will make people push. A vertical bar (like on the inside of the shower door) will make people pull."

    I see what you're getting at, but I think you're likely mistaken.

    There were several very good popular books on usability design published in the 80s and 90s by Donald A. Norman, including The Psychology of Everyday Things and The Design of Everyday Things. In the former book, he writes about door handle design:

    "Suppose the door opens by being pushed. The easiest way to indicate this is to have a place at the spot where the pushing should be done. A plate, if large enough for the hand, clearly and unambiguously marks the proper action. Moreover, the plate constrains the possible actions: there is little else that one can do with a plate except push.

    Some hardware cries out to be pulled. Although anything can be pulled can also be pushed, the proper design will use cultural contraints so that the signal to pull will dominate. But even this can be messed up. I have seen doors with a mixture of signals, one implying push, the other pull.

    It's been years since I've read these books, and I don't have them anymore (I'm tempted to order them from Amazon to replace them, they're that good). So I'm not sure if elsewhere Norman discusses in particular such rounded bar horizontal and vertical designs.

    But given what I quote here, I think that whether horizontal or vertical, a rounded bar mixes both push and pull signals to users. A vertical bar will provide a signal as to whether the door opens on the left or right; but that the bar is rounded means that it can be easily used to both pull and push, whether horizontal or vertical.

    In the case of a shower door, which may well slide horizontally, I do think that a vertically oriented bar along a side will strongly indicate to a user familiar with sliding shower doors that the door will slide (but it would also imply a pulling action, as you suggest, which could be disastrous). Unfortunately, usually such doors can be slid entirely to either the left or the right, and thus it is usually impractical to have a vertical bar only on one side. Therefore, they usually use a horizontal bar spanning the entire sliding door.

    If you scroll down a page in the book sample I link to above, you'll see that Norman describes external auto door handles as exemplary designs in terms of usability. For any sort of pull door, such as this shower door, a recessed pulling surface would provide the most unambiguous usage signal.

  20. Brendan said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 1:18 am

    My guess at an explanation for this is a bit simpler: Google Translate. The corpus it's trained on is slanted heavily in favor of UN documents and other such texts, so it has a tendency to read single characters as abbreviations for countries, which is how they often appear in such texts. A few years ago, I saw Google Translate render 小京巴儿 as "small Palestinian children" — and the 巴 there was the culprit.

  21. maidhc said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 2:24 am

    I agree with jtradke, having a horizontal bar on a shower door is for hanging towels. There shouldn't be much doubt about which way the door opens. If the door opened inward it would trap you in the shower, if you could ever get in in the first place. Conceivably it could slide, but most shower stalls are not big enough to have somewhere for it to slide to.

    I'd like to think that your shower would be accompanied by the music of soft guitars.

  22. A Reader said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 6:32 am

    @Brendan, I just copied the character 拉 into Google Translate, and it came out with 'pull'. Since 'Latin America' also isn't on the list of alternate meanings that came up, I think Victor Mair's original explanation (of a print dictionary user) is more likely.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 8:06 am

    To analyze further why the proprietor thought there was the need for a sign at all (how often does one see a shower stall door with a sign telling the guest how to open it?), and proceeding from several of the good suggestions already offered by readers, I looked a bit more carefully at the photograph. It does seem that the horizontal bar is both 1. too low to serve as a convenient, conspicuous handle and 2. apparently meant for hanging a towel. Well, then, if that horizontal bar is not used to pull open the door (as maidhc mentioned, the door is most likely to open outward), then what is to be grasped to pull it open?

    Just above the sign is a dark red circle with a chrome rim which might conceivably be used for a handle to pull the door open. The problem is that it doesn't seem to have much depth to it for one to put one's fingers around and grab it securely. Furthermore, it looks almost as though it were mainly designed as the means for fastening the inside vertical handle which is oddly to be used to PUSH the door outward when one wishes to exit. I say "oddly", since one would normally not need such a vertical handle to PUSH open a door. On the other hand, one might very well use it to PULL open a door. Likewise, the chrome-rimmed, dark red, round handle might very well be used to PUSH open a door, NOT to PULL it open.

    CONCLUSION: Somehow, the handles got installed incorrectly. The one that is on the inside should be on the outside, and vice versa. Hence the need for the big 拉 character. And what, pray tell, is one to PULL to get into the shower? Probably only a person with tiny fingers will be able to scrunch them around that chrome-rimmed, red knob. The rest of us will have to bend down to grab the horizontal towel bar.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 8:10 am

    @jan wohlgemuth and Nelida "Dictionary fail" also includes and implies "Dictionary user fail", just as a "car crash" typically involves driver(s) and perhaps passenger(s).

  25. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 9:16 am

    Victor, I think you're correct about the door.

    The handle was most likely installed incorrectly, which it appears it could be. Both parts would have to be rotated about their long axes. Though I don't think that the red fastener is intended to be a push surface. I suspect that the user is expected to push on the towel bar, or just on the metal frame. Or the glass, even. But I suppose that some would use the red fastener.

    I'd just push on the towel bar.

  26. Bob Violence said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 9:16 am

    That explanation still makes sense to me, because it is very likely that the first line of a Chinese-English dictionary would list the pronunciation in English, to which the translator says "I wonder what LA means, because I've never heard the word" and sees that it means Latin America.

    A Chinese-English dictionary might give the Mandarin pronunciation of 拉 as "lā," in pinyin, which anyone capable of using a Chinese-English dictionary should be capable of distinguishing from English.

  27. Trimegistus said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 10:44 am

    What's all the fuss? The sign says Latin America, and presumably when you walk through the glass door you are transported to Latin America. I saw lots of tile work when I was in Honduras. Anglophones are so parochial — we don't even recognize a teleport booth if it doesn't have the big "TELEPORT" sign on it in English.

  28. Flex said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 11:41 am

    Looking at the picture, it looks like there is another sticker on the other side of the glass, presumably it says "push".

    I doubt that the handle is installed incorrectly. If the horizontal part was on the inside of the door, either the vertical part would be on the wrong side, or possibly below, rather than above, the horizontal part. (Unless the vertical and horizontal parts in two pieces, which, come to think about it, they probably are two pieces for ease of assembly.)

    But the biggest reason that I doubt that a towel bar was designed to be on the inside of the shower was because any towels hanging on it would get soaking wet. It would not be particularly useful.

    So, after reading the excellent comments, here is my take on it.

    The door was designed and installed as it was intended to be. Yet, since the handle on the inside of the door suggests that people should pull it, and possibly some people did pull it hard enough to damage the door, a sticker was put on the inside of the shower stall, on the door, saying "push". But this is a classy place, so rather than have the backside of an ugly sticker showing on the outside of the shower stall, another sticker was created with the intent of it saying "pull".

    Beauty abounds; well aside from the miss-translation.

  29. This Week’s Language Blog Round-Up | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

    […] Beauty Marks discussed the challenge of disparate products with the same name (when you hear “Magnum,” do you think ice cream or condoms? or perhaps Ben Stiller's Zoolander pose?) while Language Log took a look at the difference between "comprised of" and "composed of" and the dangers of picking the wrong synonym. […]

  30. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 12:24 pm

    Whether the towels would get wet with an interior towel bar depends upon how large the shower stall is, I think. I've seen lots of towel racks inside showers and bathtubs. And I'm certain it's in two pieces, it would have to be.

  31. Janice Byer said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 5:31 pm

    Interesting thread. An interior towel bar is appreciated by us, who scrub in the shower with a washcloth. Further, it provides a longer and more accessible surface to grab to break a fall if slipping than a door handle, a seemingly not insignificant consideration for hotel risk management.

    Unless it's the only towel rack, and there's a safety bar on the shower wall, it appears design fail led to dictionary-use-fail.

  32. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 7:15 pm

    The red button is probably the terminal end of the vertical handle. The red hardware connects to the vertical handle through the door, clamping the glass between. I expect there's a similar piece of hardware inside, where the curve of the outside handle terminates.

    The push/pull message from either the horizontal section of hardware or the vertical section is ambiguous, but I agree the horizonal outside allows towels or bath mats to be hung outside the shower to dry. It's also a convenient spot to drape hand-washables.

    In terms of the use of the bathroom, the horizontal handle is very practical because it increases the amount of space where stuff can be hung. The fact that it is an ambiguous push/pull message may not have been an issue to the designer.

    I see the handle as very practical. The inside handle is out of the way so guests don't bruise a hip or leg on it. The outside handle provides hanging space. The label provides tourists with amusement, although the management is not likely to appreciate the humiliation factor they have visited on themselves.

    Before Donald A. Norman's books, there was Alexander Kira's "The Bathroom." It analyzed the shortcomings of bathrooms in relation to the way people use and would like to use the room and its fixtures.

  33. Janice Byer said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 9:38 pm

    Hmm. The decal appears mass-produced, suggesting to me yet another explanation involving three parties and an indeterminate number of computers.

    Suppose a buyer for the hotel or shower-door manufacturer purchased decals online from a manufacturer by keying in the Chinese for what is said to translate to LA and this is what the software wrought.

  34. Chad Nilep said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 9:59 pm

    As Dr. Mair stated, 拉 is (among many other uses) a conventional way to write Latin America, shortened from 拉丁美洲 (la-ding mei zhou).

    Japanese makes use of similar abbreviations: 加 (ka, "to increase") for Canada, 仏 (futsu "Buddhism") for France, 米 (meme, bei "grains of rice") for America, etc. They are simply conventional ways to write the sounds of borrowed toponyms.

    As an American, I've often thought it would be nicer to be from 美利加 (beautiful benefit increase) than 米国 (rice country).

  35. RF said,

    May 14, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

    @Victor Mair
    The comparison between "car crash" and "dictionary fail" is not apt; in a car crash, a car does, in fact, crash. But in this alleged "dictionary fail", the dictionary did not, in fact, fail.

    Also, the use of "fail" as a noun, is, I hope, understood as a colloquialism to begin with, with the understanding that the correct term is "failure".

    "If the horizontal part was on the inside of the door"
    I think you mean "If the horizontal part were on the inside of the door".

    [(myl) With respect to the modification of fail, note (for example) that in this "epic cleanliness fail", cleanliness does not, in fact, fail, but rather is the category in which failure occurs. This is a general property of nominal modification: a "playoff loss" does not involve a playoff that loses; a "World Cup victory" does not involve the World Cup winning at anything; and so on.

    With respect to your warning that "fail" is a colloquialism, I suspect that most of the rest of us have indeed noticed something of the sort.

    With respect to your concern for Flex's choice of verb form, this is a point on which experts recommend flexibility. (Though in your case, I do understand that you need to be careful about bending too much, because your poker might fall out.)]

  36. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 15, 2011 @ 4:57 am

    "I think you mean 'If the horizontal part were on the inside of the door'."

    I'm beginning to suspect LL has a burgeoning faux-prescriptivist troll population.

    On the other hand, the irrealis form is almost my own personal usage peeve. I don't actually criticize writers that instead use was, of course, but I always notice it and it bothers me. Weirdly, this hasn't always been the case and I sort of wish it would cease to be the case.

  37. RF said,

    May 15, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

    @Victor Mair
    "[(myl) With respect to the modification of fail, note (for example) that in this "epic cleanliness fail", cleanliness does not, in fact, fail, but rather is the category in which failure occurs."
    "Cleanliness" is an adjective. "Dictionary" is a noun. You are simply throwing around other usages that you think are similar rather than addressing whether it is correct it the particular usage that you chose.

    [(myl) "'Cleanliness' is an adjective"? I've assumed up to now that you were sincere, but this makes me give credence to Keith M. Ellis's notion that "LL has a burgeoning faux-prescriptivist troll population". If so, well played!]

    "With respect to your concern for Flex's choice of verb form, this is a point on which experts recommend flexibility."
    And who are these "experts" who recommend flexibility? Why, it's the LL! So nice of you people to cite yourself and declare yourselves to be "experts".

    [(myl) Well, Geoff Pullum is the co-author of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, which gives him a certain amount of expert status. And the linked post also quoted the American Heritage Book of English Usage, whose author has no connection to LL.]

    "(Though in your case, I do understand that you need to be careful about bending too much, because your poker might fall out.)"
    And with that, you show that you are completely unwilling to discuss the issue politely.

    [(myl) Considering the ill-informed rants from you that I've recently deleted, I thought that I expressed myself rather delicately.]

  38. Janice Byer said,

    May 15, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

    Keith, I fear at least one of LL's "faux-prescriptivist trolls" may be the real thing, which is to say, potentially the worst kind of a troll – a serious one.

  39. Janice Byer said,

    May 15, 2011 @ 5:02 pm

    …albeit, at times, a seriously confused one, as Mark well-notes above.

  40. Weekend Link Love – 5.15.2011 | Say Yes to Salad said,

    May 15, 2011 @ 5:32 pm

    […] Epic Dictionary Fail (linguistics) […]

  41. RF said,

    May 15, 2011 @ 11:50 pm

    ""'Cleanliness' is an adjective"? I've assumed up to now that you were sincere"
    Like hell you have. I meant "cleanliness fail" means "failure to be clean", and "clean" is an adjective. I say this not to claim that I haven't made a mistake, but to refute your attempt to imply that my honest mistake, as opposed to your deliberate attempts to be rude, somehow means that I am a troll.

    "Well, Geoff Pullum is the co-author of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, which gives him a certain amount of expert status."
    The alleged expertise of the LL is irrelevant to the fact that it's just plain unseemly to cite yourself.

    "And the linked post also quoted the American Heritage Book of English"
    Besides the Usage, whose author has no connection to LL."
    Citing something that cites something else, rather than simply citing that something else, if your intent is to present that something else as evidence, is also unseemly. You don't have to spend much time at snopes.com to see what sort of results such practices often result in.

    "Considering the ill-informed rants from you that I've recently deleted, I thought that I expressed myself rather delicately."
    In other words, you're defending your rudeness with more rudeness (i.e. dismissing my points as "rants") and admitting that you're simply deleting rather than refuting them.

  42. RF said,

    May 15, 2011 @ 11:50 pm

    Janice Byer
    "Keith, I fear at least one of LL's "faux-prescriptivist trolls" may be the real thing, which is to say, potentially the worst kind of a troll – a serious one."
    There is no such thing as a "serious troll". Your accusation of me being "seriously confused" for a simple verbal misstep, when you insist on using a word whose meaning you clearly do not understand, is quite hypocritical. Appparently you are using simply as a general epithet for "person I don't like".

  43. Janice Byer said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 12:55 am

    RF, no, no, I do not dislike you. I swear, I don't. I know virtually nothing about you, except my sense of your sincerity and good faith intention in posting your honestly held views. I admire your holding your ground under fire and can't but like you above all, heh, for engaging with me now.

    Your sense of the meaning of "trolls" was precisely mine until recently, when I was advised that discrete sense had been preempted by current usage. Online dictionaries now define it as any commenters subjectively felt to be provocateurs, however unwitting their perceived sniping and flaming may be.

  44. Peter said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 1:17 am

    Putting aside the translation on the sign, isn't it more of a sign buyer fail? Unless every bilingual "Pull" sign mistranslates the English portion of the sign, the buyer should have seen a variety of pull signs that actually use the word "Pull" and decided on the one with the wrong translation of the Chinese character.

  45. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 5:49 am

    @Janice, yah, I'd sort of think that RF would prefer the old-style usage of troll. I'm kind of an Internet oldster, with roots back to AFU, so I simply can't let go of the original meaning of Internet "trolling". And I've honestly thought, at times, that RF is truly trolling. Insisting upon the irrealis, in this context, about a commenter's usage, is so extremely and uselessly pedantic that it's hard to imagine that it is truly in earnest.

    But that's the thing about prescriptivists, really.

    RF goes to some lengths to attempt to argue that "prescriptivist" is a hopelessly ambiguous term, useless because it conflates very different things, and therefore used only as a smear. In a way, I wish he were correct. The thing is, though, is that this sort of argument is a very good example of the prescriptivist instinct itself. That is, that language is a formal system, regular and rational and internally consistent, where ambiguity necessarily implies failure (and not success!). It's a fundamental misunderstanding of what language is, which is one reason why prescriptivism bothers me. But the reason that weighs more heavily for me is that this misunderstanding of language is strongly connected to, in many ways a product of, a temperament that projects strongly held internal value judgements as necessarily universal values. Prescriptivists are, in a way, the Leon Kasses of the language usage world, though they don't know it and they have no similarly realized analytical framework (more's the pity, really).

    I don't make that comparison lightly. RF himself attacks post-modernism and implicitly relativism. These are a cluster of behaviors that act as cultural and psychological markers. Rules Matter! Truth Exists! Denying These Things Lead to Anarchy and Insanity! In a way, this temperament is attracted to language usage because it combines several important and interesting things into a package: it's pervasive and seemingly comparably trivial, so it has the "finger in the dike" thing about it. If we don't stop it here, where will it be stopped? And all that. But language usage is deeply, deeply about social identity and class distinctions. In the Bourdeiuan sense, those who are invested in cultural capital as opposed to economic capital–in this case, intellectuals–have a large psychological investment in the class distinctions that language usage signifies. And then, contrary to Bourdeiu, I think that Americans at the very least believe themselves to be able to cross class barriers and therefore there's a strong aspirational aspect to all this. Specifically, I went to all the trouble to learn the intricacies of the language usage of my aspirational class and now you're trying to tell me that they are both irrational and don't/shouldn't matter?!

    These things are why some people are language usage peeves.

    And this whole package makes up something that is easily identifiable and is obviously distinct. Prescriptivism really is a thing, though, honestly, it's more coherent as a cultural behavior than as a technical linguistic term. Well, okay, that's probably not true…but even in the context of casual conversation about linguistics, the term is used in this more loose cultural sense rather than the careful technical sense. I won't attempt to speak to the truly technical sense…I'm certainly no linguist. But in the casual sense, it does signify. It is a thing. Prescriptivists are easily identifiable.

    Personally, I'd like to disentangle the things I describe about presciptivism–the cultural and psychological things–from prescriptivism as something pragmatic that helps people learn to use "register" in various social contexts, both spoken and written. Learning register is useful. But until prescriptivism is disentangled as I wish it would be, it's going to be hopelessly confused and confusing and inconsistent because it combines this attempt at describing register with a grab-bag of myths, mistakes, and complete nonsense about language, its nature, and its usage (both historical and present). If for no other reason than the furthering of effectively teaching usage register, prescriptivism as a cultural influence should be resisted.

  46. Flex said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 1:55 pm

    Interesting, not being much of a writer, let alone a linguist, I was unaware of the definition of the irrealis mood.

    After reading and looking over what I wrote, I think I understand the difference. While I don't promise to conform, I will certainly be more aware in the future. Except when typing a quick comment on an internet forum. :P

  47. Wentao said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

    Speaking of LA… why not Los Angeles?

  48. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 3:37 pm

    @Flex: yeah, but the irrealis is very close to being archaic and affected and so you're possibly better off ignoring the distinction. And I promise that you don't want to become like me, someone who winces every time I read a sentence like the one you wrote. I've always been aware of what most people, and I previously, incorrectly called "subjunctive"; but I wasn't consistent in using it and sensitive to its lack until sometime in the last ten years. I have no idea why. But it's caused me to be irrationally annoyed with writers I respect.

    That's a problem with prescriptivist peevishness. And it's truly and deeply revealing: it's about cultural capital, class distinctions and markers. If someone conforms to or exceeds my personal prescriptivist inclinations then I respect them more. If they don't, I respect them less. Which would be okay up to a point, just like it is with, say, fashion or whatever.

    The problem with prescriptivism is that its presumes some sort of objective and even eternal authority. Failing to use the irrealis is not just vulgar, say, but objectively a mistake completely independent of the context of its usage. This is exactly or nearly what prescriptivists believe.

    But even if it weren't, and even if everyone agreed it was more a matter of fashion and register, there's still some good reasons to oppose it. Why? Because it enforces class distinctions in both the cultural and economic capital sense. Which isn't to say that the cultural sense is intrinsically less important than the economic sense. But that in our society, it certainly is and because prescriptive language usage enforces class in both contexts, it is very effective. Which is a long-winded way of saying that high-status language usage is very strongly correlated to educational achievement, and educational achievement is strongly correlated to…economic class, i.e., wealth.

  49. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 3:39 pm

    (Note that I failed to use the irrealis in my comment. So I am not as fastidious about my own usage of it as I think I am.)

  50. Victor Mair said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 5:48 pm


    "Speaking of LA… why not Los Angeles?"

    That possibility was discussed by several readers near the beginning of this thread.

  51. David Marjanović said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 6:07 pm

    it's just plain unseemly to cite yourself

    LOL. You haven't read many scientific papers, have you.

  52. Bathrobe said,

    May 19, 2011 @ 6:23 pm

    There is apparently a kind of translation software available in China that is used by sign-makers. I've never seen it and don't know how it works, but it is apparently used by sign-writers wanting to render a service to their customers by adding English to their sign. The software can come up with some doozies (don't know the kanji for 'doozies', so please accept my humble spelling), like one small restaurant I saw that called itself a girlie bar in English. I asked the owner and she said she had no idea what it meant; the English was provided by the signwriter. So it is quite possible that this didn't come out of a conventional dictionary at all, but out of one of these dodgy translation systems.

    Just by the by, in my neighbourhood there is a small noodle restaurant where the sign on the door says 推 in Chinese and 'Pull' in English. What dictionary can they have got that out of? :)

  53. Ethan said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 1:56 am

    My two favorite signs from this past year:
    1. Beside a lake in a suburb of Beijing: "禁止打闹" (roughly: No Quarreling or Shouting) –> "Prohibit pillow fight"
    2. On the door of the bathroom at the hotel my brother stayed in: "小心地滑" (Caution: Slippery Floor) –> “Warning Landslides"

  54. Ethan said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 1:58 am

    Also, @ Bathrobe: Have you ever thought of how oddly coincidental it is that 推/拉 and pull/push are similar, respectively, in both language? Maybe I'm just dumb, but I can get either pair confused (more so the Chinese, of course) after just a casual glance.

  55. Doug Shaver said,

    May 27, 2011 @ 10:11 pm

    It looks more like a management fail to me. No one actually conversant in English could have made that mistake. Somebody was under the impression that the translation work could be assigned to someone who knew how to use a translation dictionary but, practically speaking, nothing else about English.

  56. ‘Ticket-holding fits’? (lost in translation) | Language and Humor Blog said,

    July 1, 2011 @ 12:24 am

    […] (Professor Victor Mair sometimes posts about these on Language Log, such as here, here, and here.) But in the Chinese on this sign (assuming the characters are representing Mandarin Chinese and […]

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