Ask Language Log: cow evolution in Hong Kong

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From Hwa Shi-Hsia:

I have a question for Language Log. My sister in Malaysia recently bought an MP3 player with a feature listed as "The fire cow charging". My father figured out that it meant a transformer or power adapter, but he couldn't come up with a plausible explanation. An acquaintance from Hong Kong responded that:

"It's actually a transformer. Of course, transformer is too long to say so it was shortened to 'former', or 火馬. That became 火牛 because that's just how Hong Kong Cantonese evolves."

Now I'm left wondering if horses evolving into cows is some sort of running joke in Hong Kong, or if it's pronunciation-related. Have you heard of this before? Thanks in advance for any insight you can provide.

[VHM  火馬 is pronounced as "fo2maa5" in Cantonese; 火牛 is "fo2ngau4".]

It is true that the word for "transformer" in Cantonese is fo2ngau4 火牛 (lit., "fire cow").  But I'm dubious that it has anything to do with an evolution from fo2maa5 火馬 (lit., "fire horse").

Bob Bauer agrees with me about the dubiousness of fo2maa5 火馬 (lit., "fire horse") evolving into fo2ngau4 火牛 (lit., "fire cow").  He says that it is "more likely a folk etymology than anything else".  Although he hasn't checked yet, he recalls that Cantonese "ngau4" occurs in other lexical items in which their meanings are not linked to the literal meaning "cow, ox".

Here is the full entry for fo2ngau4 from the manuscript for Bob's ABC Cantonese-English Dictionary, which will come out one of these years:

.hw fo2 ngau4

char 火牛

ps N.

clf 個 go3

1en coll.

1df transformer, i.e. electrical device which increases or decreases voltage output

2seealso 叉電 caa1 din6, 叉電器 caa1 din6 hei3

2df AC adapter, i.e. small portable transformer for converting AC (alternating current) to DC (direct current), such as one used with a notebook computer

2exchar 佢想買個手提電腦火牛

2exrom keoi5 soeng2 maai5 go3 sau2 tai4 din6 nou5 fo2 ngau4

2exeng He wants to buy an AC adapter for notebook computer

3seealso 光管 gwong1 gun2

3df inductive ballast in a fluorescent-lamp, i.e. the device that regulates the current in the lamp's electric circuit and keeps it from reaching a destructive level

3exchar 呢種電子光管火牛又慳電又低溫,亦即時光亮

3exrom ni1 zung2 din6 zi2 gwong1 gun2 fo2 ngau4 jau6 haan1 din6 jau6 dai1 wan1, jik6 zik1 si4 gwong1 loeng6

3exeng This kind of electronic fluorescent-lamp ballast both saves electricity and doesn't get hot, and it also immediately turns the light on

ser 1000001546

ref SL1977:212; WKB1997:066; ZN1999:098; DF2003:1259; CE2005:296; HB2005:118; ROZ2009:060; MT2011:079; RSBfmInternet19112011; SKLC2014:012; ROZ2016:071

Mandy Chan notes that fo2ngau4 火牛 is not the only Cantonese word relating to transformers.  She has also heard words like “fong1ngau4 方牛” and “waan4ngau4 環牛" which "refer to the shape/technical specificities of the charger/transformer '牛'".

Mandy continues:

I'm not certain about the etymology of “fo2ngau4 火牛” (the word isn't as clear as “maa5lik6 馬力”, which is a direct translation of "horsepower"), because 1) it could refer to the energy-generating aspect of a bull, or 2) as your Cantonese friend mentioned… fo2ngau4 火牛 gradually evolved from fo2maa5 火馬 (but why was there a need to "evolve"? After all, maa5 馬 ("horse") is just as catchy and easy to say as ngau4 牛 ("cow; ox; bull").

Geoff Wade has a radically different explanation for the alleged switch from fo2maa5 火馬 (lit., "fire horse") to fo2ngau4 火牛 (lit., "fire cow"):

I am inclined to think that the shift from 火馬 to 火牛 had something to do with the bad luck associated with 火馬 years. Just a bad luck avoidance strategy by changing the 火馬 to 火牛, with the consequent loss of any association with the English word.

See "The Curse Of The Fire Horse Zodiac:  Japan’s Ultimate Form Of Contraception" (4/11/12).

This article on Tofugu by Hashi paints a grim picture of Fire Horse year avoidance, one that is borne out by the many stories one hears about abortions and abandonment of children conceived during that year in all societies where the Chinese zodiac holds sway.  Some of these accounts that I know of are not just "stories" but can be documented by birth certificates and adoption records.

Fascinating as this lore about the inauspiciousness of the Fire Horse year may be, I await further confirmation of Geoff's ingenious theory about the switch from fo2maa5 火馬 (lit., "fire horse") to fo2ngau4 火牛 (lit., "fire cow") for the Cantonese word for "transformer".

Incidentally, Geoff observes that his brother-in-law, a Cantonese speaker in Malaysia, has never heard the term fo2ngau4 火牛 (lit., "fire cow"), so it may be restricted to Hong Kong.

Be that as it may, the usage of fo2ngau4 火牛 (lit., "fire cow") for "transformer" seems to have worked its way into Malay / Indonesian where we find "lembu api" ("cattle fire") with the meaning "transformer".  See, for example, this site.

Typical advertisements for MP3s with "The fire cow charging" in a Malayo-Indonesian setting may be found here and here.


  1. Adrian said,

    June 3, 2017 @ 5:10 pm

    I've always been irrationally proud of being a fire horse.

  2. Jenny Chu said,

    June 3, 2017 @ 10:57 pm

    My son tells me that the proper translation of "Transformer" is 變身機械人 … I guess there's more than meets the eye here.

  3. Jenny Chu said,

    June 3, 2017 @ 11:00 pm

    Or could a 火馬 be a robot in disguise …

  4. Victor Mair said,

    June 4, 2017 @ 8:02 am

    From a native Cantonese speaker who is a philologist:

    Actually, I don’t know why “transform” is called 火牛 in Cantonese and have asked a few friends working on Cantonese, but they don’t know either. I haven’t heard about 火馬 in Cantonese and not sure if this really exists.

    Sorry for being able to help you this time. Hope someone else can help you solve it.

    My reply:

    Your answer is actually helpful, Pui Ling.

    If someone as linguistically learned as you doesn't know of the existence of 火馬 nor the derivation of 火牛 that is telling us something important.

  5. Shi-hsia said,

    June 4, 2017 @ 12:54 pm

    Thank you for the extensive answer to my question!

    I've never heard of lembu api. Looking at the Christmas tree manufacturer's website, I think most of its content is machine translated. It's extremely bad Malay, partly or largely incomprehensible, and the contact address at the bottom of the left-hand sidebar is somewhere in Zhejiang.

    The wording in the list of MP3 player functions in the OLX and Tokopedia ads is exactly the same as on the packaging of the one my sister bought, even though the physical forms of the products are different. I suppose the sellers are all copy-pasting from each other.

  6. Shi-hsia said,

    June 4, 2017 @ 1:05 pm

    Most Malaysians know at least a little English because it's taught as a second language from primary school onward. I don't know if there's an official translation for "charger", but the English word would be very widely understood, and as far as I remember from secondary school physics, transformer is just that.

  7. Fluxor said,

    June 5, 2017 @ 1:45 am

    Well, there is that Chinese war tactic called 火牛陣, which involves tying bayonets on the horns of oxes and then setting their tails on fire so they would charge the enemy horns first.

    Here's an example picture:

    Here's a photo of an electrical adatper:×500.jpg

    Canny resemblance? Or a pictorial faux ami?

  8. Kasey Chang said,

    June 7, 2017 @ 1:54 pm

    Found an alternate explanation, perhaps ProfMair can chime in on this theory:








    Or translated:

    Traditional transformers are made of two inductive coils.

    To say coil with Japanese/Minnan accent you get 火牛 in Minnanyu. That migrated back to Mandarin.


    Sounds a bit Taiwan-centric to me, but I'm no expert in Minnan.

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