Coral reef, dead or alive

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June Teufel Dreyer noticed that the People's Daily and other official outlets refer to Okinotori as a jiāo 礁, reef, which fits her understanding of the geology involved.  The Japanese, hoping for a larger Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), say it is an island. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) definition is that a rock incapable of sustaining life (“life” is not defined; could be human life, animals, plants, bacteria?) is not an island. The government of Japan position is that Okinotori isn’t a rock, since it is composed of coral.  Yet the character, which she assumes the Japanese use as well, clearly contains the rock element.   So, June asked, can coral be considered a rock?  In this case, there are substantial implications.

Not really pretending to be a lawyer but perhaps coming off as sounding like one, or perhaps a forensic linguist, I replied:

Jiāo 礁 means "reef, jetty, submerged rocks".

A "coral reef" is a reef formed by coral.  It may be living or dead, the coral organisms that formed it may still be alive or they may have died off.

There's a difference between whether a formation in the ocean in its natural state "can sustain life" and whether it "sustains life".  It "sustains life" if there are birds, bugs, plants, etc. growing on it.  If somebody modifies the formation by the addition of sand and soil and introduces living organisms to it, then one may say that it "can sustain life".

By so doing, however, the humans may have turned the once living coral reef into a dead coral reef that is now an artificial island with introduced life forms.

June replied:

This, gentlefolk, is why lawyers make so much money — and by the time they are done explaining their judgments, the audience is more confused than before.   There’s no doubt that some of the coral on Okinotori is alive, what the GOJ is doing is making sure that what’s life doesn’t get washed away, and seeding it with more.   But it seems unlikely that, despite the rock radical in the ideogram, the lawyers are going to ratify the GOJ’s position.  I guess I’m unhappy with the ideogram, think there should be a special one for a coral reef.  Perhaps with “bug” as the radical.

The sinogram jiāo 礁 ("reef; jetty; submerged rocks") does indeed consist of the semantophore shí 石 ("stone", Kangxi radical #112) plus the phonophore jiāo 焦 ("charred; scorched; burnt; coke; worried; anxious; vexed" — note the fire radical at the bottom).

If we're talking about a coral reef (shānhújiāo 珊瑚礁), that could be living or dead.  Wanting to fulfill June's request for a character that could be used to indicate that the reef is still living, mirabile dictu, I found jiāo 蟭.

It consists of the semantophore chóng 虫 ("insect", Kangxi radical #142) plus the same phonophore, jiāo 焦.

Apparently jiāo 蟭 only occurs in the disyllabic term jiāomíng 蟭螟, which means the same thing as jiāomíng 焦螟, a tiny bug in ancient legend.  That jiāomíng, the name for this tiny bug, can be written in Sinograms either as 焦螟 or as 蟭螟 underscores the facts that 1. it is truly a disyllabic morpheme (one of hundreds in ancient Sinitic) and 2. the form of the word in Sinograms is not as important as its sound.

So jiāo 蟭 by itself doesn't mean anything — up till now, that is.

I hereby propose that 蟭 (with a bug as its semantophore!) henceforth be used to signify a living coral reef.  This would be in distinction to a jiāo 礁, which might be a coral reef that is no longer living.

The quandary I'm facing is this:  if I were to give 蟭 another reading beside jiāo to signify "living reef", which pronunciation would be most appropriate?

From Léon Wieger (1856-1933), Chinese Characters: Their Origin, Etymology, History, Classification, and Signification: A Thorough Study from Chinese Documents, phonetic series 669, I see that 焦 can enter into characters pronounced jiao1, jiao4, jiao3, qiao2, and qiao4.  My inclination is to go for qiao2, because most of the others have verbal meanings.  The reason I don't want to keep the jiao1 reading is so that qiáo 蟭 ("reef with living polyps in it") can be more readily distinguished from jiāo 礁 ("reef") in speech.

I asked Jonathan Smith his opinion on the matter.  Here's Jonathan's reply:

Looking over your message this does not sound like a practice you would generally approve of :D

[VHM:  True! — but in this case there is a pressing biopolitical need.]

But giving free reign to the imagination for a moment, 蟭 could simply also be jiao1, with orthography-induced-polysemy emerging over time. Or it could represent the disyllabic compound huo2jiao1 'living reef'. Or represent the novel disyllabic compound lei4fu4 肋阜 lit. 'rib mound', which would serve as both a transcription of English 'reef' and a reasonably cromulent Chinese calque on reef in the etymological sense (= rib). Or of course you could invent an entirely new word, as you suggest… in which case qiao2 is as good a choice as any!!

I am pleased to have Jonathan's carefully considered affirmation.

Bottom line:  蟭 is now one of thousands of Chinese characters that have multiple readings, in this case (in Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM]):

a. the first syllable of the disyllabic word jiāomíng 蟭螟 ("name of a tiny bug in ancient legend")

b. qiáo 蟭 ("reef with living polyps in it")



  1. John Rohsenow said,

    June 4, 2017 @ 3:11 pm

    Go for it!

  2. Jin Defang said,

    June 4, 2017 @ 3:12 pm

    Thank you, Victor and Jonathan. I love it!

  3. Ken said,

    June 4, 2017 @ 3:40 pm

    Now I want a followup post on the use of "cromulent" among linguists.

  4. mg said,

    June 4, 2017 @ 3:50 pm

    @Ken – linguists use "cromulent" when they want to embiggen the scope of the argument. :)

  5. other one spoon said,

    June 4, 2017 @ 4:36 pm

    Wow, this is the most wrong I've ever seen LLog be. Here:

    "121(3) Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf." (

    It's not "sustain life" — it's "sustain human habitation or economic life of their own." So all the claptrap about birds and bacteria is nonsense. The argument about coral or other materials not counting as "rocks" really does show up, but there is beginning to develop a body of case law rejecting that argument.

  6. Gregory Kusnick said,

    June 4, 2017 @ 4:48 pm

    Off topic, perhaps, but I'm curious about the use of "bug" to describe corals, which, being related to jellyfish, are pretty far outside the sphere of what I would call bugs (roughly, the arthropods).

  7. Bathrobe said,

    June 4, 2017 @ 5:10 pm

    The Chinese translation is probably irrelevant. Notwithstanding that the UN has five official languages, I suspect that the English-language text should be taken as standard (以英文为准). Any argumentation will be have to be based on the wording of the English.

  8. J K said,

    June 4, 2017 @ 6:54 pm

    I thought Okinotori was generally referred to as an "atoll", which is another interpretation of 礁

  9. Adrian Morgan said,

    June 4, 2017 @ 7:11 pm

    I see that Unicode describes 蟭 simply as "very small bug", which leaves a lot unsaid! If Victor's proposal catches on it will be even more useless. I guess that's just language being language but I can't help being amused.

    [ja: / SHOU SHUU SHU] [zh(M):jiāo] [zh(C):ziu1] (very small bug)

  10. Victor Mair said,

    June 4, 2017 @ 7:22 pm

    @other one spoon

    Written more than three years after the original post:


    I feel sorry that none of the comments mentioned Prof. Pullum’s magnificent (presumably intentional?) crash blossom.

    “Dumb mag buys grammar goof spin spot fraud”

    I was doing fine up to “Dumb mag buys” – the first natural interpretation of that beginning is that an unintelligent (not speechless) magazine (not Margaret) believes (not purchases) something. But then “grammar goof” makes you think that what the magazine believed was a grammatical mistake, and mistakes in and of themselves don’t assert anything. Maybe the magazine believed that something WAS a mistake, when in fact it wasn’t? That would be consistent with Language Log, and with the description of the magazine as “dumb.” Maybe the rest of the headline will shed more light – but instead, “goof spin spot fraud” sheds only darkness.


    What were you trying to prove there? What are you trying to prove here?

    For contentiousness, cf.:


    The only linguistic information in this post is that Mark Liberman is unfamiliar with Indonesian (which uses the Roman alphabet, and in which Perancis, Jerman, etc are just as correct as Allemagne is in French). “But still” what?


  11. Andrew Usher said,

    June 4, 2017 @ 8:45 pm

    other one spoon:

    If Language Log was wrong here, it's an innocent mistake, incidental to the linguistic issues. In the UN definition I'd say 'rocks' must be taken in a geographical rather than geological sense, and thus include coral reefs (atolls). Further in 'sustain human habitation or economic life …' the 'or' must really mean 'and', since otherwise it's a huge loophole – _anything_ could support human habitation if you tried hard enough, and 'economic life' doesn't have to be land-based. I believe that strange legal uses of and/or have been discussed before here.

  12. leoboiko said,

    June 5, 2017 @ 5:24 am

    @Gregory: I think the class of living beings identified by 虫 is larger than the English "bug" (which is already larger than anything I have in my language…) It does include many things that could be "bugs" in English:

    * 蛾 moth
    * 蛍 lightning-bug; firefly
    * 蝉 cicada
    * 蝿 fly
    * 蛭 leech
    * 蜂 bee; wasp; hornet
    * 蚯 earthworm
    * 蛆 worm; grub; maggot
    * 蛉 dragonfly; moon moth
    * 蛩 cricket
    * 蛛 spider
    * 蜀 green caterpillar
    * 蝗 locust
    * 蝓 slug; snail
    * 蟷 mantis

    But also things like these:

    * 蝦 shrimp; prawn; lobster
    * 蛤 clam
    * 蜃 clam
    * 蜆 fresh-water clam
    * 蟶 razor clam
    * 蚶 ark shell
    * 蠣 oyster
    * 蚫 abalone; dried fish
    * 蛸 octopus
    * 蝟 hedgehog
    * 蝌 tadpole
    * 蝙 bat
    * 蛙 frog
    * 蟆 toad
    * 蟒 boa constrictor; python
    * 蠑 newt; turban shell
    * 蜴 lizard
    * 蛇 snake; serpent

    In fact, the single character for 'jellyfish', 蜇, includes 虫. (Both lists above are non-exhaustive).

  13. Keith said,

    June 5, 2017 @ 7:39 am

    @leoboiko and @Gregory

    The English word "bug" is problematic, I see… Or, rather, the very slack way in which words in oe language are translated into another.

    Technically, "bug" is a specific set of insects, though in common usage it often means "beetle" (as long as we stay on the subject of living creatures, not talking about a problem or a concealed listening device).

    Certainly, I've never encountered the word "bug" used to refer to a leech, worm, larva, mollusc of any sort, hedgehog, bat, frog or toad, or indeed any animal other than an insect.

  14. leoboiko said,

    June 5, 2017 @ 7:59 am

    @Keith: I think you're being prescriptive. It's quite easy to find examples of "bug" being used to refer to things like caterpillars, centipedes, spiders, worms, larvae and snails (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…)

    I don't think it's ever used to refer to bats, frogs, toads, clams, which was precisely the point of my other comment .

  15. January First-of-May said,

    June 5, 2017 @ 9:56 am

    _anything_ could support human habitation if you tried hard enough

    Which is basically how Sealand started out…

  16. Victor Mair said,

    June 5, 2017 @ 10:48 am


    Your suspicions are well-grounded. Chinese radicals do not constitute a system of scientific taxonomy. They are simply a makeshift and imprecise arrangement for dividing up the tens of thousands of characters into manageable groups so that they can — hopefully — be found in dictionaries and other types of reference works.

    The arbitrary nature of classification by radicals is readily seen by the fact that the first dictionary to employ them, Shuōwén Jiězì 說文解字 (Explaining Graphs and Analyzing Characters), completed in 100 AD, had 540 of them when there were only (!) 9,353 character entries, whereas the Kāngxī Zìdiǎn 康熙字典 (Kangxi character dictionary), published in 1716, had 214 radicals when there were over 47,000 characters. The latter is the system that I and my peers memorized when we were graduate students, and we still know the numbers and meanings of the 214 Kangxi radicals by heart. Unfortunately, dictionaries that have been published in the PRC during the last three decades and more seldom adhere to the Kangxi system, but come up with their own set of radicals (181, 186, 252, etc.).

    For many centuries, when people see the radical chóng 虫, the first thing they think of is "insect, bug", because most of the characters in dictionaries with that semantophore are indeed insects or bugs of one sort or another. But, as leoboiko's helpful list indicates so well, when we look at the totality of characters grouped under chóng 虫, we can see that it swiftly spills over into all sorts of other categories, such as worms, snakes, and so on and so forth. Often, in a pseudo-scientific way, people will say that it means "invertebrate".

    Believe it or not, in the famous Ming period vernacular novel, Shuǐhǔ zhuàn 水滸傳 (Water Margin; All Men Are Brothers; Outlaws of the Marsh), attributed to Shī Nài'ān 施耐庵 (ca. 1296–1372), the ferocious tiger is called dàchóng 大蟲 ("big bug").

    In the beginning, however, chóng 虫 was neither a bug nor an insect, it was a snake. Here's the etymology from Wiktionary:


    Pictogram (象形): a snake.

    The character originally represented a type of venomous snake, while the derivative 蟲 represented worms and insects (or insect-like things). 虫 eventually came to represent worms and insects as well, and the character 虺 was created to represent the original meaning.

    虫 is simplified from 蟲 (elimination of 䖵) and 虫 is the simplified form of 蜀 that is used only as a character component.


    If you go to the entry in Wiktionary, you can see what the earliest forms (oracle bone and bronze inscriptions) looked like.

    As for coral polyps, they are referred to as shānhúchóng 珊瑚虫(shuǐxī xíng 水螅型 ["polyp Hydra type]" — the xī 螅 means "intestinal worm"). This helps to legitimize my choice of qiáo 蟭 to signify “reef with living polyps in it”.

    The polyps that grow in your colon are NOT conceived of in Chinese as bugs or insects. They are xíròu 息肉 (lit., "superfluous flesh").

  17. Jichang Lulu said,

    June 5, 2017 @ 1:44 pm

    长虫 changchong (lit. 'long bug') still means 'snake' in many Mandarin topolects.

  18. John Rohsenow said,

    June 6, 2017 @ 11:25 pm

    Victor's reminiscences about the Kangxi radical numbers we all used to memorize prompted me to pull down my ancient (TW pirated) copy of
    Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary and once again look up my favorite
    character (#3475) 蠱 gu3 (now simplified to 蛊), and my favorite definition:
    埋蠱 "to put all sort of poisonous insects,etc., into a vessel, cover it up and leave it for a year; the insects devour each other until one only is left, this is 蠱 , — there are also other explanations. [sic]

  19. gorram said,

    June 7, 2017 @ 5:40 pm

    Perhaps it's more "vermin" than "bug"?

  20. Victor Mair said,

    June 9, 2017 @ 12:39 pm

    For specialists:

    Richard Cook reports that that the Hanyu Da Cidian index (ed. VHM) as digitized by Wenlin,

    has three entries with 蟭.

    ▷䗚蟭 : ¹⁰⁰¹bójiāo ‘HDC:8A941R2’
    ▷蟭蟟 : ¹⁰⁰⁴jiāoliáo ‘HDC:8A970R4’
    ▷蟭螟 : ¹⁰⁰⁶jiāomíng ‘HDC:8A970R3’

    The Wenlin Zidian entry for 蟭 was updated last August.

    ==== 蟭(=) [jiāo] “䗚蟭”, cf. 䗚; (HDC:) 蟭蟟, 蟭螟

    It points to this entry:

    䗚(!) [bó] “䗚蟭”, 螵蛸, 螳螂的卵块

    蟭蟟 : jiāoliáo ‘蝉的一种’
    蟭螟 : jiāomíng ‘焦螟: (传说) 一种微虫名’

  21. Nicki said,

    June 10, 2017 @ 8:44 pm

    The chong radical is used in a lot of things that wouldn't be bugs in English. I was startled to see anti-moth toothpaste in the grocery store, turned out to be a Chinglish translation of 防蛀.

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