Pinyin faux amis

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We'd better get used to it; pinyin romanizations will be showing up in English with increasing regularity. For example, someone who catches a glimpse of this sign may think that it has something to do with writing instruments:

The photograph, however, shows two bumper cars. What then, is this mysterious "Super pen pen car" that the sign is advertising? In fact, "pen pen" is incorrect pinyin for pèngpèng 碰碰 ("bump"), and a pèngpèngchē 碰碰车 is a "bumper car" ride that you can often find in Chinese amusement parks.

Many pinyin-English faux amis are humorous. For example, there's a girl named You Shiting 尤诗婷. When she came to America to study, her name was given in the usual Western order as Shiting You, which led to much merriment.

When I first went to China in 1981, I was tricked by some naughty girls who kept asking me how to pronounce fuxing 復興 ("rebirth, renaissance, resurgence") and what it meant in English. A major hotel in Beijing had to change its name from Fuxing Hotel to Beijing Hotel because tourists were reluctant to stay in it when it had the former appellation.

Some pinyin-English faux amis can be politically or ideologically inconvenient. As I wrote in the first chapter of The Columbia History of Chinese Literature (p. 54):

Some writers have begun to play with pinyin mixed in among Chinese characters. A notorious example was the 1980s spoken drama "Women" (Us), which had its title written only in pinyin "Women") and used pinyin for the first-person plural pronoun women ("we, us") throughout in some versions of the script. It is difficult to determine precisely what the authors (a collective from a military unit, no less!) meant by this usage (perhaps a subtle pun on the English word written with the same letters? — a so-called faux ami), but the government was sufficiently incensed to ban the play before it actually opened.

Other pinyin-English faux amis and related phenomena are discussed in "Flirtatious Evacuation", "YouCool", and "Transletteration".

[A tip of the hat to Jiang Ranting]


  1. MPC said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

    I remember on my first night in Shanghai desperately trying to find "Boxing Road".

  2. David Branner said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 5:36 pm

    I have a Taiwanese uncle who was highly placed in an American corporation that buys and sells retail goods on a vast scale. His name is Dick You. But his name never harmed his career; if anything, I think it made American colleagues think he was a good guy, since he accepted their incessant teasing.

    Once when disoriented from a bad case of jetlag, I made my way into the airport restroom marked 我們. Imagine my surprise on realizing that it was only 她們 inside.

  3. goofy said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

    Isn't x a sibilant? And the first vowel is different too. "fuxing" would be pronounced nothing like "fucking".

  4. Victor Mair said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 5:52 pm


    The problem is that Americans totally unfamiliar with pinyin pronounce fuxing in an embarrassing way. Those Beijing girls were counting on me to do the same thing, but I didn't take the bait. Same problem with "boxing" mentioned by MPC above, but that doesn't amount to a salacious mispronunciation of pinyin, just an Englishy one.

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 6:22 pm

    The source of the hat tip is appropriate too.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 6:52 pm

    @Jerry Friedman

    good one!!!

  7. Ken Micklas said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 6:57 pm

    @David Branner:

    That story reminds me of when my (extremely bright) Romanian friend walked into a women's restroom in Italy (marked "DONNE"), thinking that "UOMINI" was a cognate to "women". I teased him to no end, especially because "oameni" is a real cognate in Romanian.

    Faux amis can be dangerous, especially when they involve restrooms…

  8. Faldone said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 7:19 pm

    The German restroom names could be a problem, too. Herren (her'n) and Damen (da men).

  9. Glen Gordon said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 7:43 pm

    I think q and x cause the most problems in Pinyin and in this respect make it a little deficient since these letters aren't often used for such sounds for other languages, nor do they connect in any way to IPA usage by linguists. Pinyin lives therefore in a bubble.

    Even ć and ś, over q and x, would improve clarity over the current standard. Granted, there's still a learning curve for non-Chinese-speakers but I would think there'd be much less of one if a more transparent system like this were adopted.

  10. Brian R said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 7:58 pm

    Mixing questionable pinyin with English is always dicey. I still get a chuckle every time I pass the Won Star Hotel in Taipei. 'Won' isn't quite the ten thousand stars (wan=萬) they had hoped.

  11. Nicki said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 10:40 pm

    I used to get really confused about why there was a bookstore from Haiti down in Sanya: 海天书店. The sign read HAITIAN BOOKSTORE. Once I started being able to read characters I figured it out!

  12. pot said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 10:52 pm

    I think the depletion of final plosives in Mandarin Chinese has largely reduced the number of scatological pinyin-English faux amis. Shiting You pales in comparison with Prof. Chew Shit Fun from Singapore, coauthor of "Ammonia toxicity, tolerance, and excretion".

  13. DMajor said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 11:08 pm

    Very subtle pun, indeed. I've read that paragraph 4 times and I still have no idea what you're getting at.

  14. John said,

    January 17, 2012 @ 12:15 am

    What do you call the phenomenon where people with Pinyin names including a Q start pronouncing them like Qs (青 –> quing)?

  15. Chris Waugh said,

    January 17, 2012 @ 1:38 am

    @pot's Prof. Chew Shit Fun reminds me: One day many years ago I remarked to an acquaintance that I had trouble remembering the name of Hong Kong's new airport. He told me a joke he'd heard on the radio back when he lived in Hong Kong:

    A stewardess on a flight into Hong Kong walked up to a male passenger and said, "Excuse me sir, let me check your lap. Ah yes, there's your cock."

    I've never forgotten Chek Lap Kok since. It may be a tad crude, but it's certainly a powerful mnemonic.

  16. mollymooly said,

    January 17, 2012 @ 2:29 am

    Macaronic homonyms are only "faux amis" if a significant subset of the speakers of one or both languages actually believes the two words have the same meaning. Accidental resemblances are not faux amis if people recognise them as accidental.

  17. Brian R said,

    January 17, 2012 @ 7:02 am

    @DMajor The pun is on the Mandarin word for 'us' which is pin-yinned as 'wo' + 'men'. It's two characters forming a single word, hence 'women'.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    January 17, 2012 @ 8:55 am

    @DMajor To supplement what Brian R said, "wo" = "I"; "-men" is the plural suffix, hence Mandarin "women" = English "we / us".

    @mollymooly A widely recognized parallel between pinyin Mandarin and roman letter English is "pixie". In Mandarin it means "shoe(s)", but in English it refers to an elfin or fairylike creature. What do YOU call that type of resemblance?

  19. George said,

    January 17, 2012 @ 10:30 am

    I think mollymooly is right here. I very much doubt if any English speaker assumes on reading the letters P-I-X-I-E in pinyin that they refer to Tinkerbell. And I very much doubt if any Chinese person reading Peter Pan assumes that one of his companions is a shoe. So they're not faux amis.

    I remember one very hip bar in Beijing that used the characters for we/us (women) and gate (men) on the toilet doors.

  20. George said,

    January 17, 2012 @ 10:35 am

    Oh, and if they're not faux amis, what should they be called? Does 'homograph' work across different languages?

  21. Victor Mair said,

    January 17, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

    @George But I've met lots of Americans who saw "pixie" written on Chinese stores, boxes, and so forth and wondered why a word meaning "elf" was written there, and they pronounced it in the American English manner. And what about the case of "fuxing" that I mentioned above? Even though it's not spelled identically with "fucking", Americans who know no Chinese and no pinyin associated it with the word that I wrote about here: Moreover, from my own poignant personal experience in 1981, Chinese who knew a bit of English expected them to so misinterpret the word.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    January 17, 2012 @ 3:46 pm

    From the beginning of the Wikipedia article entitled "False friend":


    False friends (French: faux amis) are pairs of words or phrases in two languages or dialects (or letters in two alphabets)[citation needed] that look or sound similar, but differ in meaning.

    The term should be distinguished from "false cognates", which are similar words in different languages that appear to have a common historical linguistic origin (whatever their current meaning) but actually do not.

    As well as complete false friends, use of loanwords often results in the use of a word in a restricted context, which may then develop new meanings not found in the original language.


    From Wiktionary:


    A false friend; one of a pair of words in different languages or dialects that look related but that differ significantly in meaning.

  23. mollymooly said,

    January 17, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

    Language learners who have already taken their first steps see how many "friendly" words in the learned language, i.e. that correspond in meaning to similar words of their native language. Then they get tripped up by "false friends" that seem "friendly" but diverge in meaning. Either an English or French student may make an error when speaking/writing or when hearing/reading "sensible".

    Deliberate puns, whether for political subversion as with Women or adolescent giggles as with fuxing, are not the same thing. "What do YOU call that type of resemblance?": a macaronic pun. I would not like to see the sense of "faux amis" being stretched to cover these cases.

    OTOH, it is plausible that an anglophone in China who sees a single word of Latin letters in isolation on a sign/box for a brand/model may assume it is the English word, directly loaned into Chinese as foreign branding. That's somewhat different from the classical false-friend, but has some similarity. One might reasonably call these "false friends", but I would prefer a separate name ("pixie shoe"?).

  24. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 18, 2012 @ 9:24 am

    Peng-peng occurs in German in a similar role: it means bang-bang in the sense of gangsters (and/or cops) shooting at each other.

    These conventional representations of noises are giving us some fun at the moment, since my daughter, who is almost 2, knows that sheep say "mehh-mehh" in Mama's language and "Baa-baa" in Papa's language, and the same goes for dogs "wau-wau" (de) and "woof-woof" (en). Cats go miau and cows go moo in both languages, but the silliest one is cocks/roosters, who co cock-a-doodle-doo versus kikeriki (neither particularly realistic).

  25. Troy S. said,

    January 18, 2012 @ 8:18 pm

    With all the talk of bathroom confusion, it reminds me that after taking some Greek, I can't help but interpret "men" as "μὲν" or "on the one hand…"
    If I open a hip Greek bar some day, the other door will say "δὲ" or "on the other hand…"

  26. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    January 27, 2012 @ 1:33 pm

    […] Mair also discussed pinyin faux amis and Google translate and Chinese. Mark Liberman explored Finnish language flowers (crash blossoms […]

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