"Subway" in Chinese

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Jeff DeMarco saw this sign in Chengdu:

Jeff writes:

I suspected the characters would make the sound of the word Subway. My friend confirmed that, but also noted that the actual meaning of the characters was designed to fit the business. Something like 100 special flavors. I did recognize the "bai" for 100 and the "b" sound in Subway.

The sign reads:

Sàibǎiwèi 赛百味 (lit., "competition / contest of a hundred flavors")

The Chinese word for "subway" in the sense of "tunnel" is suìdào 隧道 and in the sense of "underground (railway)" is dìtiě 地铁.


  1. Ben Zimmer said,

    April 19, 2018 @ 3:46 pm

    A nice example of "phono-semantic matching." For more, see: Bianca Basciano, "Brand Names in Chinese," Brill’s Encyclopedia of Chinese Language and Linguistics.

  2. Michael Watts said,

    April 19, 2018 @ 4:04 pm

    My favorite in this vein is Starbucks, which is branded in Chinese as xingbake 星巴克 . xing 星 is "star", but the 巴克 is purely phonetic.

    It makes it difficult not to think of them as "Xingbucks".

  3. Anonymous Coward said,

    April 19, 2018 @ 4:41 pm

    赛 is a verb here, "better than".

  4. WSM said,

    April 19, 2018 @ 7:51 pm

    Too bad they didn't go with 塞百味- stuffed with a hundred flavors ;P

  5. Mark S. said,

    April 20, 2018 @ 5:50 am

    A few years ago some Western tourists here in Taiwan asked me where the subway was. I gave them directions to a Subway sandwich shop not far away. It wasn't until a few minutes later that I realized that probably wan't what they wanted. (Sorry about that, guys.)

    In metropolitan Taipei the linguistic habits for these terms are as follows.
    When speaking in English, the subway system is "the MRT" and a Subway sandwich shop is "Subway."
    When speaking in Mandarin, the subway system is the "jiéyùn" and a Subway sandwich shop is usually "Subway." Most Subway stores here don't have anything but the English name on their signage. I looked around on Google Images and found a few that also included "潛艇堡" (qiántǐng bǎo / submarine sandwiches) and "沙拉" (shālā / salads); but those refer just to the food, not to the name of the store.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    April 20, 2018 @ 7:16 am

    Some suggestions from bilingual Chinese graduate students for how the name Sàibǎiwèi 赛百味 (lit., "compete / contend hundred flavors") might be translated into English:

    1. "more tasty / tastier than a hundred flavors combined"

    2. "Best Flavor of All"

    3. "Surmounting a Hundred Flavors"

    One of them said that she thinks "it's such a genius translation!"

  7. Ellen K. said,

    April 20, 2018 @ 1:05 pm

    赛 is a verb here, "better than".

    I don't follow. "Better than" isn't a verb". "Better" can be a verb, but not followed by "than". "Better" in "better than" is an adjective.

  8. Moa said,

    April 20, 2018 @ 4:25 pm

    I think the idea is that "sài" is a verb in Mandarin Chinese, not in English. Not that I know how to see the difference between verbs and adjectives in Chinese.

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