"Lie Fallow Small And Pave"

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Murray Clayton, a statistician from the University of Wisconsin, sent in this photograph of a sign on the Tamsui Fisherman's Wharf in Taiwan:

(Click to embiggen.)

What the Chinese sign actually says is xiūjiān xiǎo zhàn 休间小站 / 休間小站, which may be rendered as "Little Leisure Station / Stop". So how did the translator arrive at the whimsical rendering "Lie Fallow Small And Pave"?

One can explain the first three English words as having been derived from the corresponding Chinese characters:

xiū 休 ("rest")

xián ("without anything to do; idle; fallow")

xiǎo 小 ("small; little")

But zhàn 站 really throws us for a loop, since it normally means "stand; stop; halt; station". It is a mystery how the translator got from there to "pave".

The usual Chinese equivalent of English "pave" is pù 铺, so it is hard to imagine how there could be phonetic or graphic confusion between that and zhàn 站 ("stand; stop; halt; station").

There is, however, another explanation for how one might get from zhàn 站 to "pave".

The word for paving brick in Mandarin is zhuān 砖. It is conceivable that, if any stage of the translation process were done orally, zhuān 砖 ("paving brick") might have been mistakenly substituted for zhàn 站 ("station; stop"). Even if the communication were being carried out orally in Taiwanese rather than in Mandarin, the same mix-up could have occurred: tsuan / tsng / chng 磚 ("paving brick") being substituted for tsām / chām 站 ("station; stop").

[With thanks to Melvin Lee and Sophie Wei]


  1. DL said,

    April 19, 2012 @ 4:30 am

    I feel like I must point out that the second character is 閒 not 間 (meaning 'leisure/idle' and not 'between/among'; the character in the middle is the one for 'moon' not 'sun/day')… hence the translation into fallow (well okay I still find it amazing, but at least it's better than 'and pave' for 站).

    [VHM: The first two characters on the sign are indeed xiūxián 休閒 and that word does mean "leisure". I've changed the post to reflect what must be the intended meaning of the shop name. The problem is that the three characters 間 and 閒, on the one hand, and 閒 and 閑, on the other hand, are used interchangeably, with 閒 overlapping between the two pairs. This may have led to part of the confusion in the present instance (though, as you say and as I originally pointed out, rendering the last character as "pave" is truly horrendous).

    So we are basically dealing with three pronunciations:

    jiān (the first pair of characters) — between, among; within a definite place / time / group; room, shop; measure word for a room

    jiàn (the first pair of characters) — opening; space in between; estrangement; separate; disconnect; sow discord

    xián (the second pair of characters) — without anything to do; idle; fallow; having nothing to do with the business at hand]

  2. richard howland-bolton said,

    April 19, 2012 @ 6:08 am

    "Lie Fallow Small And Pave"

    Sheer poetry.

    I may make it my motto (or at least add it to my sig block).

  3. Bruce Rusk said,

    April 19, 2012 @ 7:06 am

    Surely the most puzzling word here is "and," which indicates that the translator attempted to create syntactically coherent English, rather than just a word-by-word (character-by-character) translation. The "and" does not correspond to anything in any possible reading of the sign.

  4. marc said,

    April 19, 2012 @ 7:29 am

    These posts on small matters of Chinese translation / etymology / usage that you do from time to time are sheer joy. Thank you so much for taking the time and for sharing! They are a bright spot in the day!

  5. Eric said,

    April 19, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

    Perhaps 'pave' is coming from the 廣場 (guǎngchǎng 'public square, arena') on the top of the sign? 'Pave' is not an obvious translation of 廣場, and since 'pave' seems like a verb, it makes it even less likely that it comes from 廣場. Still, this derivation might also explain the need for 'and.' I don't find it a very satisfying explanation, but thought I'd share anyhow.

  6. Ben said,

    April 19, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

    Weird because if you google 休閒小站, you get a chain of stores' website, called "Easy Way," which makes more sense. Maybe the place is a knock-off so they wanted to make their own hilarious translation!

  7. Victor Mair said,

    April 19, 2012 @ 5:28 pm

    @Bruce Rusk

    I would have to agree with you. That "and" really puzzled me too. Where the heck did the translator get it? Even though it's just the simplest of conjunctions, its appearance in the penultimate position evinces syntactic sophistication, or at least syntactic aspiration. This is not the sort of thing that your typical translation software is going to come up with.

  8. Observation said,

    April 20, 2012 @ 6:55 am

    Mr Mair, I love your Chinglish posts. In my opinion, it may be that the translator looked up '鋪' in a dictionary, meaning to look for '鋪' in '店鋪' (with the fourth tone) but ending up with '鋪' in '鋪滿' (first tone) instead. It is a wild explanation at best, but it is not impossible.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    April 20, 2012 @ 6:48 pm


    First of all, I want to thank you and the others who have expressed appreciation for my humble posts. It is because of the approbation of people like yourselves that I continue to write them.

    Secondly, I think that your explanation of what happened is not at all wild. In fact, I consider it to be so good that I'm going to give it the full Mair treatment here.

    The graph 鋪 has two separate, but cognate, readings:

    pū — spread, unfold; pave

    pù — shop, store (because in earlier times such establishments were considered as being spread out along the street / road); courier station in premodern China (this usage survives as the final syllable in certain place names, e.g., Shílǐpù 十里铺 ["the courier / post station ten li along the way {a li is about a third of a mile, hence we may refer to it as a 'tricent'}, Sānshílǐpù 三十里铺 "the courier post / station thirty li along the way"],and so forth).

    These two morphemes survive in the disyllabic noun diànpù 店鋪 ("shop, stall, store" and in the resultative construction pūmǎn 鋪滿 "[the ground / floor] is covered with; full of; pave completely).

  10. Victor Mair said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 12:53 am

    After writing the previous comment, I thought of the fact that the Mandarin word zhàn 站 with the meaning of "station" is actually a borrowing from Mongolian jam, which signified a postal station in the courier system of the Yuan Dynasty (and more broadly the Mongol empire).

    The graph zhàn 站 appeared relatively late, not showing up among the seal forms of the characters, but existing already well before Mongol times with the meaning of "stand; stop". It was during the period of the Mongol empire (1206-1368) that the meaning of "station" was grafted onto zhàn 站 (N.B.: in many topolects reflecting older stages of Sinitic, 站 is pronounced with a final -m).

    Now, as discussed in the previous comment, pù 鋪 can also mean "courier / post station", but pù 鋪 is a much earlier character than zhàn 站, since it is found already in bronze inscriptions, though not in oracle bone inscriptions, the oldest form of Chinese writing (about 3,200 years ago). Thus, we have a dual vocabulary for "post / courier station" in Chinese: Sinitic pù 鋪 and Mongolic zhàn 站.

  11. David Moser said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 1:09 am

    "Lie Fallow Small And Pave", poetry indeed! Sounds like Gertrude Stein! I second (or third, or fourth) the motion that the trustworthy and tireless Victor Mair is a treasure when it comes to these blog posts! And he realizes that in these Chinglish examples can be found a microcosm of all that this interesting and important in semantics and all of language use. I love this stuff, in all its geeky glory.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 10:32 am

    From Peter Golden, commenting on Victor Mair re: Mandarin zhàn 站 ("station") < Mongolian jam ("courier / post station"): Very interesting - and plausible. Clauson (Etym. Dict. 933, and Doerfer, TMEN IV:110-118) considered it a Chinese loan into Turkic, without offering any argumentation. Starostin (in the Etym. Dict. of the Altaic Langs., II:1012) rejects a Chinese origin and derives it from Altaic *ńi̯àmi "trace" > Proto-Tung. *ńiam- "old trace," Proto-Mong. *ǯim "path, trace," Proto-Turk. *jam "post station." Pulleyblank included it in his Lexicon, but Schuessler (to my surprise) does not have it – or perhaps I have not looked carefully enough. The pros and cons as to whether ǯam was borrowed into Turkic with the regular shift of Mong. ǯ > Turk. y, or the reverse have been argued for some time, cf. A.M. Shcherbak, Rannie tiurksko-mongol'skie iazykovye sviazi (VII-XIV vv.), Sankt-Peterburg: Institut lingvisticheskikh issledovanii, 1997: 195 and his Tiurksko-mongol'skie iazykovye kontakty v istorii mongol'skikh iazykov, Sankt-Peterburg: Nauka, 2005:66, where he ultimately decided that it was neither of Turkic or Mongol origin, but seems to have entered Mongol via Turkic; Zh. K. Tuimebaev, Kazakhsko-mongol'skie leksicheskie paralleli (Moskva: Parad, 2005): 174-178, has a thorough discussion, concluding that it is a Chinese loanword into Middle Mongol (12th-13th cent.) ǯam, and thence into Qïpchaq Turkic, yam, from which it entered Russian (iam). The reality is that there is no firm consensus.

    A.V. Dybo (one of the late Sergei Starostin's co-authors of the Etym. Dict. of Altaic Langs, which has been negatively reviewed by a goodly number of people who contest this or that etymology, sometimes rightly so, sometimes not, nonetheless, the three volumes contain an enormous amount of comparative material and has to be consulted whether one is an "Altaisist" or "anti-Altaisist") has a very interesting book, Lingvisticheskie kontakty rannikh tiurkov. Lekisicheski fond (Moskva: Vostochnaia Literatura RAN, 2007) which I have only recently been able to obtain. It is a very substantial work with lots of information on Chinese-Turkic contacts in what is perhaps best described as the Proto-Turkic or very Archaic Turkic period. She is still using Karlgren GSR, which can be problematic, but just a quick perusal (I have yet to really get into the meat of the book) shows a lot of interesting material.

  13. Heruler said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

    I have the same wild guess as Observation’s. In older usage of Taiwanese (Tw.), phò· 鋪 was a measure word for road length. One phò· is equal to 10 li. Thus káu-phò·-lō· 九鋪路 means a distance of 90 li along the road. However, this usage, preserved only in dictionaries, is rarely heard in Taiwan today. In Taiwanese the graphs 鋪 (with a 金‘gold, money’ radical) and 舖 (with a 舍‘hut’ radical) are interchangeable. The latter is commonly used in the disyllabic word tiàm-phò· 店舖‘shop, store’. And I suspect it is this tiàm-phò· 店舖 that the translator may have had in mind when he attempted to translate tsām 站‘station, stop’. The clue may lie in the extra “and”.

    As Bruce Rusk has mentioned, the “and” in the translation is most perplexing. My wild guess is that the translator may have been confused between Tw. tsām 站‘station, stop’ and Tw. tsham 參‘and’, the only difference between the two phonemes, ts and tsh, being aspiration. In Taiwanese there are a few words equivalent to English ‘and’, one of which is tsham 參, for example, Góa tsham lí khì (lit. I and you go) ‘I go with you.’

    As Mr. Mair mentions that tsām 站 is a loanword from Mongolian jam, I suspect that tsham 參 may be a loan from Germanic *sam- as in Old Norse (ON) saman, samt ‘together’ and New German zusammen ‘together’ (with a sound change of s- > tsh-).

    Furthermore, phò· 舖 (鋪) 'a board, store, shop' may also be a loan from ON borð or Old English bord ‘a board, plank’, a necessary piece of installation/furniture for a shop or store, much like the Old Italian banca ‘a moneychanger’s table’ which gave rise to the English word bank.

    The Latin equivalent for ON borð is tabula ‘a board, plank’. There is a correspondence between the word/syllable-final -b in European words and the -m in the same position in Taiwanese, for examples, L. libare ‘to drink’ > lib- > Tw. lim ‘to drink’; Late Latin abbatia ‘abbey’ > ab- > Tw. am 庵‘a convent’; L. obruō ‘to cover’ > ob- > Tw. om (掩?) ‘to cover’. Thus Tw. tiàm-phò· 店舖‘store, shop’ can be derived from ON borð and L. tabula, forming a disyllabic word of pleonastic nature. It’s possible that Tw. tiàm 店 may be directly derived from the first syllable tab- of L. taberna ‘a shop, stall’.

    Now back to Tw. phò· 鋪 as a measure word for road length. In Tw as well Chinese, measure words are often synonyms of the nominal words for the counted items. Here, ON braut ‘road’, with a common sound change au > o, may become the loan for phò· 鋪.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    April 22, 2012 @ 12:10 am

    From Thomas Allsen:

    Over fifty years ago Serruys addressed this question and came to the convincing conclusion that Chinese zhan derives from Mongolian jam. His main evidence is that early Song envoys to the Mongols (1230s) use the character zhan, "to dip" (Matt. # 145) in refering to the Mongol post. Only later in the Yuan, he points out, did the character zhan, "station" (Matt. #128) become standard, probably because its meaning was so readily associated with travel, stages of a journey and stopping places. See MONUMENTA SERICA, 16 (1957), pp. 146-48.

    Furthermore, a form of the word jamchin, "head of a relay station," is found in the Chinese sources of the Tuoba Wei and is treated there as a foreign, non-Chinese word (together with a second term relating to the operation of the post, also known in 13 th century Mongolian). See Ligeti in Ligeti, ed., MONGOLIAN STUDIES (Amsterdam, 1970), pp. 293-96 and Vovin in MONGOLIAN STUDIES, v. 29 (2007), pp. 194-95.

    So, whatever its etymology, jam has been around for a long time and used by Inner Asians to designate a key postal relay official. In my view, to return to the formula Chinese zhan gave rise to Mongol jam, one would need to prove that the character zhan, "station," was used in Northern Wei times as the standard Chinese term for "postal station."

  15. John Hill said,

    April 22, 2012 @ 2:45 am

    Dear Victor:

    How do these terms – pù 铺 and zhàn 站 – relate to the terms ting 亭 and zhi 置 as used in the Hou Hanshu and the Weilüe?

    Basically, I have translated the latter two in the following manner:

    A ting 亭 in China was basically a shed or simple lodge for travellers to stop at, which I have called a ‘stage,’ and a zhi 置 was a ‘postal station’ or inn that could provide shelter, fresh horses, food and supplies.

    How would they relate to the pù 铺 and zhàn 站? Are any of them equivalent/synonyms? Do they have different shades of meaning?

    I would be very grateful indeed for any comments.


    John Hill

  16. Endymion Wilkinson said,

    April 22, 2012 @ 3:13 am

    Re ZHAN 站 (epecially Peter Golden and Victor Mair's posts).
    1) Another word in Chinese for post station was zhuanshe 傳舍, which some have posited was the origin of Mongolian jamchi (transcribed in Song Yuan times at first as zhanchi 蘸赤 and then simplified as zhanchi 站赤).
    There are other examples of contested "origins" of words like these that flew back and forth across the northern borders of China. We shall probably never pin down a single "origin." Rather than trying to we should go back to the origins of the institution itself. In this case the Persian empire and see if there is any plausible relay of the word or words for post station (and for post station workers) across the Euroasian continent and back and forth over the borders and between languages.
    2) By the late 14th century, Chinese officials had no doubt zhan was a Mongolian word. The Ming founder, Zhu Yuanzhang proscribed its use and urged officials to return to classical Chinese yi 驛.

  17. Jonathan Skaff said,

    April 22, 2012 @ 9:54 am

    I can confirm that zhan 站 does not appear in Tang official usage. Relay stations were called yi 驛 in received central government records. In the provincial documents excavated at Turfan in the Tang northwest, they also were termed yi 驛 in the seventh century, but the usage changes to guan 館 by the eighth century. Yi 驛 highlights the function of the stations as communication hubs, while guan 館 demonstrates that they offered lodging to official travelers. It is not clear whether the change in nomenclature at Turfan was related to any actual shift in the operation of stations.

  18. Alan Shaw said,

    April 22, 2012 @ 5:30 pm

    I love the way the path from a single phrase can meander into Sinological explorations far removed from the Relaxation Station!

  19. Victor Mair said,

    April 22, 2012 @ 7:47 pm

    More from Peter Golden:

    Tom's sources are certainly the best and point to a Mongolic ("Para-Mongolic") provenance with regard to Chinese and Turkic. Vovin's suggestion that it can be found in Tuoba/Tabghach (*γiam), most probably a "Para-Mongolic" language, would probably idicate one possible point of entry into Chinese. The parallel phonetic development of Old "Para-Mongolic"/Mongolic *γi/gi > ǯ and Chinese tr [?] γe [?] to zh ( 站 Pulleyblank: 397 : EMC trǝɨmh /trɛ:mh , LMC tra:m`, Yuan tʂam`) needs to be explained (at least to me). Vovin has 咸 xián in his Tabghach example, in EMC hɛm, according to him, in Pulleyblank:335 咸 xián E γǝɨm/γɛ:m L xɦja:m Y xjam', either of which from a Mongolic point of view is easier to deal with. An etymology remains elusive. Starostin et al.'s suggestion is interesting, but not conclusive. Indeed, there is no clear indication that our word (which most probably entered Chinese through an Inner Asian, probably Altaic language, perhaps Tabghach, perhaps later) is necessarily Mongolic/"Para-Mongolic" in origin. I would be very curious to know if there are Xiongnu parallels (although Xiongnu linguistic affiliations are yet another Pandora's box). It should also be borne in mind that this institution is very much one of empire and long-distance trading enterprises. Both need reliable and accurate modes of information relays. One may wonder whether such institutions, known already to the Achaemenids (if I remember Dvornik's interesting tome on the Origins of Intelligence Services correctly [the book needs to be reprinted. Rutgers University Press published it and promptly buried it – alas]!) and the transfer of the concept such institutions (not necessarily accompanied by a loanword, but one might look for one anyhow) from Iran to the steppe is hardly an impossibility.
    By the way, Clauson (quite unlike him) does not cite a source for his pre-13th cent. Turkic yam. It is probably a "ghost." Yam is not noted anywhere else as a pre-13th century (i.e. pre-Chinggisid) term (cf. Hatice Şirin User, Köktürk ve Ötüken Uygur Kağanlığı Yazıtları (Konya: Kömen, 2010) and not in Nadeliaev et al. Drevnetiurkskii slovar'). Kâshgharî (1070s) knows Turkic yam only as "mote, speck." The term appears to have entered Turkic in the Mongol era. Old Anatolian Turkish knows it ( Mehmet Kanar, Eski Anadolu Türkçesi Sözlüğü (Istanbul: Say Yayınları, 2011: 731) first mentioned in the 14th century work Süheyl ü Nev Bahâr.

  20. Peter said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 4:08 am

    At first I was going to compliment Heruler on being such an insanely clever troll. Then I looked at the linked blog.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 9:19 pm

    from Peter Golden:

    I still have my suspicion that ǯam ("road, route, way") is a loanword in Mongol (and not from Chinese or Turkic). It is not very productive in Mongol, cf. only ǯamči "guide, scout" and ǯamna- "to follow a road, to go frequently along the same road" (these definitions are from Lessing). Curiously, De Rachewiltz in his translation with extensive commentary of the the Secret History, II:1027, repeats the Chinese origin of the term in Mongol.

  22. Bayasgalan said,

    February 23, 2014 @ 5:34 am

    dear Victor,

    I ensure that your translation on jam or zam is correct. Because i am Mongolia. Zhang (actually zam) means "road, way" in Mongolian.

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