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From a correspondent in Taiwan who wishes to remain anonymous:

Sometimes the word 'taikonaut' will be seen in news articles about PRC astronauts. This cuto-chinoiserie is really stupid. The premise seems to be that since Russian astronauts are called cosmonauts, PRC astronauts ought to have a special name too.

So, from  tàikōngrén ('spaceman') is devised the word taiko[ngren] + naut = taikonaut

But, In China an astronaut is no more called a 'spaceman' than he is in the US. An astronaut is either a hángtiānyuán or less frequently and more old fashioned, a yǔhángyuán . The second is itself actually a translation of 'astronaut/cosmonaut', so there are really no operations of the desired type that could be performed on it. The first could be rendered  celestonaut or uranonaut. But idiocy is not that intelligent.

The -naut portion of all these English technical terms comes from the Greek nautēs ("sailor").

Syllable by syllable, the Chinese words may be broken down thus:

tàikōngrén 太空人 highest – emptiness – man

hángtiānyuán 航天员 sail/navigate – sky – person/member

yǔhángyuán 宇航员 universe – sail/navigate – person/member


  1. mgh said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 7:10 am

    This made me try to find who coined "cosmonaut" —
    New York Times, April 13 1961
    Russians Coin a Word for Him: "Cosmonaut"
    MOSCOW, April 12 (AP) —
    Premier Khrushchev and Soviet publications came up with "cosmonaut" today to describe their space man. That combines "cosmos" with a syllable from "astronaut."
    Astronaut still seems to fit, however, because astronautics has long been defined as the science dealing with the possibility of interplanetary space travel.
    "Astro" is from the Greek word for stars. "Naut" is from nautics, the art of navigation.

    (of possible note — first, whether the name is coined by the culture itself [cosmonaut] or imposed on it by another culture [taikonaut]; second, that the article does use "space man", although perhaps only as a device to avoid too many "astronaut"s.)

  2. Neil Tarrant said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 7:33 am

    I've always been quite disappointed that Europe hasn't had a word for our own spacemen (although I believe as we have no native manned launch ability yet, all Europeans have been either astronauts or cosmonauts).

    I think I internally coined the word 'Esanaut' from ESA, the European Space Agency, and the -naut suffix, but a quite google search shows at least a single use of the term in an appropriate context.

  3. Keith Ivey said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 7:47 am

    Even if "taikonaut" were "coined by the culture itself", it would be a step in the wrong direction to bring it into English. Instead we should abandon the cold war term "cosmonaut" and use "astronaut" for everyone. It's silly to invent a new word every time a new country launches someone into space. We don't have special terms to replace, say, "sailor" or "pilot" depending on what country the person is from.

  4. Martin J Ball said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 8:09 am

    A Neil Tarrant: "all Europeans have been either astronauts or cosmonauts" – Crikey, they appeared to have passed me by…. ;)

  5. Pete said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 8:21 am

    According to Wikipedia, the Chinese government uses the term astronaut in their English-language texts, and космонавт in Russian.

    This appears to check out: English; Russian.

    So it seems taikonaut really is a concoction of the Western media.

  6. Erik R. said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 8:28 am

    This reminds me of one of my favorite Spanish words: internauta, meaning someone who navigates the internet like an astronauta navigates the stars.

  7. Johanne D said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 8:39 am

    See also "Les Bidochon internautes" for a chosen example of use in French

  8. Victor Mair said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 8:49 am


    "So it seems taikonaut really is a concoction of the Western media."

    In fact, it was coined by an overseas Chinese in Malaysia. ……… ah, there is even a Wikipedia article about it:
    http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/taikonaut .

    The inventor is likely someone obsessed with "roots" (the ethnic, not the lexical kind) and his English and/or Malay is much better than his Chinese.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 8:57 am

    Looking up "astronaut" in Wikipedia and then clicking to some other languages, I see that in both the Russian and the Nynorsk articles — the only two I looked at — "taikonaut" is taken seriously. This is rather disappointing.

    For example : 'Космона́вт, или астрона́вт, или тайкона́вт, — человек, проводящий […].'

    And in the Nynorsk:

    Variantar av ordet

    Engelsk: astronaut (frå gr. astron, «stjerne», og lat. nauta, «sjømann»)
    Russisk: kosmonaut (frå gr. kosmos, «verdsaltet», og naves, «sjømann»)
    Fransk: spationaut (frå lat. spatium «rommet» og gr. nautes, «sjømann»)
    Kinesisk: taikonaut (frå kin. taikong, «verdsrommet», og lat. nauta, «sjømann»)

  10. Pete said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 9:01 am

    @Neil Tarrant: Apparently the word for a French astronaut is spationaut (spationaute in French), and apparently it's also colloquially used for European astronauts in general. Whether it's actually used or not I don't know.

  11. Kris said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 9:09 am

    might this be a usage difference between China and Taiwan?

    From what I can see from Chinese web sources, 太空人 is a colloquial term used quite frequently, at least that's the impression I've always had. Glad to be corrected.

    For instance, here they define the word as "a colloquial term for 宇航员", and further down they quote a Chinese professor who hails the acceptance of the word taikonaut in the English language as a sign of China's growing global influence…

  12. Eric P Smith said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 9:28 am

    Generally I’m with Keith Ivey: it’s silly to invent a new word every time a new country launches someone into space.

    Yet different words have different overtones. It feels natural to me to call Yuri Gagarin an astronaut. It feels less natural to me to call Alan Shepard a cosmonaut. For me, 'astronaut' is the generic term while 'cosmonaut' is a Russian or Soviet term.

    It is often stated that there is only one lake in Scotland: The Lake of Menteith. I should rather say that there are hundreds of lakes in Scotland, but we call them lochs. But I should not say that there are hundreds of lochs in England.

    Likewise I feel comfortable in saying that there are several hurricanes each year in the Far East, and they call them typhoons. I feel less comfortable in saying that several typhoons each year hit the US coast.

    In each case there is a generic term and other, localised, terms. And the proliferation of new localised terms is to be discouraged.

  13. AG said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 9:30 am

    Eh. Why should we always be the sensitive side? Does the Chinese term for "America" reflect the complex etymological origins of the country's name?

    Does the Chinese term for any English word at all show any concern at all for phonetic or etymological fidelity?

  14. Ray Girvan said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 9:31 am

    The trouble with "taikonaut", for me, is that I can't see "taiko-" without it evoking a strong association with Japanese drumming.

  15. Theodore said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 9:32 am

    Seems like "taikonaut" should really be from Japanese + greek, and refer to the guy beating a drum on a ship to keep the oarsmen in rhythm.

  16. Jon Hanna said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 9:39 am

    We could just get rid of the silly "astronaut" and call American cosmonauts, "cosmonauts". The Cold War is meant to be over, after all.

  17. evilado said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 9:53 am

    Xinhua appears to prefer astronaut, but uses taikonaut from time to time.

  18. GeorgeW said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 9:55 am

    To add to the -naut and not -naut database, in Arabic the word would be fadaa'i (related to space).

    If an Arab country were to develop a manned space program they might feel compelled to coin something like fad'inaut.

  19. BZ said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 10:13 am

    Call this a peeve or whatever, but I would not use hurricane to describe a Typhoon. If I were looking for a neutral term, I'd say "tropical cyclone". On the other hand, I would use "hurricane-force winds" regardless of where they are occurring and even regardless of whether they come from a tropical cyclone at all. For example tornadoes can have hurricane-force winds.

    As for cosmonaut, it's a political thing, a holdover nowadays, so I don't see why new words need to be coined, especially if they're not coined in the country in question. Unless -naut is being reanalyzed as a suffix meaning astronaut.

  20. Rod Johnson said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 10:26 am

    Why don't we have country-based words for waiters, zookeepers, policemen, cellists or roustabouts?

  21. George Corley said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 10:38 am

    I'm not certain, but I could swear that I've seen 太空员 (not -人) in Chinese sources. In any case, I find nothing wrong with "taikonaut" and have used it myself. In fact, the coinage is kind of funny to me, the way 空 got shortened so that -naut would fit phonologically.

  22. Dan Hemmens said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 12:02 pm

    Eh. Why should we always be the sensitive side? Does the Chinese term for "America" reflect the complex etymological origins of the country's name?

    I'm not sure how this question is relevant. Nobody is suggesting that the correct term to use for Chinese space explorers is Universe-Navigation-Members. They're just suggesting that it's silly to invent a "Chinesey" sounding word and pretend that its the correct word for Chinese astronauts. Its got nothing to do with "sensitivity" and everything to do with not making factually incorrect claims about other people's languages.

    I'm also not sure where "sides" come into it. Even if the Chinese did have an incorrect nation-specific term for American space explorers (which they don't) it would be extraordinarily petty to respond in kind.

  23. Ray Girvan said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

    @Rod Johnson: Why don't we have country-based words for … policemen … ?

    I can think of "police officer", "gendarme" and "garda".

  24. Ray Girvan said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

    @Theodore: Japanese + greek

    Yes. "Taikonaut" = hortator / pausarius.

  25. Nathan said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

    @Rod Johnson: How about garçon and gendarme?

  26. Derek said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

    Kris: From what I can see from Chinese web sources, 太空人 is a colloquial term used quite frequently, at least that's the impression I've always had. Glad to be corrected.

    I have the exact same impression. Just because hángtiānyuán 航天员 may be the official term in the PRC nowadays, it doesn't preclude the average Joe from using tàikōngrén 太空人 in casual conversation.

    At any rate, the latter is still by far more common in Hong Kong. Even the HK media, which these days tends to go along with whichever term the Mainland government/press uses, still seems to prefer 太空人. I looked up TVB Hong Kong's evening newscast from the night of the liftoff, and while they used both 航天员 and 太空人, instances of the latter far outnumbered the former. It almost seems like they just threw in 航天员 every so often for the sake of variety.

    Off on a tangent for a bit: at the height of the HK exodus in the 1980s and 90s, Hong Kongers often used the term 太空人 to refer to the spouse (more often than not the husband) who stayed in HK to work while the rest of the family was in the US/Canada/Australia, and spent a lot of time flying back and forth between the two places. By extension, these families were known as 太空人家庭 ("astronaut families").

  27. Brett said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 12:59 pm

    @BZ: "Tropical cyclone" doesn't work for the (less common) storms in the southern hemisphere. It also fails to draw a distinction in terms of storm strength. I wish there were a blanket term for hurricane-force tropical storms anywhere in the world, but there does not seem to be.

    I also wish that there were only one term for space traveller. I used to suggest that we Americans should just own up to the fact that we didn't make it into space first and use the term "cosmonaut." But it was pointed out to me that this was rather unfair to Ham the chimpanzee, the first spacecraft passenger returned safely to Earth. But then why should coming back be a requirement to be labeled as a "astronaut" or "cosmonaut"? And the first (doomed) animal in space was Russian. Who has priority is not a trivial question.

  28. Sven said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

    @Ray, @Nathan: "Gendarme" is not a police officer. It is a member of the military charged with police duties.

  29. Ray Girvan said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 2:28 pm

    I was thinking Switzerland, not France: see Gendarmerie.

  30. naddy said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

    @Rod Johnson: I seem to remember from my Cold War-era Russian lessions that the Russian police was the militsiya, and politsiya was reserved for the oppressive forces of evil Western regimes.

  31. Eric Vinyl said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

    I'm surprised that someone cites Wikipedia, pointing out that Syīn Hwá uses "astronaut" in English and "космонавт" in Russian, while no one mentions two sentences later, where the article says that 太空人 (py:tàikōng rén, Yale Canto:taai hūng yàhn) is often used in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

    It's also odd that Professor Mair states his anonymous correspondent is from Taiwan (but not necessarily Taiwanese), as Google seems to think that 太空人 is way more common than 航天員 on sites within the .tw TLD. My guess is it's a Western 中文 student who learned the PRC word and is now all butthurt on behalf of the 漢人.

  32. Maureen said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 4:52 pm

    Cosmonauts and astronauts have two very different histories, and both traditions are equally strong and valid. So it's not surprising that both names should be kept up. Indeed, it would be an insult to both sets of dead to mash them up too indiscriminately.

    Meanwhile, I'm shocked that nobody has mentioned the wonderful anime/manga/live action series Space Brothers, which has tons and tons of examples of space word usage.

  33. The Ridger said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 5:12 pm

    Милиция (militsiya) was the Russian for their own police, an attempt to distinguish the Soviet police who were home-grown peace-keepers instead of tsarist thugs, but Medvedev ordered a name change last year. Now they're poлиция (politsiya), too.

    And while that may just be a cosmetic name change designed to try to get away from the bribery and corruption scandals of recent years, I for one am quite pleased with it. Now I no longer have to try to convince my students to translate милиция and милиционер as "police" and "police officer" instead of "militia" and "militiaman"…

  34. The Ridger said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

    Argh. Didn't change keyboards fast enough: poлиция should be полиция.

  35. maidhc said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 5:22 pm

    I recently read that the Indians are trying to come up with their own Sanskrit-based word.

  36. Nathan said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 6:17 pm

    @Sven: Both gendarme and garçon are used differently in English from the way they are in French.

  37. Ray Girvan said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 7:12 pm

    @Nathan: used differently in English

    That too. Very few English people (and I'm sure Americans are the same) perceive the French gendarme as belonging to a branch of the military. A gendarme is de facto a French policeman.

  38. Ray Girvan said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 7:17 pm

    @ The Ridger: Милиция

    As used by Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange as "millicent".

  39. Bathrobe said,

    June 23, 2012 @ 3:57 am

    @ Brett: 'Tropical cyclone' is precisely the term used in the Southern Hemisphere.

  40. Kris said,

    June 23, 2012 @ 4:51 am

    After reading Eric Vinyl's comment I actually went back and asked my Taiwanese friends. It seems that they disagree with the very premise of this blog enty, for them 太空人 is indeed the normal colloquial term for "astronaut".

    Regarding the Sanskrit term, I think it's "vyomanaut"


  41. Bob Violence said,

    June 23, 2012 @ 4:55 am


    I recently read that the Indians are trying to come up with their own Sanskrit-based word.

    The term vyomanaut (from Sanskrit vyoma "sky") appears to have been selected <A HREF="a couple of years back and has some currency among India's English-language media.

  42. Kris said,

    June 23, 2012 @ 5:51 am

    Since we're talking about Sanskrit/based terms, in Malay/Indonesian the term is angkasawan, sometimes rendered into English as "angkasanaut". This is based on Sanskrit ākāśa, which I think means "space".

  43. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 23, 2012 @ 11:05 am

    It seems the historical puzzle is why Anglophone writers/editors ubiquitously adopted "cosmonaut" rather than just rendering it in English as "astronaut," when they did not consistently, e.g., use "militiaman" instead of policeman when describing the Soviet variety.

  44. Eric Vinyl said,

    June 24, 2012 @ 11:06 am

    @J.W. Brewer,

    Because astronauts are a lot awesomer than police.

  45. J. Goard said,

    June 25, 2012 @ 1:58 am

    It's interesting that astronaut developed (apparently) by analogy with aeronaut, thus also astronautics — but the current situation seems to be that, though aeronaut is quaint and aeronautics common, astronaut is common and astronautics more or less jargon for those in the field.

  46. Ben said,

    June 27, 2012 @ 12:45 pm

    How about "hangtianaut?" Or go the other way, and call them "astroyuans."

  47. Matt McIrvin said,

    June 27, 2012 @ 2:53 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: I think it still comes down to the heightened sense of Cold War rivalry surrounding the 1960s Soviet and US space programs. It would make perfect sense to just say that "cosmonaut" is Russian for an astronaut, but when Yuri Gagarin went up, the fact that he was Soviet sparked an unusual amount of attention and even fear in the US, and what he was called was associated with that.

    What's blurring the boundaries now is that there is so much cooperation between the US and Russian programs, and that, for the time being, even Americans have to hitch rides on Russian spacecraft. In Cold War days, the Soviets sometimes carried riders from other nations, and for a while the convention in the American press seemed to be that anyone who rode on a Soyuz was a cosmonaut regardless of nationality. But these days US astronauts going to the space station ride a Soyuz up from Gagarin's Start at Baikonur and are still called astronauts.

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