Unexpected "English Word of the Day"

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On February 19, I received this notice from Oxford Dictionaries:

English Word of the Day from
Oxford Dictionaries

Your word for today is:


a Chinese unit of distance, equal to about 0.5 km (0.3 mile)

Click on the word to see its full entry, including example sentences and audio pronunciation.

This is an odd thing to have for the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Day.

… the Republic of China of Chiang Kai-shek… adopted the metric system in 1928. The Republic of China (now also known as Taiwan) continues not to use the li at all but only the kilometer (Chinese: 公里, gongli, lit. "common li").

Under Mao Zedong, the People's Republic of China reinstituted the traditional units as a measure of anti-imperialism and cultural pride before officially adopting the metric system in 1984. A place was made within this for the traditional units, which were restandardized to metric values.


The Chinese on the mainland also customarily say "gongli", not just "li", and by "gongli" (lit., "common / public li") they mean "kilometer".  In rural, remote areas, some people may refer to just "li", but it has now been restandardized as half a kilometer.

To show how complicated the changeover from traditional Chinese units of measurements to metric units can be, these remarks by one of my graduate students from the PRC are instructive:

One 公里 is one kilometer. But if we take away its prefix gong 公, li is also a unit of distance (1 li= 500m), but most of my cohorts don't use li anymore. We grew up using "meter" and "kilometer", as instructed by our math teachers.

Another similar case to 里 is mu 亩 which is the unit of area often used by my grandparents' generation, corresponding to 1/15 ha, about 666.7m2.  We grew up using  square meter and square kilometer, but still sometimes employ gongmu 公亩 and gongqing 公顷 (qing is a traditional unit of area, =100 mu, or 66,666.6667 m2) to mean 100 square meters and 100 gongmu (10,000 square meters). It is a bit confusing, but the benefit of gongmu and gongqing is that they mediate square meter and square kilometer by adding intermediary 100 square meters and 10,000 square meters.  It needs to be noted that in China we normally don't use the short scale as the number naming system: US's short scale is based on powers of one thousand. For instance, thousand, million (a thousand thousands), billion (a thousand million). We are more used to powers of ten, or a hundred, such as li 里, baili 百里, mu亩,baimu 百亩.

So the pattern is that mu is a classical unit of area, and then we add the prefix gong 公 to mu. As a result,  we have the international measuring scale of 100 square meters. Qing is a classical unit of area that used to mean 15 mu, and likewise, we add the prefix gong to qing. As a result, we have the international measuring scale of 10,000 square meters, also 0.01 square kilometer. Finally, li is a classical unit of distance, after prefixed with gong, it turns out to be the international measuring scale of 1,000 meters, also 1 kilometer.

A lot of math here, and perhaps that's why we nowadays seldom use li, mu, and qing.


There are so many Chinese words pronounced "li" (e.g., lì 利 ["profit; benefit; advantage; interest"], lǐ 理 ["reason; principle; truth; logic"], lǐ 禮 ["ceremony; ritual; rite; etiquette; propriety; manners"], lǐ 里 ["village; neighborhood; unit of length"], 厘 ["unit of length / weight / area; one thousandth of a yuan / RMB"]; a unit of monthly interest"], etc.) that, for translations from Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese texts, I felt the need to invent an English equivalent for the one indicating a unit of length, tricent ("a third of a mile [from Latin mīlia (passuum), a thousand (double paces), a Roman mile, pl. of mīlle, thousand]; roughly 300 paces"), rather than just transcribe it as "li".

I really don't understand what current, pressing need or demand there was to make "li" the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Day for February 19, 2019.  A century ago, perhaps yes, but not now.

[h.t. John Rohsenow; thanks to Qing Liao, Zeyao Wu, and Xiuyuan Mi]


  1. joanne salton said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 9:27 am

    It's an Official Scrabble Word and the sort of thing that pops up in many a crossword. It's a shame that such items are generally so arbitrary and outdated – the OED and Webster's should employ Mr.Mair to renew their list of exotic tit(or d!)bits.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 9:35 am

    @joanne salton

    You gave me a good laugh to start my day!

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 12:30 pm

    Sometimes pre-metric foreign units of measure are useful for modern Anglophones to know when they read literature in translation. For example, I picked up "verst" as a teenager because it was often left untranslated in English versions of old Russian novels. My vague memory is that it was longer than the "domestic" English mile, but wikipedia tells me it is shorter and indeed remarkably close to the kilometer in length, which must be a coincidence since however Western-oriented Peter the Great may have been when he standardized the verst's length, none of his Western advisers would have been fluent in the not-yet-invented metric system.

    But maybe the Scrabble-etc. usefulness of the li is a more likely account of why it was featured.

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 12:55 pm

    The li features regularly in the Kai Lung stories of Ernest Bramah.

  5. David Arthur said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 1:09 pm

    J.W. Brewer: On a similar note, I've seen translations of Swedish novels which translate the word 'mile' directly, without noting that the Swedish mile is 10 km long.

  6. Jake said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 1:23 pm

    Jin Yong's getting translated in the UK, and I think 'li' appears in those books.

  7. unekdoud said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 1:36 pm

    li also appears in several Chinese idioms/chengyu, as well as in the name of the Great Wall.

  8. Scott P. said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 2:28 pm

    Given that foreign words are not permitted in Scrabble, I am surprised that 'li' is considered acceptable — I would certainly not permit it in a friendly game. Sure, it might be rendered via transliteration in the English texts of certain Chinese literary works, but it hasn't been borrowed into English — it would never come up in a non-Chinese context, unlike other borrowings like strudel or coup d'etat which can be used outside their original cultures.

  9. Terpomo said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 2:32 pm

    Couldn't one just treat a li as a "Chinese mile" and translate it as such, given that the definition of "mile" and equivalents has varied significantly by time and place within the West?

  10. Ellen K. said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 2:54 pm

    Regarding "li" in Scrabble, of the 6 etymologies listed in Wikipedia, there are two that are not from Chinese, one a mathematical term, and one a part of solfeggio (1/2 step above la).

  11. Ellen K. said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 2:57 pm

    Correction, Wiktionary.

  12. Moa said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 4:09 pm

    Li also shows up in Swedish language crosswords sometimes, though I don't find it in the dictionary. I do appreciate when translations also translate / change the units to make them more comprehensible, instead of leaving a more or less exotic measurement literally translated.

  13. Jenny Chu said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 5:13 pm

    When I was a child, one of my favorite books was _Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies_, edited by Moss Roberts. People were always traveling "more than a li" or "more than 100 li" to accomplish various mighty deeds. It certainly would have been helpful if my dictionary at the time had been able to enlighten me about how long a "li" was supposed to be. As it turned out (in the pre-internet era), I was doomed to many more years of ignorance!

  14. Alex said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 6:38 pm

    Although I think "mala" should be an entry to describe the flavor, seeing "li" used shows me once again how readily English absorbs words. I'd imagine mala would catch on and spread very fast and be used.

    For burrito i get 卷 饼 juǎn bǐng

    feel free to look up tortillas and pancakes. (its the many times a year something happens to the internet where one cant use things to get to certain sites here)

    so without loan words everything a plain dull description.

    so pancakes etc one needs to add where it came from like what country and bing

    and then things like Pierogi i get jiaozi. I dont know which is worse loan words for food items or descriptive usage. With the thousands of ethnic food items this becomes clumsy and unscalable.

    Curious to know how Chinese expats feel when the return to China after living or studying abroad for many years.

  15. Kalle said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 9:48 pm

    I first read the word as Ii (uppercase i + lowercase i), a municipality in Finland.

  16. Sense Hofstede said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 10:28 pm

    Units of measurement are such interesting stores of historical legacy. In the Netherlands we entirely rely on the metric system now—apart from using 'pound' for 500 grammes when talking about babies' weight—but in Taiwan there is still an area unit derived from the Dutch 'morgen'.

    A 'morgen' ('morning') is the land a man could plow in one morning. On Taiwan is referred to as 甲 ('kah' in Taiwanese, 'jiǎ' in Mandarin) and according to Wikipedia it is 0.9699 ha.

  17. TZK said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 10:44 pm

    “Mu” seems to be going pretty strong still. At least I come across it all the time. Like if someone’s eyeballing the size of a factory or a real estate development or something big like that, I feel like they almost always use mu rather than pingmi or fanggongli or whatever. I think you even see it in newspapers and stuff sometimes although maybe I’m making that up.

  18. Alex said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 12:26 am

    Yes mu is definitely used in real estate like when a local gov says they will give you land. Its always in mu

  19. David Marjanović said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 4:42 am

    the benefit of gongmu and gongqing is that they mediate square meter and square kilometer by adding intermediary 100 square meters and 10,000 square meters.

    In other words, are and hectare! The hectare is very often used in German-speaking places.

  20. kou said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 6:42 am

    It my country Japan, one ri/一里 (more likely to be pronounced as "li") is 3.927 kilometers.

  21. Rodger C said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 8:15 am

    "Li" often used to be translated as "league," confusingly because an English league is about ten li. I once saw an old French map of China in a book, whose author was puzzled because the mapmaker had, he thought, underestimated the length of the Great wall in "lieues" by a factor of ten. Apparently one li was the only meaning of "league" that the author knew.

  22. krogerfoot said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 8:15 am

    Like a lot of Scrabble players, I learned in passing that LI was a Chinese unit of measure and promptly stopped caring what this highly useful two-point word meant. After moving to Japan, I was reintroduced to LI as the element @kou pointed out, which appears in place names such as Kujūkurihama 九十九里浜, which was first glossed to me as 99-Mile Beach.

  23. Philip Taylor said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 8:18 am

    Sense ("A 'morgen' ('morning') is the land a man could plow in one morning. On Taiwan [it] is referred to as 甲 ('kah' in Taiwanese, 'jiǎ' in Mandarin) and according to Wikipedia it is 0.9699 ha"). Then I cannot help but feel that the Wikipedia author was having a very bad day. To estimate the amount of land a man can plough in a morning to within 1/10 of an acre might just be possible; to attempt to estimate it to four places of decimals is just mathematical stupidity.

  24. Bathrobe said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 8:50 am

    Confusingly, Chinese uses both 公里 gōnglǐ 'metric li' and 千里 qiānlǐ 'thousand li' to refer to the kilometre. 千里 qiānlǐ is uncommon but still used.

  25. BobW said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 9:56 am

    @Alex – pancakes. One of my mother's staple meals when I was a kid in the 50's was "German Pancakes." I found examples in the net, but not like the ones she made. They were more like crepes that we rolled up around jam or poured syrup over. Since she was raised in Tennessee I have always wondered how she got the recipe and the name.

  26. Philip Taylor said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 10:12 am

    Bob — What you describe could be these, also labelled as "German pancakes".

  27. Not a naive speaker said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 3:21 pm

    Concerning the different length of miles in various countries an explanation is given in Gargantua and Pantagruel, Book 2 Chapter 23

    … and the cause wherefore the leagues are so short in France.

  28. Not a naive speaker said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 3:22 pm

    damn no preview


  29. Troy S. said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 4:15 pm

    I have not studied Chinese at all, but I am aware of the li because of two famous proverbs:

    "A journey of a thousand li starts with a single step." – Lao Tzu

    "An old war-horse may be stabled, yet still it longs to gallop a thousand li." – Cao Cao

  30. Victor Mair said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 7:23 pm

    MSM jiǎ 甲 (lit., "armor; shell", meanings that are irrelevant in the present discussion regarding the unit of land [area] measure under discussion) but pronounced "kah" in Taiwanese, which is how it comes to be used transcriptionally for Dutch "akker" ("field").

    Wiktionary (Etymology 2)

    The term being defined is Dutch "akker" ("field"). The reference to Dutch "morgen" ("morning") as the amount of land a man could plow during that time period is only a metaphorical approximation of "akker". No "mathematical stupidity" here. The Wikipedia article in question, "Taiwanese units of measurement", in its notes defining "kah" 甲, should say "Derived from Dutch akker", not "Derived from Dutch Morgen", but this is an error or misunderstanding based on their source, not made by the Wikipedia editors themselves.

    See Tonio Andrade, How Taiwan Became Chinese: Dutch, Spanish, and Han Colonization in the Seventeenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), "Appendix A: Weights, Measures, and Exchange Rates", where "kah" 甲 is indeed equated to "morgen".

    As for the etymology of "akker" and its relationship to English "acre", the following information may be of interest:


    From Middle Dutch acker, from Old Dutch akker, from Proto-Germanic *akraz, from Proto-Indo-European *h₂éǵros.



    From the American Heritage Dictionary Appendix of Indo-European Roots:



    Field. Probably a derivative of ag- . Oldest form *ag̑ro‑, becoming *agro‑ in centum languages.

    acre, from Old English æcer, field, acre, from Germanic *akraz.
    aerie, agrarian; agriculture, peregrine, pilgrim, from Latin ager (genitive agrī), earlier *agros, district, property, field.
    agria, agro-; agrostology, onager, stavesacre, from Greek agros, field, and agrios, wild.

    [In Pokorny ag̑‑ 4.]

    See also The Free Dictionary.

    Online Etymology Dictionary:


    acre (n.)

    Old English æcer "tilled field, open land," from Proto-Germanic *akraz "field, pasture" (source also of Old Norse akr, Old Saxon akkar, Old Frisian ekker, Middle Dutch acker, Dutch akker, Old High German achar, German acker, Gothic akrs "field"), from PIE root *agro- "field."

    "[O]riginally 'open country, untenanted land, forest'; … then, with advance in the agricultural state, pasture land, tilled land, an enclosed or defined piece of land" [OED]. In English at first without reference to dimension; in late Old English the amount of land a yoke of oxen could plow in a day, afterward defined by statute 13c. and later as a piece 40 poles by 4, or an equivalent shape [OED cites 5 Edw. I, 31 Edw. III, 24 Hen. VIII]. The older sense is retained in God's acre "churchyard." Adopted early in Old French and Medieval Latin, hence the Modern English spelling, which by normal development would be *aker (compare baker from Old English bæcere).


  31. Joshua K. said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 11:37 pm

    @Moa: While American crossword puzzle makers have been known to use all kinds of obscure words when needed to fill a grid, they normally can't use LI, because in mainstream American crossword puzzles all answers must be at least 3 letters long.

  32. D.O. said,

    March 6, 2019 @ 9:55 am

    The journey of thousand li begins with the first step.

    I see that it is "miles" in English, which is logical, but less flavorful. I now looked it up and the true Chinese proverb is even more interesting "The journey of thousand li begins under one's feet"

  33. Moa said,

    March 6, 2019 @ 1:34 pm

    @ Joshua K
    The Swedish crosswords are a thing of their own, dissimilar to American or UK crosswords. In Swedish crosswords there is a great need for keys to short words. Of course, the chemical elements (lithium) is also a great source.

  34. joanne salton said,

    March 7, 2019 @ 11:09 am

    I would read the "zu xia" "Foot Down" part of


    (Qiānlǐ zhī xíng, shǐyú zú xià; literally: 1000 li of journey – Starts Upon Foot Down/Beneath

    as putting a foot down rather than beneath the foot, but I could be mistaken.

  35. Mary Kuhner said,

    March 8, 2019 @ 7:59 pm

    I grew up in an academic family and was a voracious reader of both US and UK books. As a result I grew up with a set of length words that went, as best as I can reconstruct: millimeter (which meant "really small"), inch, foot, yard, block (city block, estimated at 12/mile), mile, league (I was dimly aware that this word could mean more than one thing, but bigger than a mile, anyway), light year, parsec!

    I probably had centimeter and meter placed roughly adjacent to inch and yard. I did not have kilometer, though, and had to painfully learn that as an adult (I still am very bad at estimating them).

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