Pawn shops must sell when the items

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Joe Abley is in Beijing this week attending the 46th ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) meeting, and this sign appears in the window of one of the polished, expensive-looking boutiques within the Beijing International Hotel:

This would appear to be a robot translation derived from a slight rearrangement of a word-for-word rendering:

diǎndàng háng 典当行 ("pawn business/firm")

jué 绝 ("must")

dāng 当 ("when")

wùpǐn 物品 ("items")

xiāoshòu 销售 ("sell")

diàn 店 ("shop")

What the sign really says is this:

diǎndàng háng 典当行 ("pawn shop")

juédàng wùpǐn xiāoshòu diàn 绝当物品销售店
("shop for the sale of goods that have been forfeited because the contract deadline has expired")

Character-by-character, that is:

jué 绝 ("cut off; sever")

dàng 当 ("pawn")

wù 物 ("thing")

pǐn 品 ("article")

xiāo 销 ("sell")

shòu 售 ("sell")

diàn 店 ("shop")

Each of these characters has many possible meanings, especially the first and second ones, but I've chosen only the meaning that is most appropriate for this sentence.

In premodern China, as revealed in traditional fiction, pawn shops were called dàngpù 当铺, and the goods in them were divided into huódàng 活当 ("live pawn", which could be redeemed by the original owner) and sǐdàng 死当 ("dead pawn", which could no longer be bought back by the original owner). The traditional sǐdàng 死当 ("dead pawn") was like the modern term juédàng 绝当 ("severed / terminated / cut-off pawn") discussed above.

[Thanks to Gianni Wan, Cao Lin, and Cheng Fangyi]


  1. julie lee said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 11:50 am

    I love this use of jue絕 "terminated" "final" "absolute" and si死"dead", as in "terminated pawn" or "dead pawn" in the sense of final and absolute.
    In English we have a similar usage in "dead letter" (letter that can't be delivered), "deadline", "dead set", "dead on", "deadbeat", "dead against", …..

  2. Not a naive speaker said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

    I enjoy these »Lost in Translation« entries.
    There is a question: how long does it take a reader to take to parse a string of hanzi and insert word boundaries? How often to you have to backtrack?

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 1:30 pm

    Also, the "mort" in mortgage, although the etymology (via Law French where mort = dead) is presumably opaque to the typical modern user so the oddness/fitness of the frozen metaphor need never be considered.

  4. maidhc said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 7:38 pm

    These explanations are very interesting, but it makes me think that though I might be able to learn a "little bit" of, say, Portuguese or Swedish, it would be very hard to get a "little bit" of Mandarin.

  5. julie lee said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 9:38 pm

    J.W. Brewer,

    How interesting the "mort" in mortgage means "dead"! i'm on a trip, so don't have a dictionary on hand. What's the meaning of "=gage" in "mortgage"? I know enough French to know "mort" means "dead", but never made the connection in the word "mortgage".

    [(myl) The OED explains:

    Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman and Middle French mortgage, mort gage (1283 in Old French; also as gage mort (1267); French mort-gage (now arch.)) < mort mort adj. + gage gage n.1, after post-classical Latin mortuum vadium (from 12th cent. in British sources) < mortuum , accusative of mortuus dead (see mort adj.) + vadium pledge (see invadiate v.). Middle French mort gage < post-classical Latin morgagium (from 14th cent. in British sources), mortgagium (a1564 in a British source).

    For the explanation of the etymological meaning of the term current among 17th-cent. lawyers, compare the following (for the use of feoffor compare feoffor n. 2):

    1628   E. Coke 1st Pt. Inst. Lawes Eng. 205   It seemeth that the cause why it is called mortgage is, for that it is doubtful whether the Feoffor will pay at the day limited such summe or not, & if he doth not pay, then the Land which is put in pledge vpon condition for the payment of the money, is taken from him for euer, and so dead to him vpon condition, &c. And if he doth pay the money, then the pledge is dead as to the Tenant, &c.

  6. Mark P said,

    April 12, 2013 @ 10:19 am

    I am pretty sure I have heard the term "dead pawn" used to refer to Southwestern Indian jewelry, although less frequently than "old pawn". It's typically considered an indication that the jewelry was worn by Indians, which generally makes it more valuable.

  7. julie lee said,

    April 12, 2013 @ 10:19 am


    Thank you for the etymology. The parallel of French _mort-gage_ "dead pledge" with Chinese _si-dang_ "dead pawn" is fascinating.

  8. julie lee said,

    April 12, 2013 @ 11:10 am

    Not a native speaker:

    to an swer your ques tion. how long it takes a read er to in sert word boun dar ies de pends on his fa mil i a ri ty with chi nese gram mar and his know ledge of the vo ca bu la r y. nor mal ly quite quick ly, a few se conds. there are no ca pit al let ters. chi nese words are writ ten syl la ble by syl la ble just like this. each syl la ble is a cha rac ter.
    chi nese tends to be a ste no graph ic lang uage with lots of ab bre vi a tions so one has to of ten fill in the miss ing words which does n't make it any sim pler. punc tu a tion can be ca va lier or ca pri cious.

  9. Sam said,

    April 12, 2013 @ 10:25 pm

    julie lee,

    The analogy falls apart a little because you're not writing syllables there, you're writing the loose orthographic representations of syllables within specific words. For example, you have the letters "of" as pronounced two different ways, depending on whether it's the word "of" by itself or part of "often."

  10. Not a naive speaker said,

    April 13, 2013 @ 8:51 am

    thanks for the answers.

    must feel like reading a car classified ad (I think I' exaggerating). But I got the message.

  11. julie lee said,

    April 13, 2013 @ 11:18 am

    Sam, thanks for point out the insufficiency of my analogy. True, figuring out the Chinese is quite a bit more difficult than figuring out the English the way I've represented. It's the nature of the characters, and much else, which I haven't explained.

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