General Tso's chikin

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The following photograph was taken at a Springfield, Massachusetts restaurant named "Nippon Grill and Seafood Buffet":

Preliminarily, we may note that the restaurant styles itself as "Nippon [not 'Nihon' or 'Japan'] Grill and Seafood Buffet", for which nomenclature see this recent Language Log post.

Although I've not been to the "Nippon Grill & Seafood Buffet", so I can't say for sure, but my guess is that — like most "Japanese" restaurants outside of Japan that I've been to in recent years — it is probably staffed, and maybe even owned, by Chinese.

Next, we need to get the name of this very common American Chinese dish straight. The Chinese version on the label is wrong on at least two major accounts, which I shall address after mentioning that the English given here, "General Tso's Chicken", is the most popular version among a dozen or so variants. I haven't seen anyone referring to it as "General Zuo's Chicken", à la Pinyin, but I'm sure that this new spelling must be popping up here and there, just as "Sichuanese" has been replacing earlier "Szechwanese".

There are two main variants of the name for this dish in Chinese:

1. Zuǒ Zōngtáng jī 左宗棠雞 (traditional characters) / 左宗棠鸡 (simplified characters) ("chicken à la Zuo Zongtang" OR "Zuo Zongtang's chicken") — Zuo Zongtang (1812-1885) was a famous statesman and military leader who, among many other outstanding accomplishments, put down the revolt of the Dungans, whom I wrote about here.

2. Zuǒ gōng jī 左公雞 (traditional characters) / 左公鸡 (simplified characters) — ("chicken à la His Honor Zuo" OR "His Honor Zuo's chicken")

This is the first time I've ever seen this dish referred to in Chinese as Zuǒ Zōng jī 左宗雞/鸡 ("Zuo Zong Chicken"). It should either be Zuǒ Zōngtáng jī 左宗棠雞/鸡 or Zuǒ gōng jī 左公雞/鸡, as explained in #1 and #2 just above.

The most intriguing error on the sign, however, is to write the word for "chicken" as 几 instead of as jī 雞/鸡.

几 has many possible meanings, but "chicken" is not one of them. Moreover, 几 is usually pronounced in the third tone as jǐ ("several; some; a few; how much; how many"), so the tone is not right for "chicken" (jī). Pronounced jī in the first tone, it can mean "a small, low table; almost; nearly; practically").

Although the chicken is a common animal, the traditional character for writing it is rather complicated, either 雞 or 鷄 (Japanese variant 鶏). It is no wonder that the simplifiers of the script reduced these forms to 鸡. That's not a very satisfactory simplification, however, because it's still not easy to write and because it lost the partial phonetic clue it had in xī 奚, replacing it with yòu 又, which is useless as a phonetic indicator.

We may refer to 几 in this instance as an ad hoc hyper-simplification of the traditional forms 雞 / 鷄, which were undoubtedly far beyond the grasp of the person who wrote this sign. Even the simplified form 鸡 seems to have eluded them.

Using 几 for 雞 / 鷄 / 鸡 in the Chinese name for General Tso's Chicken is interesting, because it "proves" once again that tones are often given short shrift (as we've seen recently here and here).

As a Chinese linguist said to me yesterday, "you could basically use a syllabary of some 400 simple characters to write EVERYTHING in Chinese. And if you can do it with a syllabary, then might as well use Pinyin."

This wouldn't be the first time that the copious Chinese characters have been reduced to a syllabary, since that is essentially what the famous nüshu 女書 ("Woman's Writing") of Jiangyong County in Hunan Province in southern China amounts to.

What the devisers of this script have done is take a severely limited set of Chinese characters that cover all the necessary syllables and stylize them in a rhomboidal form for use as a syllabary to write the sounds of their local dialect.

What 几 does is basically get across the idea that the final syllable of the dish named after Zuo Zongtang sounds like "ji" (which, in turn, sounds like "gee"). It is not clear about either the tone or the meaning of the syllable in question.

Naturally, in the countless other Sinitic topolects, jī 雞 / 鷄 / 鸡 has many other pronunciations. Here I will mention only Cantonese gai1 (sounds like "guy"), which will be familiar to those who frequent Chinatown restaurants. One might well ask how Mandarin jī and Cantonese gai1 are related and can both be legitimate pronunciations for 雞 / 鷄 / 鸡. Perhaps the simplest way to put it is that the evolution of jī from an earlier stage is part of the palatalization of the velars that started in the northeast over three centuries ago and is gradually moving southward, having reached about to the Yangtze River.

Whoever wrote 几 for 雞 / 鷄 / 鸡 on that sign at the Nippon Grill and Seafood Buffet was bearing witness to the primacy of sound over shape in writing systems. Sometimes Chinese characters are just too hard for people to write "correctly", in which case they simply write whatever they think sounds closest to what they want to say. Of course, the same thing happens in English and other languages too, which is why we have so many misspellings of "difficult" words.

[Photo taken by Joe Long and sent to me by Neil Kubler]



42 Comments

  1. MonkeyBoy said,

    June 11, 2013 @ 8:48 pm

    "most "Japanese" restaurants outside of Japan that I've been to in recent years — it is probably staffed, and maybe even owned, by Chinese.

    As I've mentioned to you before I've been in parts of the US where most Asian restaurants are owned/run by Koreans. They used to sell mainly Chinese food which sold better than Korean, but as Japanese has become trendy some have partially switched.

    Wouldn't that phonetic mistake be more expected with a non-native speaker?

    That restaurant does have a web page, http://www.nipponbuffet.com/home/, but if doesn't give much info other than food pictures, hours, and prices for all-you-can-eat.

    But if does give phone numbers, so someone could call and ask about the owner.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    June 11, 2013 @ 9:30 pm

    @MonkeyBoy

    "Wouldn't that phonetic mistake be more expected with a non-native speaker?"

    Quite the contrary, if the person who made the mistake were a non-Chinese, they would be more likely to assign their phonetic values to the characters, and they wouldn't match closely enough to make this kind of mistake. Anyway, I often encounter Chinese writing hyper-simplified characters because they don't want to spend the time to write the traditional or official simplified version. Two examples:

    wǔ 午 ("noon") for wǔ 舞 ("dance")

    jiāng 江 ("river") for jiāng 疆 ("border")

    You may have been in some "Japanese" restaurants that are run by Koreans, but I've been in many that are operated by Chinese. I'm positive of that because I can hear them speaking Chinese to each other, and one of my Chinese relatives worked in a big "Japanese" steak house in New Jersey. When I visited him there, every single one of the cooks and waiters was Chinese.

  3. Daniel Tse said,

    June 11, 2013 @ 10:24 pm

    I don't agree with your assessment that 几 was used because "undoubtedly far beyond the grasp of the person who wrote this sign".

    There is a well-known Cantonese restaurant shorthand which substitutes very simple characters for common ones, like 反 for 飯 or 介 for 蟹. The writers, typically waiters, know how to write the full characters, but intentionally choose graphically simple characters which are commonly understood.

    Because of the food domain I suspect 几 = 雞 is a similar usage.

  4. Mike said,

    June 11, 2013 @ 10:35 pm

    Chicken (specifically Cantonese gai1) is also noteworthy as a Sprachbund word, since it's also the same morpheme used for chicken in Thai and Vietnamese (that is, "guy" but with different tones).

  5. SimonMH said,

    June 11, 2013 @ 10:51 pm

    @Daniel Tse

    I rather like 反 for 飯. Perhaps we could put them together and have 'Rebel Rice' to go with General Tso's Chicken.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    June 11, 2013 @ 11:11 pm

    @Daniel Tse

    I covered the hyper-simplification issue both in the original post and in the comment just before yours.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    June 11, 2013 @ 11:19 pm

    From Gloria Bien:

    左宗鸡 is actually a very common abbreviation. 左公鸡 looks a little tough, since 公鸡 means 'rooster,' as compared with 母鸡 for 'hen'.
    几 is pronounced first tone in traditional characters, as in 茶几, so your "ad-hoc hypersimplification" hypothesis might be right–it was probably made up by someone more familiar with traditional characters than simplified ones.

  8. Eorrfu said,

    June 11, 2013 @ 11:50 pm

    In the DC metro area restaurants are run by their respective nationalities (Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian) except Japanese which all seem to be run by Koreans. Even so, many of the line cooks are actually from Central America (mostly El Salvador).

  9. Nicky said,

    June 11, 2013 @ 11:59 pm

    In Russia the Japanese restaurants usually run by Russians, but waitresses are usually either from Central Asia (Kyrgyz, Kalmyk) or Russian Far East(Buryat, Yakut).

  10. maidhc said,

    June 11, 2013 @ 11:59 pm

    The Chinese equivalent of "Adam and Eve on a raft"?

  11. Hans said,

    June 12, 2013 @ 2:44 am

    I've been travelling a lot in the Middle East, and there most Japanese and even Chinese restaurants are staffed by Philippinos.

  12. benjamin börschinger said,

    June 12, 2013 @ 3:50 am

    only very loosely related, but Southpark had a decent (if obvious) "General Tsao's chicken" joke: http://www.southparkstudios.com/clips/yvhl6j/general-tsaos-chicken

  13. Alan said,

    June 12, 2013 @ 4:10 am

    I humbly submit that the sentence beginning "Although I've not been to the" would be easier to parse if you omitted the first word.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    June 12, 2013 @ 5:20 am

    @Alan

    On the parsing, I'm in complete agreement with you.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    June 12, 2013 @ 5:57 am

    "左宗棠雞" — 1,370,000 ghits

    "左宗棠鸡" — 1,370,000 ghits

    "左公雞" — 16,600 ghits

    "左公鸡" — 16,600 ghits

    "左宗雞" — 79,100 ghits

    "左宗鸡" — 322,000 ghits

    "左宗几" — 7 ghits

  16. Mr Punch said,

    June 12, 2013 @ 8:56 am

    Is there a pattern to the variation of English names for the dish? In the Boston area the officer in question is known as "General Gao," but New York seems to lean to "Tso."

  17. Jorge said,

    June 12, 2013 @ 9:06 am

    @Victor Mair

    "I covered the hyper-simplification issue both in the original post and in the comment just before yours."

    No, you didn't, because you persist in saying it was a mistake where it is likely that this was intentional.

    I do think that the Chinese was written here to benefit the staff member who places the labels next to each dish, rather than for any potential Chinese-reading patrons (of which there would be very few – I certainly am unlikely to go to a buffet serving "General Tso's chicken" unless they are the type located in areas with high concentrations of elderly Chinese who pay $10 per head and queue up from 11am to eat their only meal of the day there, but also cater to large families of the majority ethnic group who buy expensive drinks, play the slot machines and pay through the roof for parking).

  18. Victor Mair said,

    June 12, 2013 @ 9:41 am

    @Jorge

    "it is likely that this was intentional."

    You're not sure, are you?

    I'm certain that this is an instance of hyper-simplification. From the standpoint of orthography, it is an error. Note the ghit figures in my previous comment.

  19. Jay Sekora said,

    June 12, 2013 @ 9:50 am

    I've seen 几 for 雞 a *lot*, as waiters are jotting down an order. I think it's more or less standard in that context (at least in the Chinese restaurants in the Boston area) — which makes sense, since you'd need a form of shorthand to take down orders quickly. I assume this is the "well-known Cantonese restaurant shorthand" Daniel Tse is talking about above (but I've seen Mandarin speakers do it too, or at least people who were talking to other waitstaff in Mandarin).

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 12, 2013 @ 10:50 am

    To my mind the prototypical member of the class "Japanese restaurant" in the U.S. does not have anything on the menu (except perhaps for beverages/desserts) that is not distinctively Japanese, so if you serve General Tso's chicken you are already outside the class or at least in some sort of fuzzy boundary area regardless of your name. Accordingly, you aren't going to get much useful data from such a place on the question of the typical ethnic background of the staff of U.S. "Japanese restaurants" (which might well vary by region of the U.S> in any event) I have a vague impression that it's mostly Korean at our local teppanyaki place that my daughters like, but on reflection I'm not actually sure I have a good evidentiary basis for that impression — I can't recall overhearing intra-staff conversations in a language other than English.

  21. hanmeng said,

    June 12, 2013 @ 10:54 am

    I also got 7 ghits for "左宗几". (As of this writing, Google still hasn't found Language Log.) Given the reference to Asian restaurants run by Koreans, I thought it was amusing that the last one was for a list of Korean names, surnamed 左 at http://www.koreannames.net.

  22. julie lee said,

    June 12, 2013 @ 11:25 am

    Actually I think 左宗几 (Tso Tsung chicken) is not simplified enough. If I were the waiter, I'd write 左几 (Tso chicken) , and I bet the kitchen taking the order, or even the cashier, would understand it as shorthand for General Tso Tsung-tang chicken.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    June 12, 2013 @ 11:49 am

    @julie lee

    Well spoken!!

  24. MonkeyBoy said,

    June 12, 2013 @ 1:50 pm

    That sign looks like it is at the buffet above the stainless steel container that is supposed to hold the chicken.

    Maybe the Chinese is not intended for the patrons but instead to tell the kitchen staff where to put refills.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    June 12, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

    @MonkeyBoy

    The placement of the sign and the elaborate English wording and design of the sign indicate that it is meant for the customers. The Chinese translation looks as though it was added for those customers who read Chinese.

  26. maidhc said,

    June 12, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

    Mr Punch: Is there a pattern to the variation of English names for the dish?

    General Tso's Chicken originated in New York in the 1970s, and its (possible) creator Peng Jia, of Peng's Restaurant on East 44th Street, had previously worked for high officials in the Nationalist Chinese government. This suggests Tso is the original spelling. Tso is certainly the spelling that makes frequent appearances in the New York TImes crossword. I think other chefs made their own variation on the recipe and changed the name slightly, so different names would be more common in different places according to which chef introduced the dish into that area.

    I don't know much about the business end of Chinese restaurants, but I've been noticing that the advertising banners hung outside many of the Chinese restaurants around here appear to be identical. If the places are independently owned they must all be getting their banners from the same place.

    I wonder if the same is true for menus. Printing Chinese menus seems like a fairly specialized business. I wonder if it's typical that one printer would do all the menus for all the restaurants in the area. In which case they would probably stick to one spelling. I'm talking pre-computer days, of course.

    More in the Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Tso%27s_chicken

  27. maidhc said,

    June 12, 2013 @ 5:19 pm

    In the Japanese restaurants around here the cooks and the people who work in the back are generally Hispanic. This isn't typical of the other kinds of Asian restaurants.

    And the majority of Korean restaurants have a sign in front reading "Tofu BBQ"; I'm not sure who this is intended for. Presumably Korean customers could read the Korean sign.

  28. Matt said,

    June 12, 2013 @ 7:14 pm

    I actually kind of agree with Jorge and Jay; my wife works in the Japanese food service industry, and waiters use all kinds of simplifications and abbreviations when writing things down. I can totally believe that 几 is used for "chicken" in kitchen shorthand. The interesting question is why it's visible to punters. Did the person writing it not know a "real" character for "chicken"? Have they been working in hospitality so long that they don't realize that this use of 几 isn't universal? Or is it a purely internal memo that happens to be in a visible location, and they either don't expect patrons to be able to read it and/or don't care if some can read it and get confused?

    Incidentally, there might not be many Google hits for this particular phrase, but you can find similar ones quite easily. Check out Hong Kong Restaurant's menu: they got "白饭 White Rice" alongside "几反 White Meat Chicken Fried Rice", "芝几 Sesame Chicken", and (yes) "左几 General Tso's Chicken". (The alternation between 饭 and 反 is kind of interesting, and I'm pretty sure I've seen 反 used for "rice" in Japanese waiter-memo style too.)

  29. Michael Briggs said,

    June 13, 2013 @ 3:06 am

    @Matt, what are football kickers doing in the restaurant? "Visible to punters"?

  30. Matt said,

    June 13, 2013 @ 3:34 am

    See definition 5 here:

    (UK, slang) A customer of a commercial establishment, frequently of a pub or (alternatively) of a prostitute.

    (I'm not actually from the UK, so I probably picked it up from reading Zzap!64 and the like as an impressionable colonial youth.)

  31. J.Xiao said,

    June 14, 2013 @ 4:00 am

    In local cha chaan teng (analogous to greasy spoons in the UK) in Hong Kong, the staple drink – lemon tea (檸檬茶, ning4 mung1 caa4; 檸茶, ning2 caa4) is usually written as '0T', the first character is a '零, zero', pronounced ling4 in Cantonese; the second character is a 't' as in 'tea'.

    Note that in cha chaan teng, almost always the variant 檸茶 is used to refer to the drink, as reflected by the shorthand '0T'. Interestingly in this case they have been economical with both the tone and the onset (n-/l-, it's indeed a free variation in Hong Kong Cantonese for some speakers though), as almost no one will call the drink ling4 caa4 or ning4 caa4.

  32. Victor Mair said,

    June 14, 2013 @ 6:56 am

    @J.Xiao

    Ingenious! Thank you very much for this fascinating bit of Hong Kong tea lore, with excellent linguistic notes to boot!

  33. a said,

    June 14, 2013 @ 11:41 am

    Seconding Jay Sekora's comment above–I see this character used for "chicken" quite frequently by waitstaff here in Seattle.

  34. Bob said,

    June 14, 2013 @ 8:51 pm

    1… 左公鸡=左公-鸡 DUKE TS0's chicken, the general might or might not actually knighted as a DUKE, but it was an honored address; nothing to do with cock or hen

    2… Tso is the Taishanese pronounce of 左; Chinese restaurants in North America were first operated by Taishanese

  35. Bob said,

    June 14, 2013 @ 9:23 pm

    like OT, 几=鸡/鷄/雞, 反=饭/飯, etc., are used in Hongkong styled restaurants only: a kind of subculture.

  36. Brendan said,

    June 16, 2013 @ 1:39 am

    As people have said, 几 turns up commonly as a shorthand substitution for 鸡/雞, particularly when waiters are writing down orders in a hurry. 下 for 虾/蝦 is pretty common too. It's surprising that it would end up on something intended for customers to read — but perhaps the Chinese label was intended for the eyes of a newly arrived waiter, rather than for restaurant patrons?

    (Tangent: I had to check to make sure that 几 and/or 又+几 hadn't been codified as the second-round simplification/二简 form of 鸡. As far as I can tell, 鸡 didn't get simplified any further, though 二简 did include a bunch of casual variants, including 仃 for 停, 歺 for 餐, 伩 for 信, etc., many of which survive in handwriting to this day.)

  37. Bob said,

    June 16, 2013 @ 3:52 pm

    the article in Wikipedia re General Tso is kind-a BS, in my opinion: unless it also provides the reason for 左 was written as TSO, from a mandarin spoken chef from Taiwan. This item was offered by many Chinese restaurants in North America in the CHOP SUEY era –before 1970's– it is similar to another common Cantonese dish: 咕噜肉 –which uses pork in lieu of chilken–

    BTW, a section of the article in Wikipedia mentions that 左宗棠鸡 ought to be 左中堂鸡. However it gives the wrong description for 中堂, which refers to the central hall of the Imperial Palace, not one's residence's central hall; and it reflects that the addressee as a closed advisor of the King –same as prime minister– that is a great point, for high official were not addressed by their given names, by common people. They were addressed by their official position usually. –although 中堂 was not the official name of office–

  38. Fluxor said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 3:23 am

    I do side with Daniel Tse and Jorge above, as well as others, in thinking that the usage of 几 is an learned hyper-simplification rather than an "ad hoc" hyper-simplification, as VM has asserted.

    I also disagree with VM's assertion that "[雞 / 鷄] were undoubtedly far beyond the grasp of the person who wrote this sign." As others have written above, hyper-simplifications amongst the wait staff in Chinese restaurants are quite common. To say this particular person cannot grasp 雞/鷄/鸡 is a dubious assertion.

    In fact, this sort of hyper-simplification is so ingrained in the cha chaan teng culture that in many such restaurants, even when the order taking became computerized, the computer-printed receipt still uses the same hyper-simplified notations rather than the full set of characters as listed in the menus. Some examples include C0T = 凍檸檬茶 (cold lemon tea), C06 = 凍檸檬可樂 (cold lemon coke), 反 = 飯 (rice), 乃T = 奶茶 (milk tea), 几 = 雞 (chicken), 加 = 咖喱 (curry), 南 = 牛腩 (beef brisket), 旦 = 魚蛋 (fish balls), 可 = 河粉 (flat rice noodles). Mix and match these notations at will to come up with the final dish. So 南旦可 means flat rice noodles with fish balls and beef brisket, 加几反 means curry chicken with rice, etc.

  39. Bob said,

    June 19, 2013 @ 4:49 pm

    1… the 几, 反, 介, … etc., were not invented for the wait staff, but they were designed to use on bill boards, notes on the walls of the restaurants –many of these type of restaurants do not use printed menus, but using written notes posted on the walls– they were for the benefit of their customers who cannot read the words such as 鸡, 饭, 蟹, …. etc.,

  40. J.Xiao said,

    June 20, 2013 @ 5:13 am

    Glad that Prof. Mair found that tidbit on lemon tea interesting. I just went to have tea at a cha chaan teng again and was amused to find that 'iced lemon tea' (凍檸茶, dung3 ning2 caa4) was printed on the receipt as '冬0T' ('winter zero tea').

    Even though 冬 'dung1' also has a different tone to 凍 'dung1', it has the benefit of semantically related to the concept of coldness. It seems that sometimes the replacement word may not be simply simpler to write!

  41. J.Xiao said,

    June 20, 2013 @ 5:17 am

    Oops typo, 凍 should be dung3.

  42. S. Li said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 3:42 am

    日本 can be pronounced either nihon or nippon. It still means Japan.

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