Another Northeastern topolectal term without specified characters to write it

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Yesterday Diana Shuheng Zhang and I went to a Trader Joe's and saw some pretty, gleaming yellow berries for sale.  Diana was delighted because it reminded her of the same type of berries she used to eat when she was back home in the Northeast of China.

I asked her what they were called in Northeast topolect (Dōngběi huà 东北话).  Her answer both intrigued and amused me:

They are called gu1niao3 or gu1niang3; either way is fine and either way is used by many people interchangeably. Even for myself, I sometimes say the first one, sometimes the second one, depends on… well, randomly. Haha!
Then the inevitable question:  how do you write gu1niao3 and gu1niang3 in characters?

Usually when we see them sold in streets, the tablet would write:
姑鸟,菇鸟,菇茑,谷鸟 (cuckoo!!) [for the first]
姑娘 (girl),菇娘。 [for the second]
The fruit's name is a mishmash, but its flavor is distinct — one would never miss out the tangy, sweet, exciting taste! It is actually one of my favorite fruits. :) They come in yellow or red. The red ones are usually wild and the yellow ones usually sold in market; the red ones are what the kids would search for and enjoy in situ when they run in the wild grasslands, and the yellow ones are treats for the family. I also think that the red ones are more north and yellow ones more south? When I grew up in Jilin (Jílín shěng Jílín shì 吉林省吉林市), red ones were everywhere. But after I moved to Dalian — perhaps because Dalian is a more urbanized big city — I could barely find the red ones, but only sitting at my dinner table and eating the sweet, big yellow ones that my mom bought for me. 
So many childhood memories.

Trader Joe's markets this fruit as "Golden Berries".  I remember when they first started showing up in specialty stores like Martindale's (America's first health food store right near my home), they were sold with their naturally occurring papery sheaths, which accounts for one of the names in Mandarin:  dēnglóng guǒ 灯笼果 ("paper lantern fruit").  You would peel off the papery covering to find the shiny yellow berries inside that were covered with a waxy, oily substance that was easy to wash off.

Another Chinese name for this fruit is Bìlǔ kǔ zhī 秘鲁苦蘵, which must be an attempt to render the scientific name of the plant, Physalis peruviana, at least the first part of it.

Physalis peruviana, a plant species of the genus Physalis in the nightshade family Solanaceae, has its origin in Peru. The plant and its fruit are commonly called Cape gooseberry, goldenberry, and physalis, among numerous regional names. The history of Physalis cultivation in South America can be traced to the Inca. It has been cultivated in England since the late 18th century, and in South Africa in the Cape of Good Hope since at least the start of the 19th century. Widely introduced in the 20th century, P. peruviana is cultivated or grows wild across the world in temperate and tropical regions.

P. peruviana is an economically useful crop as an exotic exported fruit and favored in breeding and cultivation programs in many countries.


One name for Physalis peruviana is Inca berry; another is Cape gooseberry, not to be confused with the true gooseberries, which are of the genus Ribes in the family Grossulariaceae. Other names used to refer to the fruit are poha berries, and simply golden berries.


In case you were wondering, "physalis" means "bladder" (from Greek phusallís φυσαλλίς).  Since Physalis peruviana is a member of the nightshade family, that means it is also related to the potato, tomato, and eggplant.

Selected readings


  1. KeithB said,

    July 22, 2020 @ 8:41 am

    Boy, if a world-wide disease affects the Nightshade family, we could be in a world of hurt.

    (Why is it always the Nightshade family? Why not the Tomato family or the Golden Berry family?)

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    July 22, 2020 @ 8:54 am

    For the benefit of those of us less familiar with Dōngběi huà / 东北话 than with Mandarin/Putonghua, may I ask whether 东北话 "gu1niao3" or "gu1niang3" sound reasonably similar to Pinyin "gū niǎo" / "gū niǎng", or (if they differ significantly) do they differ more in tone, or in (toneless) pronunciation (not really sure what the technical term for the latter concept would be) or in both.

  3. Jake said,

    July 22, 2020 @ 12:38 pm

    Here in Maine we call them 'ground cherries' and 'husk cherries'.

  4. Alexander Browne said,

    July 22, 2020 @ 3:30 pm

    I've also seen them as "ground cherries" at the farmers' market in St Paul, MN.

  5. Chris Button said,

    July 22, 2020 @ 8:53 pm

    The alternation between the codas -w and -ŋ in 鸟 and 娘 undoubtedly arises in this instance from phonetic proximity rather than the existence of two different original morphemes.

    Nonetheless, the relative ease of isolating distinct -w and -ŋ sounds without pondering the articulatory reality of how they could coexist does recall the tendency in Old Chinese reconstruction to slap "affixes" onto morphemes that for one reason or another don't surface in accordance with expectations. I suspect that tendency is often tied to a failure to acknowledge that Old Chinese, much like the modern Chinese case at hand, was a living language replete with variation.

  6. Diana S. Zhang said,

    July 22, 2020 @ 9:38 pm

    Look: there is Physalis alkekengi, named "Chinese Lantern", or "Japanese Lantern", or "strawberry groundcherry", or "winter cherry". Wikipedia says: "This species is native to Asia unlike the rest of Physalis that is native to the Americas." Yes, its vibrant red color is exactly what I have been looking for since my childhood. Very excited to find this native Asian wild fruit!

    Wikipedia of Physalis alkekengi:

    Google search result:

  7. John Rohsenow said,

    July 22, 2020 @ 10:54 pm

    As the xiehouyu (Chinese enigmatic folk simile) says:

  8. cameron said,

    July 22, 2020 @ 11:49 pm

    @Diana S. Zhang: people don't eat the fruit of the alkekengi, do they?

    They have a quaint name in Persian: عروسک پشت پرده
    the doll behind the curtain

  9. Lydia said,

    July 23, 2020 @ 1:29 am

    @KeithB: my guess is that they are called the nightshades because those are the most familiar Solanaceae that are native to Western Europe. Tobacco, tomato, (yellow) cape gooseberry (or just gooseberry, as they are known in the Cape of Good Hope, where they are common but not native), pepper and potato are all from the Americas, aubergine/eggplant are from South Asia.

    As Diana S. Zhang points out, the red fruit is a different species to the yellow one. Its natural range extends to Southern Europe not to Great Britain, which presumably explains why it's not the name-giver of the family in English and doesn't even have a well-established English name.

    @cameron: I've seen alkekengi planted for decoration which hardly had any fruit at all, but presumably the varieties with bigger fruits can be eaten.

  10. Keith said,

    July 23, 2020 @ 5:15 am

    I've seen these for sale in both the UK and in France. Over here, they are often known by a name that looks like a direct translation from English (unless the English is a translation from French, or both are translations from another Language): groseilles du Cap. they are also sold as "physalis", and both this and the related P. alkekengi (native to Asia) are sold as ornamental plants.

    I looked at the linked Wikipedia article to P. peruviana, and followed the link to the P. alkekengi; Wikipedia doesn't state so, but other articles I have found state that all parts of P. alkekengi are toxic except for the ripe fruit.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    July 23, 2020 @ 6:00 am

    @John Rohsenow

    Zhēn xiàng dà bízi de yéyé–lǎo bízile


    "Really like a grandfather with a big nose — old nose"

    John Rohsenow is the master of this specialized type of Chinese proverb, just as he is the master of other types of Chinese proverbs.

    Since these "truncated witticisms" (my translation of xiēhòuyǔ 歇後語; John calls them "enigmatic folk similes") are so mystifying to people who are not in the know, I wonder if John (or someone else) can explain this one:

    1. how the second part (normally left unspoken) derives from the first part

    2. how the proverb as a whole is related to the berries we are discussing

  12. bks said,

    July 23, 2020 @ 9:21 am

    "The tablet would write …"?



    flat, rectangular piece or slab

    plaque; placard; panel; sign

  13. Diana S. Zhang said,

    July 23, 2020 @ 9:51 am

    @cameron: I don't know about other plants in the alkekengi family, but I'm pretty sure that Physalis alkekengi is exactly what we found in the wilds in Northeastern China, and we LOVED to eat them. A little side effects in eating too much of these tangy, juicy, soft, orange-red fruits is that our mouths and tongue would get tingling (I guess that's what the minor toxin may cause?). But no kids cared about that! We nevertheless crammed the fruits into our mouths and savored their juice even with the tingling sensation. LOL

  14. John Rohsenow said,

    July 23, 2020 @ 11:41 am

    Thanks, Victor, for the plug for my old xiehouyu dictionary.
    As you explained, the simile in the first part –"Big Nose's Grandpa" —
    is in this case (a little bit 'lame') set-up for the 'punch-line' in the second part, "Lao bizi le" (lit. Old Nose), which is a Northeast dialect expression meaning: " Great! Terrific! or 'to a great extent'. I must confess I do not know why. ["Big Nose" can of course be understood to mean "foreigner(s)", usually taken to refer to those of European decent.]

  15. John Rohsenow said,

    July 23, 2020 @ 12:21 pm

    PS: In this case, I was simply using this NE dialect expression to comment that I found this entire thread to be very interesting. Apologies to those who do not read Chinese, or who did not get the reference.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 23, 2020 @ 6:28 pm

    At least here in New Mexico, the most familiar member of Physalis is the tomatillo (one of its names in Mexican Spanish), which is used in many Mexican green sauces.

    (Its scientific name seems to be P. ixocarpa or P. philadelphicus. I'm completely unclear on whether those are two names for the same thing, or if not, what the difference is.)

  17. Victor Mair said,

    July 23, 2020 @ 8:46 pm

    I don't know why, but lǎobízi 老鼻子 ("old nose") is said to be a Northeastern topolectal expression meaning "abundant; a lot of; plenty of; a great number / deal of; substantial".

    bízi 鼻子 ("nose") as an ending is hugely productive of derived terms; see here (click on the "show more" arrow at the right side of the bar).

    Thus the truncated witicism cited by John Rohsenow, if someone just said the first part of it, would mean "abundant; a lot of; plenty of; a great number / deal of; substantial", and you wouldn't have to say the second part.

    Get it?

  18. Diana S. Zhang said,

    July 23, 2020 @ 9:43 pm

    I agree with Prof. Mair's last post. 老鼻子 "old nose" indeed means "a lot of, a great number of" in Northeastern Topolect. Usually in an exclamatory tone.

    E.g.: 那兒有老鼻子人了 "There are a great number of people over there!"

    今天的閱讀老鼻子長了!"Today's reading is sooooooo long!"

    "truncated witticisms" 歇後語 usually makes clever use of rebus, puns, historical/literary allusions, or double entendres.

    A few more:

    梁山泊的军师 —— 无(吴)用
    老爷下轿 —— 不(步)行
    恶心他妈给恶心开门 —— 恶心到家了
    玉皇大帝放屁 —— 神气
    白骨精遇上孙悟空 —— 原形毕露
    和尚的房子 —— 妙(庙)

    How to use them in a conversational context? E.g.

    您这文章写得,真是和尚的房子 —— 妙!

    I remember when I was in elementary school back in China, a part of our Chinese (yuwen) homework every day was to collect 5 "enigmatic folk similes" 歇后语 and copy them down on our notebook, and to use at least one when we spoke up in the Chinese class. I don't know whether it applied to all schools, all places, or simply my own class; but my entire class got into the habit of talking like a stand-up comedian, even in our daily lives, for a couple of years under that Chinese teacher's guidance. Now when my elementary school class had our reunion, some of us still talked like that to remind everyone of the good time we had. We would all burst into laughter. Another piece of hilarious childhood memory!

  19. R. Fenwick said,

    July 24, 2020 @ 3:35 am

    @cameron: In addition to the first-hand recollections of Diana Zhang, seeds of P. alkekengi in ancient European and western Asian archaeological sites also predate the Columbian invasion of the Americas; it's rare to see more than a few in any given site (because archaeobotanical remains at most sites in the area are preserved by charring, and fruits eaten fresh don't tend to get exposed to fire very often), but they're frequent enough across sites to suggest that its fruits have been eaten in the area for at least four thousand years.

  20. Jullie Verma said,

    July 24, 2020 @ 1:07 pm

    I've also seen them as "ground cherries" at the farmers' market in St Paul, MN.

  21. Anthea Fleming said,

    July 25, 2020 @ 4:41 am

    And not to be confused with what in Australia used to be called Chinese Gooseberry, now cultivated in New Zealand and therefore known as Kiwi Fruit.

  22. Chris Button said,

    July 25, 2020 @ 8:33 pm

    This post aroused my interest in 娘. Here are three possible analyses, none of which seem to fully support each other:

    W. S. Coblin (1994) notes that it's not attested pre-Tang and suggests that it might be a fusion of 女郎.

    Edwin Pulleyblank (1962, see also 1998) suggests an etymological connection with 女 while acknowledging its late occurrence.

    Zhang Bingquan (1957) notes an oracle-bone form, which would seem to be valid it it weren't for the fact that it then seems to have disappeared.

  23. Chris Button said,

    August 1, 2020 @ 6:51 am

    I was hoping my above post would generate a little more discussion. In any case, my money is on Pulleyblank due to the supporting evidence for the ɣ~ŋ interchange. Outside of the etymologically related words he notes, 能 would be the classic example of the alternation on an individual word. Zhang's oracle-bone evidence doesn't contradict Pulleyblank's proposal so could be included. Meanwhile, my hunch is that Coblin's idea is clever but ultimately misled.

  24. Chris Button said,

    August 1, 2020 @ 6:53 am

    Concidentally, it's interesting that 能 in its sense of "able" is ultimately related to 女 in its earlier sense of slave.

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