Eat vinegar, Jesus Christ, and Middle Persian

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I've always been intrigued by the Chinese expression "eat vinegar" (chīcù 吃醋) meaning "be jealous".  To convey the idea of "jealous", one can also say dùjì 妒忌 or just dù 妒 (note the female semantophore).  I learned the disyllabic form with the syllables reversed, hence jìdù 忌妒.  The monosyllabic form (dù 妒) is ancient, going back to classical times.

I said jìdù 忌妒 instead of dùjì 妒忌 because the former is what all my Chinese friends and relatives said, though my impression is that the latter is more common across the Mandarin-speaking population.  Nonetheless, I felt that saying jìdù 忌妒 was awkward because, except for the tones, it is homophonous with Jīdū 基督, which I always understood as some form of "Jesus".  In fact, Jīdū 基督 is a short form of Jīlìsīdū 基利斯督, which is a transcription of "Christ", from Ancient Greek Χριστός (Khristós).  The Sinitic transcription of "Jesus" is Yēsū 耶稣, which ultimately also comes from Ancient Greek:  Ἰησοῦς (Iēsoûs), possibly via Latin Iesus and other European languages. Doublet of Yīyīsūsī 伊伊穌斯/伊伊稣斯.  (source)

Incidentally, jì 忌 is a simplified form of  嫉 ("to envy, be jealous; to hate, resent").  Note that this traditional form of the character, like dù 妒, its synonymous morpheme partner in the disyllabic word jídù 嫉妒 ("jealous"), also has a female semantophore.  Thus we get a double whammy of misogyny in jídù 嫉妒 ("jealous").  

Back to "eat vinegar" (chīcù 吃醋) meaning "be jealous".  There's no problem with "eat" for "drink".  We've encountered this many times before in Mandarin, e.g., "Don't eat the water" (3/17/15).  As for sourness being an apt analogy for jealousy, it reminds me of Aesop's sour grapes fable.

Since I'm writing about vinegar, I should not fail to mention that Chris Button has long wondered whether Middle Persian "sik" (vinegar), presumably related to Turkic "sirke", might have anything to do with 醋/酢?

(Zhengzhang): /*sʰaːɡs/


In verifying the Middle Persian word for "vinegar", I tracked it to:

Draxt ī āsūrīg (The Babylonian tree), a versified contest over precedence between a goat and a palm tree, composed in the Parthian language, written in Book Pahlavi script, and consisting of about 120 verses. Probably in ancient times the Iranians adopted this literary genre, which has the characteristics of oral literature from Mesopotamia; examples are found in Sumerian and Akkadian texts….

Draxt (ī) āsūrīg is also a catalogue poem, that is, a poem containing lists of related words, the purpose of which was instruction and reinforcement of memory; in this aspect it also can be considered wisdom literature…

(Encyclopaedia Iranica)

This type of Iranian catalog poem reminds me of the Indian synonimicon that we discussed a couple of weeks ago:

"Is the Amarakosha a thesaurus after all?" (11/3/20)

"Memorizing a thesaurus" (10/28/20)

It also calls to mind the Chinese popular debates, such as the "Chá jiǔ lùn 茶酒論"  (Debate  between  Tea  and  Beer), which have a heritage that can be traced back to Sumero-Akkadian literature, and the Han period (202 BC-220 AD) fù 賦 ("rhapsodies") with their lexicon-like lavish display of lush vocabulary.


Selected readings


  1. Michael Watts said,

    November 22, 2020 @ 5:58 pm

    I am interested in 吃醋 as part of a more general phenomenon of experiences being metaphorically referred to as something you eat. I know of two other examples, 吃苦 ("eat bitter", meaning "suffer") and 吃惊 ("eat surprise", meaning "be surprised").

    There are some English metaphors playing in a similar space, e.g. "suck it up" or "hard to swallow".

  2. GF said,

    November 22, 2020 @ 6:06 pm

    Surely Ιησούς itself derives from the Hebrew יֵשׁוּעַ? Source also wiktionary:

  3. David C. said,

    November 22, 2020 @ 9:19 pm

    There is a whole apocryphal story about the Tang emperor Taizong (Li Shimin) demanding that the grand chancellor's wife choose between taking a poison to die and allowing the grand chancellor to take a concubine. The poison turned out to be strong vinegar.

    The simpler explanation is that vinegar is sour (酸)and acts as a metaphor for feeling bitter/sour. There is also the expression 不是味儿 (literally, not the right flavor).

    Note that 嫉 did not go through the 1964 simplification reform to become 忌. Both characters co-exist and have overlapping meanings.

    忌妒 is pronounced jì dù and 嫉妒 is jí dù.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    November 23, 2020 @ 12:36 am

    From Martin Schwartz:

    (Using Byzantine caps, 3 for schwa, and H for pharyngeal h for convenience:). New Testament Greek IHCOYC 'Jesus' < Aram. ye:šū'a, a popular form of Heb. y3hōšū'a = Joshua < YHW (God) + 'gives salvation'; New Testament Greek XPICTOC "Christ' = 'the anointed', calque on Heb. m3šīaH 'the anointed', whence Messiah. Pahlavi sik but Persian sirka, serke 'vinegar' is puzzling. 2 facts of dubious relevance: On the HaftSîn ('7-s-') ritual table of Pers, Nowrûz (New Year's), sirka, serke 'vinegar' is a required item; occasionally in addition to the other 6 one adds sikka, sekke 'a coin', which is historically the most conservative item. Turkish would not take over Pers. *sik, since the latter means 'penis' in Turkish.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    November 23, 2020 @ 12:42 am

    From Alan Kennedy:

    Regarding the misogynistic nature of the Chinese term jidù, in the Japanese Nō play Dōjō, the actor playing the principal female role is transformed into a demon as the result of her jealousy. The actor dons a demon mask and reveals an underrobe patterned with triangles that indicate the scales of a snake at the crucial moment of transformation. Of course, there is no male role in Nō theater that is so strongly associated with the emotion of jealousy.

  6. Twill said,

    November 23, 2020 @ 1:39 am

    Ultimately Ἰησοῦς is of course from Hebrew, but 耶穌 would have originated by Western missionaries (the Nestorians used 移鼠) which would make Latin Jesus the immediate derivation (probably helped by the vocative; the Erasmian pronunciation would lead you in the same place anyway). 伊伊穌斯 is unmistakably the Russian Иисус from when their missionaries thumbed their noses at the established names and transliterated the Russian renderings instead.

  7. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 23, 2020 @ 2:46 am

    Fittingly, there's also the Biblical expression about having to drink a bitter cup.

  8. Jonathan Wright said,

    November 23, 2020 @ 5:51 am

    Isn't it possible that the Chinese borrowed their Yesu from the Islamic version of the name – Yasuu3, either from Arab or Persian traders or people who had converted to Islam? The chronology would probably provice an indication. When does the name start appearing in Chinese sources?

  9. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    November 23, 2020 @ 9:02 am

    The Middle Persian word for “vinegar” is rather elusive. The late Ahmad Tafazzoli’s wonderful article in the Encyclopaedia Iranica cited by Victor gives “sik ‘vinegar’” and refers to Henning’s “A Pahlavi Poem” (BSOAS 13-3, 1950) p. 642, n. 8). [The article by Mansour Shaki also referred to by Tafazzoli is not available to me].

    However, the actual form that occurs in the text of the Draxt-ī Āsūrīg is the ideogram (logogram) HLYA. In the 1950 article Henning gives the reading šīr “milk”, and goes on to discuss this ideogram in fn. 8. It is pointed out there that the Frahang-ī Pahlavīg (an ideogram word-list, mostly, but not always, accompanied by the Iranian form) has two different words under HLYA (cf. Heinrich Junker ed. The Frahang-i Pahlavik, Heidelberg 1912, 97a). Junker takes one as “milk” and the other as “sugar”, while Henning, ibid., points out that the second one, which should be written HLA more properly, is “vinegar”, as the variant readings in other MSS given by Junker, p. 51, show the readings sik and slk’, the latter of which is obviously NP sirka (> serke) “vinegar”. Incidentally, Nyberg’s new edition (Wiesbaden 1988, p. 68) has a different interpretation.

    So, MP sik “vinegar”, given an entry in MacKenzie’s Pahlavi Dictionary, comes from a variant reading in a MS of the Frahang. I must add that I may have overlooked its occurrence(s) in phonetic form elsewhere. I eagerly await the progress of the Middle Persian Dictionary Project.

  10. wanda said,

    November 23, 2020 @ 1:01 pm

    @Michael Watts: Even the expression, "to be bitter." Although the kids these days say "salty" instead.

  11. Michael Watts said,

    November 23, 2020 @ 2:16 pm

    "Ram [something] down [someone's] throat."

    "Stick in [someone's] craw."

  12. Twill said,

    November 23, 2020 @ 4:44 pm

    @Jonathan Wright The Islamic rendering of Jesus is the corrupted 3iisaa (爾撒), not Yasuu3, which is the Christian version as borrowed from the Syriac.

  13. martin schwartz said,

    November 24, 2020 @ 12:24 am

    As always, Prof. Kumamoto's expert comment is valuable.
    I'd add that there is some possible support for sik in the Arabic
    borrowing from Middle Persian, sikanjabīn, a
    mixture of vinegar and honey (MPers. angubēn).
    Twill is right about the Arabic for 'jesus', but I've wondered what caused the "corruption".
    Martin Schwartz

  14. martin schwartz said,

    November 24, 2020 @ 12:34 am

    P.s. re the odd Arabic form of 'Jesus', see the interesting
    detailed article "Isa (name)" in Wikipedia..
    Martin Schwartz

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 24, 2020 @ 12:35 am

    Michael Watts: There doesn't seem to be any certainty about the origin of "suck it up". One of the Internet theories is that it comes from "suck up your chest", which I can find a few relevant hits for in the sense of "stand up straight, throw your chest out (by inhaling?) to look manly", as here. Other theories are available.

    Some other English phrases for your collection: a bitter pill, leaves a bad taste in your mouth, a taste of your own medicine, eat humble pie/crow, eat your words, it's gone sour. On the other side, enjoying something can be just eating it up, and enjoying a sight or something similar can be drinking it in. Sweet!

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    November 24, 2020 @ 3:40 am

    Not forgetting, tho', that "humble pie" was originally "umble pie", where "umbles" were "intestines" (more specifically, deer entrails).

  17. martin schwartz said,

    November 25, 2020 @ 2:23 am

    @Jerry Friedman: Hi, Jerry. Long time.
    I once had a dream in which I invented a phrase "Eat the tar!"
    I should be using it, in the hope that it'll catch on.
    You heard it here.

  18. Chris Button said,

    November 25, 2020 @ 9:51 am

    @ Martin Schwartz and Hiroshi Kumamoto

    Thank you for your informative remarks on "vinegar". There's similar phonological and graphic confusion in Old Chinese 醋/酢, and the lack of any obvious internal etymological associations led me to suspect a loan origin. The investigation continues …

  19. Graeme Orr said,

    November 29, 2020 @ 9:10 am

    In Australian English there is the rather nasty term 'vinegar tits'. Used as a character assessment of women deemed to be sour, prone to unpleasantness.

    It was made famous as the nickname of a tough prison warden a TV series in the late 1970s. But I've even heard blokes, bitching about their girlfriends, using it.

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