Pineapple suicide

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Sign at a fruit stand:

The sign says:

zìshā 2 gè/10 yuán
自杀2个/10元
"2 suicides for 10 yuan"

tāshā 2 gè/12 yuán
他杀2个/12元
"2 homicides for 12 yuan"

That's how most people would understand the sign upon first glance.  Of course, since those are absurd propositions, they would do a double take and think about what it really means.  Given that the sign refers to pineapples, sooner or later they would figure out that it means:

"If you slice the pineapples yourself, they are 2 for 10 yuan."
"If someone else (i.e., we, the shopkeeper[s]) slice the pineapples for you, they are 2 for 12 yuan."

Shā 杀 means "to kill", which seems like a strange thing to do to a pineapple.  At first I thought that the character might be borrowed to represent the topolectal sound of a more logical character for the requisite meaning, for instance xuē 削, which has the following meanings:

  1. to pare with a knife; to peel with a knife; to scrape off the surface; to slice
  2. to divide; to split; to separate
  3. to weaken; to reduce; to cut down
  4. to delete; to remove; to cut out
  5. to rob; to expropriate; to plunder
  6. (table tennis) to slice (the ball)
  7. (ideophonic) steep (as if sliced); precipitous; sheer
  8. (ideophonic) emaciated; scraggy; slender
  9. (historical) writing knife
  10. (historical) thin slips of wood used for writing; letters
  • Topolectal data
Variety Location
Mandarin Beijing /ɕiɑu⁵⁵/
Harbin /ɕiau⁴⁴/
/ɕyɛ²¹³/
/ɕyɛ⁴⁴/
Tianjin /ɕiɑu²¹/
/ɕye²¹/
Jinan /ɕyə²¹³/
Qingdao /syə⁵⁵/
Zhengzhou /syo²⁴/
Xi'an /ɕyo²¹/
Xining /ɕyu⁴⁴/
Yinchuan /ɕye¹³/
Lanzhou /ɕyə¹³/
Ürümqi /ɕyɤ²¹³/
Wuhan /ɕio⁵⁵/ ~球
/ɕio²¹³/ 剝~
Chengdu /ɕye³¹/
Guiyang /ɕie²¹/
Kunming /ɕio³¹/
Nanjing /sioʔ⁵/
/syeʔ⁵/
Hefei /ɕyɐʔ⁵/
Jin Taiyuan /ɕyəʔ²/
Pingyao /ɕyʌʔ¹³/
Hohhot /ɕyaʔ⁴³/
Wu Shanghai /ɕiaʔ⁵/
Suzhou /siɑʔ⁵/
Hangzhou /ɕiɑʔ⁵/
Wenzhou /ɕa²¹³/
Hui Shexian /ɕiɔʔ²¹/
Tunxi /siu⁵/
Xiang Changsha /sio²⁴/
Xiangtan /sio²⁴/
Gan Nanchang /ɕiɔʔ⁵/
Hakka Meixian /siok̚¹/
Taoyuan /siok̚²²/
Cantonese Guangzhou /sœk̚³/
Nanning /ɬœk̚³³/
Hong Kong /sœk̚³/
Min Xiamen (Min Nan) /siɔk̚³²/
/siaʔ³²/
Fuzhou (Min Dong) /siɛʔ²³/
Jian'ou (Min Bei) /siɔ²⁴/
/sia²⁴/
Shantou (Min Nan) /siauʔ²/
Haikou (Min Nan) /tia⁵⁵/

(source)

But neither the meaning nor the sound matches that well for what one has to do to a pineapple to get it ready to be eaten.  So I asked around among people from various parts of China whether they could make sense of this peculiar usage of shā 杀 ("kill").

Here's the first reply:

I grew up in Wuhan and spent seven years in Beijing before I came to the US. I've never seen people use "shā 杀" to mean "peel" or "slice". But I remember when I was in Wuhan, I often heard people (especially older people who had lived there for a long time) say “shā xīguā 杀西瓜" ("kill a watermelon") in Wuhan topolect. I think the "shā 杀" means "cut" in this circumstance.

And here's the second:

Zìshā 自杀 ("suicide") and tāshā 他杀 ("homicide") serve as puns here because of a specific usage of "shā 杀" ("kill") –– in certain topolects, especially in north China, including Pekingese, where people employ this special usage of the verb when slicing melons or other fruits (especially those of large size), for example, " shā gè xīguā 杀个西瓜" ("kill / cut a watermelon"). People also use "zǎi 宰" ("slaughter; butcher") as an alternative (my dad, who was born and grew up in Beijing, always says "zǎi ge guā 宰个瓜" ("slaughter / butcher a melon") when he is about to cut a melon). I asked my friends from Xinjiang, Shandong, and Ningxia, and was told that they also use "shā 杀" ("kill") and “zǎi 宰” ("slaughter; butcher") in their topolects when peeling and slicing fruit. A friend of mine from Jiangsu told me that they sometimes use "pōu 剖" ("cut open; dissect; anatomize") to refer to "cut (a melon)"; in many topolects, "kāi 开" ("open") is also used when cutting/slicing melons or other fruits.

My guess is that it's because large fruits have substantial amounts of flesh that they are susceptible of being viewed in the idiomatic ways described above.

Selected reading

[h.t. Yuanfei Wang; thanks to Tsu-Lin Mei, Jidong Yang, Yixue Yang, Chenfeng Wang, and Selena Zhu]



11 Comments »

  1. Trogluddite said,

    April 25, 2021 @ 6:31 am

    In British English (any of the dialects that I'm familiar with) "I could murder [food/drink item]" is a common idiom expressing extreme hunger or thirst (the murder victim is most often "a cup of tea" or "a pint (of beer)" in my experience).

  2. bks said,

    April 25, 2021 @ 8:37 am

    "Pineapple Salsa With 'killed' Onion"
    https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/6295-pineapple-salsa-with-killed-onion

  3. David Moser said,

    April 25, 2021 @ 8:39 am

    Yes, I also thought of the common type of phrasing, as in "I've already killed two beers", etc. Chinese people often talk of finishing a dish as "把它消灭掉", "to exterminate it" etc. But this pineapple example is quite amusing, very vivid.

  4. Peter S Housel said,

    April 25, 2021 @ 7:35 pm

    Though I can't imagine anyone in Taiwan writing out a sign like this one, 殺西瓜, 殺鳳梨, or 殺榴槤 would all seem to be pretty normal usage there. It seems apropos to me given the level of "violence" required to prepare these fruits.

  5. E said,

    April 26, 2021 @ 1:03 pm

    We have the same thing in English/Latin, although it’s quite disguised. Many, many English words are derived from the Latin word caedere, to cut, slice, fall. Some of these words have to do with cutting or slicing (excise, concise, incisor, chisel, scissors), some to do with killing (any word ending in -cide). And then some are to do with falling, which I guess is a part of both slicing and killing, (accident, incident, occident, deciduous, decadent, cadence).

  6. Chau said,

    April 26, 2021 @ 4:48 pm

    Taiwanese verbal phrase thâi ông-lâi 刣鳳梨 means 'to cut up a pineapple to obtain its flesh'. The verb thâi 刣 means 'to cut up flesh, to carve', and, in my view, may correspond to the Classical Greek word δαιτρεύω 'to cut up meat, to carve' [quotable from Odyssey], with the sound changes: δαιτρεύω > (first syll.) δαι- > thâi 刣. (Reminder: Taiwanese lacks the d sound, t/th is often used to substitute for foreign d.) This word has no cognate in Mandarin. The Sinograph 刣, which first appeared in the dictionary 篇海 published in Jurchens' Jin Dynasty (i.e., 刣 is a nontraditional character), originally with a different sound and meaning, has been borrowed to transcribe the Taiwanese sound. It is also used in 刣豬 thâi-ti, 刣雞 thâi-ke, etc, meaning 'to cut up a pig/chicken to obtain its meat'.

    Now, this Tw verb thâi 刣 'to cut up a fruit/animal for its flesh/meat' happens to sound the same as another Tw verb thâi 刣 'to slay, kill'. The latter verb seems to correspond to Classical Greek δαΐζω 'to slay, smite' [quotable from Iliad], with the sound changes: δαΐζω > (first syll.) δαΐ- > thâi 刣. Therefore, in my view, the two homophonous verbs have different etymological origins. Because there is no orthographic Sinograph for thâi 'to slay, kill', 殺 is sometimes used as a kind of kun'yomi 訓讀, which then is also applied to the first verb. Here's an article (in Japanese) explaining this graph-borrowing process.

    https://maidonanews.jp/article/14262948

    The idea of borrowing 殺 as in 自殺 / 他殺 to write for 刣鳳梨 thâi ông-lâi 'to cut up a pineapple to obtain its flesh' came from the wife of a pineapple vendor in Taitung 台東 as an advertising gimmick in March of 2014:

    https://www.ettoday.net/news/20140312/333719.htm

    And the gimmick worked, their business boomed. Of course, other vendors quickly copied the idea.

    For those who are interested in the etymology of 鳳梨 and introduction of the fruit plant to Taiwan, here's a link to a blog:

    https://www.upmedia.mg/news_info.php?SerialNo=107457

  7. Michael Watts said,

    April 27, 2021 @ 2:56 pm

    E:

    We have the same thing in English/Latin, although it’s quite disguised. Many, many English words are derived from the Latin word caedere, to cut, slice, fall. Some of these words have to do with cutting or slicing (excise, concise, incisor, chisel, scissors), some to do with killing (any word ending in -cide).

    The polysemy between cutting and killing is not original to English; it's already present in Latin, where caedo has both meanings and occīdo only means strike or kill. (From ob-caedo, where ob is a preposition commonly used as a verbal prefix; the ī in this verb is long, which is important for reasons that will become clear later.)

    And then some are to do with falling, which I guess is a part of both slicing and killing, (accident, incident, occident, deciduous, decadent, cadence).

    You've misunderstood. These do not derive from caedo, to cut; they derive from the unrelated verb cado, to fall. There is also an ob-prefixed form for cado, occido (with short i), which means "die"; it makes for a fun contrast with occīdo, "kill". The English term occident derives from cado, as do all the other "falling" senses.

  8. Steve Jones said,

    April 28, 2021 @ 4:10 am

    Somehow this put me in mind of the shasheng 煞聲 cadential note in traditional Chinese music, citing Shen Kuo’s Mengxi bitan—leading to cadential patterns, and Daoist exorcism…

    https://stephenjones.blog/2021/04/28/shasheng/

  9. Victor Mair said,

    April 29, 2021 @ 6:44 am

    From Jinyi Cai:

    I have heard people using 杀 when talking about slicing fruits, mostly in Northern cities, for example, my mom's hometown 山西. I once heard people saying “杀西瓜” (slicing watermelons) when I was there. I don't hear people talk this way in Nanjing and Shanghai though. But the correlation between 杀 and 削 in Wu dialect also makes sense.

    As for the photo of the fruitstand, I think it depends on where it was taken. If it's taken in the North of China, it might be the phrase that people are used to. If it's taken in some southern cities, I guess it might be used intentionally to burst a laughter, make people interested, and purchase.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    April 29, 2021 @ 7:32 am

    From Lin Zhang:

    Yes, I think your intuition is definitely right. Standard Mandarin and northern dialect do not use “杀” in this way, and according to my knowledge, Taiwan dialect seems to use “杀” in cutting fruits. I once saw a TV program talking about “杀西瓜” and it sounded so hilarious to me!

  11. Michael Watts said,

    April 29, 2021 @ 3:36 pm

    So we have two informants who say 杀 for cutting fruit is mostly a northern thing, and two who say it's common elsewhere but isn't used in the north?

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