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From an anonymous colleague:

Most Language Log readers will recognize the white object on the left as an Asian squat toilet.  What does that have to do with "pull!"  Lots!

First of all, this is an advertisement for Bǎidù nuòmǐ 百度糯米 (“Baidu sticky rice”), a group-buying app for ordering meals, run by the magnate Baidu company. It says: Bǎidù nuòmǐ yāoqǐng nín lā kāi měishí zhī mén 百度糯米邀请您拉开美食之门 (lit. “Baidu Sticky Rice invites you to pull open the door of delicious food”) — and a gigantic LĀ 拉 “PULL” underneath, because this advertisement is meant to be stuck on pull-open doors. However… umm, as the advertisement is attached to perhaps the wrongest door possible — a toilet door — and since the verb lā 拉 ("pull") has a very ambiguous meaning in Chinese (especially here!!), one wonders how most people will interpret the lā 拉 ("pull") in this case!

From the time I began learning Mandarin, I recall hearing my Shandong in-laws using these expressions:

lā niào 拉尿 (lit., "pull urine", i.e., "urinate")
lā shǐ 拉屎 (lit., "pull shit", i.e., "defecate")
lā dàbiàn 拉大便 (lit., "pull great convenience", i.e., "defecate")

Even to my untrained ear, from the very beginning I felt that these expressions were crude and vulgar, and seldom heard my Shandong relatives use them outside the house, but they most certainly used them freely inside the house. Indeed, those were the only terms I heard them use at home. Consequently, for years I didn't know any other words for those biological needs, so I sometimes let them slip out even in polite company, which caused people to look askance at me, whereupon I would blanch or blush depending upon the circumstances.

I often speculated on the semantic aptness of lā 拉 ("pull") for urinating and defecating, and I came up with some bizarre scenarios for doing so. But it wasn't until my son ate some sand on the beach when he was a baby and watched in horror as my mother-in-law inspected his stools for the next few days that I gained yet another vivid meaning of lā 拉 ("pull") in relation to shǐ 拉屎 / dàbiàn 大便. She was literally "pulling poop / shit").

Incidentally, since the stand-alone verb in Chinese (well, in many languages across the world) also has the idiomatic connotation of an imperative, the big lā 拉 ("pull") in the white circle may be best read as “please, lā 拉 ("pull")!“ So, pull open the door, then go in and do your pulling business inside.

Selected reading


  1. Cervantes said,

    November 11, 2021 @ 9:41 am

    Well, we say take a shit and take a pis (or whatever other terms for them we care to use), which doesn't really make sense either, since.we're actually donating said products. But give a shit means something else entirely.

  2. Ross Presser said,

    November 11, 2021 @ 10:52 am

    There is a book called Poronkusema. The word apparently does not appear in the text at all, only the title.

    Google Translate gives "reindeer herding" as the translation from Finnish.

  3. Ross Presser said,

    November 11, 2021 @ 10:53 am

    Argh, I posted the previous comment on the wrong LL post. Sorry.

  4. Rodger C said,

    November 11, 2021 @ 10:56 am

    George Carlin: "You don't take a shit, you leave a shit."

  5. Cervantes said,

    November 11, 2021 @ 2:40 pm

    As usual. Carlin was right about everything. Sure do miss him.

  6. AntC said,

    November 11, 2021 @ 7:42 pm

    Wait. The Mandarin for 'shit' is pronounced 'shǐ' ?

    Is that a coincidence or a borrowing? In which case, when was it borrowed, and what was the pre-borrowing word?

  7. Claw said,

    November 11, 2021 @ 8:26 pm

    @AntC: They're completely unrelated. Both are very old words in their respective languages.

    English "shit" descended from Proto-Germanic *skītaną, itself from Proto-Indo-European *skéydt (meaning "to cut off").

    Mandarin 屎 (shǐ) descended from Proto-Sino-Tibetan *kləj (still meaning "shit, excrement" back then).

    屎 in Mandarin is not considered as vulgar as "shit" is in English, though it is a word more often reserved among more familiar people.

  8. B.Ma said,

    November 14, 2021 @ 4:24 am

    It's worse in Cantonese as 拉屎 means to poo in your pants.

    Wikipedia says it should be 攋屎 which makes more sense, because it is pronounced laai6 rather than the usual laai1 meaning to pull as in Mandarin, although I previously thought it was just a "changed tone" of 拉.

  9. Chas Belov said,

    November 16, 2021 @ 3:29 am

    Hmmm, for Cantonese, I was taught 屙尿 (o1) for urinate and 屙屎 for defecate, as well as, of course, small and large convenience respectively.

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