Recent Japanese loanwords in Chinese

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For the last couple of weeks we've been focusing on loans from Chinese and Japanese into English and from English into Chinese and Japanese. In this post, I'd like to demonstrate the intricate intertwining of Mandarin, topolectal Chinese, Japanese, and English, with Japanese providing for Chinese two key terms from comic book culture. All of these things are illustrated in the following promotional item that Nuno Sobral stumbled upon in the QQ music app:

This seems to say:

zhème kě'ài 這麼可愛
("so cute")

yīdìng shì nán háizi 一定是囡孩子
(*"it must be a boy")

méng nán • zhèngtài 萌男•正太
(*"budding boy • truly too")

yīgè dōu bùnéng shǎo 一個都不能少
("not one should be omitted" OR "not one should be left out")

kě'ài nánshēng • méng fān nǐ 可愛男生 • MV萌翻你
(*"lovely boy • MV budding will turn you")

Of course, this is a highly unsatisfactory understanding, but it's the best that most people who are not "hip" to the new borrowings from Japanese and alert to topolectal nuances will be able to do. Here and below, when I say "most people", I'm talking about those who are literate in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), but are not au courant with the latest trends in popular usage.

In the second line, most people would know neither the sound nor the meaning of 囡, but the fact that it is annotated with Pinyin as nán suggests that we should understand it as nán 男 ("male"), since nán háizi 男孩子 ("boy") is a very common lexical item in MSM, and nán háizi 囡孩子 seems to be another way of writing that, albeit a very weird way, since 囡 — not a standard character — consists of nǚ 女 ("girl") inside of a box! Even though most readers wouldn't know the meaning of 囡孩子 because they are unfamiliar with the character 囡, the annotated reading of nán háizi will ineluctably elicit the meaning "boy" for MSM readers. Though most people will automatically interpret it precisely that way, they would be wrong, according to the hippest understanding of what has been written. Actually, they would only be partially wrong, because the people who wrote this jingle do want "it must be a boy" to come across as one of the possible readings of yīdìng shì nán háizi 一定是囡孩子. But the really with-it reading of yīdìng shì nán háizi 一定是囡孩子 is something rather different. To find out what that might be, we must tackle the unusual character 囡 head-on.

Actually, 囡 does have a MSM reading, and that, according to ZDIC and Wiktionary is nān, not nán. So far as I know, the character is never used in MSM per se (except as a borrowing from one of the topolects), but it is familiar to speakers of Hakka, Teochew (Chaozhou), Cantonese, and other non-Mandarin Sinitic languages.

囡 is to be found in medieval rime dictionaries such as Jí yùn《集韵》(Collected Rhymes [1037]).

Let us just look at 囡 as it is used in Shanghainese. It is 2nd tone and entirely homophonous with 男 ("male; man"). The morpheme means "young daughter or child". But it is a bound morpheme that must occur with a suffix or in compounds. The exact meaning depends on the word it is in. Some examples, using Simmons' Romanization, are: nóe-ñ 囡儿 ("daughter"), nóe-noe-d'eu 男囡头 ("boy"), guà-noe 乖囡 ("good child"), shiaw-noe 小囡 ("child"), shiáw-shiaw-noe 小小囡 ("infant"), and nóe-noe 囡囡 is a term of endearment for a child. So, in nān háizi 囡孩子, these types of meanings are operative, but they are partially subverted by the designated nán háizi annotation to emphasize that this is about a little boy.

Before moving on to the next line, I would like to emphasize how the present line illustrates the increasing use of pinyin to give characters alternative readings, which in turn facilitates punning that would not occur with the characters alone. The cultural difference evident in this line is also worth observing: it would be rather strange to say “so cute it must be a little boy” in English.

What to make of méng nán • zhèngtài 萌男•正太 in the next line? Surely it must mean something quite different from the direct translation *"budding boy • truly too". This is the line that contains the two key borrowings from Japanese. 萌 and 正太 originated in Japanese comics. 萌, which in MSM is pronounced méng and means "bud; sprout; germinate"), can be used as adjective and verb. Here 萌男 signifies a handsome and extremely lovable young male. 正太 refers to a very cute, prepubescent boy (definitely without facial hair) whose age is between 8 and around 14. When 萌 is used as a verb, it means "be infatuated with" or "love".

These usages of 萌 derive from Japanese moeru 萌える ("sprout"), which can be a name for a girl or boy. For example, I know of someone with the name Moyuru — written in kana! — but it means 萌 ("budding" or "sprouting"), and 萌男 ("Moeo") is definitely a boy's name. It is closely related to the wildly popular anime term "moe", which is another recent Japanese borrowing into English.

Shōta 正太 is a very common boy's name, but the borrowing into Chinese brings with it a whole complex of anime and video game associations. Note especially the term "shotacon" ("shota complex"), which designates an attraction to young males. Cf. "Morpheme of the Year". Here, here, and here may be found some basic introductions to these words in Chinese.

The next two lines — yīgè dōu bùnéng shǎo 一個都不能少 ("not one should be omitted" OR "not one should be left out") and kě'ài nánshēng 可愛男生 ("lovable boy") are straightforward as MSM.

The last line is harder for unhip readers: MV méng fān nǐ MV萌翻你 (*"MV budding will turn you"). I suppose that MV refers to a "music video", though it can also signify a "promotional video", for which PV is the preferred abbreviation in Japanese (and through Japanese) in Chinese.

This reminds me that Japanese showbiz and entertainment use a lot of Anglicized (if not exactly English) abbreviations, including:

  • VTR = "video tape recorder", which is used to mean a video segment on TV, including replays
  • BGM = background music (there's even a national BGM association!)
  • NG = no good
  • CM = commercial message (CM songu ソング ["song"] = jingle)

The next word, méng 萌, we already know from its special anime and comic book sense: "handsome young male".

ADJ + fān nǐ 翻你 ("to be so ADJ that it knocks / bowls you over") = extremely ADJ

Thus méng fān nǐ 萌翻你 means extremely méng 萌 ("extremely cute / handsome in his boyishness", i.e., "so boyishly cute / handsome that he bowls you over").

Here are some more illustrations of how fān nǐ 翻你 functions:

zhè ge gùshì huì xiào fān nǐ 这个故事会笑翻你
("this story will make you laugh so hard you'll fall over")

zhè jiàn shìqíng huì lè fān nǐ 這件事情會乐翻你
("this affair will make you so happy that you'll fall over")

These borrowings are meant to be representative of hundreds of other such terms that have entered Chinese from Japanese in recent years. I consider it to be particularly noteworthy that so many Japanese words have continued to flow so freely into Chinese, despite the harsh rhetoric and tense standoff that exists between China and Japan. It is reassuring that language transcends politics.

Meanwhile, as a challenge to Language Log readers, what is the meaning of the Japanese English injunction "SAFETY UP" in this photograph sent to me yesterday from Japan by Frank Chance?

[Thanks to Cheng Fangyi, Nathan Hopson, Cecilia Seigle, Miki Morita, Jidong Yang, Wenkan Xu, Gianni Wan, Rebecca Fu, and Richard VanNess Simmons]


  1. Sam said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 1:01 am

    Based on my experience with Korean English, which tends to have a lot in common with Japanese English, this kind of postpositive "up" signifies improvement, bringing something up to a higher level. So my first guess for the meaning of "Safety Up" would be something like "Let's Improve Safety" or "Safety Improvement".

  2. dainichi said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 2:04 am


    Yep, that would be my guess as well, although I've never seen this particular combination before.

    Common ones are レベルアップ (level up), ペースアップ (pace up), イメージアップ (image up), スピードアップ (speed up). I guess "speed up" works in English as well, but in Japanese スピード is a noun. Actually, I'm wondering if スピードアップ is where the reanalysis started.

    I recently saw one I hadn't seen before, マナーアップ (manner up).

    Slightly off topic, but related: In Japanese, アップ (appu, up) by iteself can be short for クローズアップ (close up). I once made a fool of myself when asked to take a photo アップ, thinking it meant I was supposed to take it at an upward facing angle.

  3. John Swindle said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 2:28 am

    A couple of "up" items:

    A woman about to board an elevator in Honolulu pointed her finger down and inquired, "Appu?" Passengers couldn't think of anything to say before the door closed.

    And stickers illegally affixed to utility poles and restroom walls in Hawaii in 2012 said "NDR 参上". Is that Chinese? Japanese? Does it mean something like "NDR joins in"? Whatever NDR may be.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 6:45 am

    Grammatical analysis of the construction with 翻 discussed at length in the original post; reaction from a learned Chinese friend who is not particularly hip:

    I think it means 把你萌翻. In other words, 使你觉得(他)特别萌, 以至于你都翻到在地了.
    把他打翻在地=把他打翻=打翻他. Here 翻 in 萌翻你 has similar meaning.

    萌 is obviously an adjective and used as a verb, meaning "使…觉得萌". Actually 萌翻你 is not grammatically right because adjectives usually have adverbs like “死”, such as "高兴死我了", "美死你", "难受死我了", "热死我了". Similarly, people should say 萌死你 instead of 萌翻你.

    I think the use of 翻 may be an emphasis on people's reaction (翻倒在地) to the lovely little boy or just to avoid using "死". Or maybe 翻 is an influence of some dialect?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 6:50 am

    Grammatical analysis of the construction with 翻 discussed at length in the original post; reaction from another learned Chinese friend who is not particularly hip (note particularly her comments in the last paragraph about how quickly Chinese is changing [this is true!!] — see, for example, "Developments in Chinese Language and Script During the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries," Sino-Platonic Papers, 224):

    "萌翻你" has the same syntactic structure with "吓傻了、笑死了、笑翻了",etc. In this phrase 萌翻你, 翻 is like an adverb of degree. Meng Fan Ni, means he's so cute that you can't help youself feel so. Beside, we have a word "扑地" on internet to describe the degree of shock someone feels. (plus “我倒”、“我晕‘)I guess 翻 also has this meaning in someway. 萌翻你 is to describe his cuteness is so shocking that you will can't help your body behavior. We could also say 萌倒你,萌死你,etc.
    Hope I make it clear.

    It's not easy to understand the net language. If I don't surf the net for one month, I'll have difficulties in uderstanding sometimes.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 7:32 am

    "Up" is already one of the most productive morphemes in English. See, for example, this long and elaborate dictionary entry — — which doesn't even list one of my favorite expressions, viz., "heads up" or "heads-up" (BTW, I don't know how to analyze that [e.g., why the plural, when it is often addressed to an individual or is clearly used with reference to a single action?]). But the Japanese have taken "up" to a whole new level.

  7. Jamie said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 8:43 am

    "But the Japanese have taken "up" to a whole new level."

    Up up しました.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 9:26 am

    From a Chinese graduate student:

    I have a guess about the picture “safety up” at the end of your newest post in LL. According to the shape and graphic pattern of the picture, I think it must be a brick on the road, may be on the platform. The area of the narrow strips may be the sidewalk for the blind, and the area full of spot may be the standing area. “Safety up” may mean the safely standing area, which means people should stop there, and don’t go cross the brick, because it will be dangerous to get too close to the train. Hope someone could find the language evidence for me, because I don’t familiar with Japanese.

  9. ahkow said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 9:27 am

    "Actually, 囡 does have a MSM reading, and that, according to ZDIC and Wiktionary is nān, not nán. So far as I know, the character is never used in MSM per se (except as a borrowing from one of the topolects), but it is familiar to speakers of Hakka, Teochew (Chaozhou), Cantonese, and other non-Mandarin Sinitic languages."

    Dr Mair – can you provide a cite for saying that "囡" is familiar to Teochew speakers? I'm a heritage speaker and I've never seen it. The Teochew cognate is nam55 and it doesn't correspond to anything like "male" [ta33 pou33], "girl" [tsa33bou53], or child [kia~53] (~ representing nasalization).

    If you are thinking of [kia~53], the preferred character is 囝, which has a "default" Mandarin reading jiǎn (clearly cognate with [kia~53]). The Kangxi dictionary backs me up on this point as well, citing Jiyun, and noting that "閩人呼兒曰囝" ("Min people refer to children as 囝")

  10. julie lee said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 10:42 am

    (In Shanghainese) "nóe-noe 囡囡 is a term of endearment for a child."

    First of all, as an unhip reader, let me thank you for the article and its examples of how loanwords from Japanese comics are pouring into Chinese. I found your explanation of the Chinese character 囡 most helpful too, as I've never seen it before. I had a Shanghainese friend who spoke Mandarin to me and always called her little boy "noe-noe" or some word with "noe" in it. She had two daughters with English names, so I always thought her son was named "Noah".

  11. Victor Mair said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 11:14 am


    Glad to hear from a Teochew speaker on this!

    I was following the citation in the ZDIC article for 囡, which does give Teochew readings (note the plural) for this character. Several of my topolectician colleagues in China also mentioned Teochew speakers as being familiar with this character. I suspect that one of the problems may be the confusion between 囡 and 囝, since ZDIC, which you cite, gives both jiǎn and nān as MSM readings for the latter character. I've also heard others remark on the lack of a clear distinction between 囡 and 囝 in the minds of many who are not versed in their precise derivations.

  12. Nuno Sobral said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 11:48 am

    Speaking of puns and 萌, there's also the Taiwanese dictionry 萌典 / That's moe as in 萌える, but also MOE as in the Ministry of Education, wich seems to be resposible for the dictionary.

    See also nciku / n词酷 wich contains at least three puns:
    1. n词 → n次 → a zillion times, i.e. a lot of entries;
    2. 词酷 → 词库 → wordbank but with added 酷lness;
    3. nciku → ENCYCLOpedia.

  13. JS said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 1:13 pm

    The interwebs say the boy pictured is Korean child actor Wang Seok-Hyeon. That Japanese loan words have accompanied the "cute pre-pubescent boy" phenomenon to Taiwan and elsewhere is not surprising…

  14. Dru said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 1:15 pm

    Regarding Safety Up, you need a little context on it. The object itself is like a "brick" but it is actually a riser. It is placed between the road and the curb at a driveway. Most curbs are not flush with the ground so they use these risers to aid cars and bicycles get up the curb.

    Knowing this, it should be easy to see that it means something along the lines of, "Get up safely", rather, smoothly when referring to the picture.

  15. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

    Questions on the original post: What is this "promotional item" promoting? Or is it just a teaser that we are not supposed to fully understand? What affective qualities result from the use of the pinyin-glossed character 囡? How are we supposed to interpret 一個都不能少? (An allusion to the Zhang Yimou film?)

  16. Wentao said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 2:38 pm

    In my opinion 囡 with the parenthetical pinyin nán is a pun on the ambiguity of gender – the pronunciation indicates male whereas the shape of the character suggests female.

    这么可爱一定是男孩子 has become a catchphrase in ACG (anime, comics and games) culture. I found this article on an ACG wiki:

    This paragraph explains the idea behind the phrase well:



  17. Eorrfu said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

    Is 翻你 directly related to rofl? It seems like it is something pretty close and 笑翻你 seems pretty close although they are in the future in your example.

  18. Wentao said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 2:54 pm

    The practice of putting parenthetical pinyin next to characters as a double-entendre is clearly an influence of furigana. I believe that a deeper level of borrowing from the Japanese writing system. It's quite popular on social websites such as 人人 renren, sometimes with a brilliant, comedic tongue-in-cheek effect:


    The characters say "we have made great progress" but the "pinyin reading" actually says "no progress at all".

    Or this one:


    A pun on the set-phrases 丧心病狂 (lit. "lose/die + heart + ill/sickness + mad", insanely crazy, completely losing one's mind) and 喜闻乐见 (lit. "love + hear + glad + see", "great news that are gladly received"). It is interesting to note that both words are originally mostly used in political contexts: the former is popularized by the notorious rants of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the latter frequently employed by the departments of propaganda. In fact, another phrase in the sentence, 人民群众 ("the people and masses") also has distinctively red connotations and is usually used in Party documents.

    All three words can be regarded as 官话 "speech of the officials" – tedious, pretentious and hollow – and their mocking prevalence on the Internet, to me, suggests how nowadays the culture of bureaucracy has lost all respectability and becomes deconstructed and ridiculed by the netizens.

  19. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 3:19 pm

    @Wentao: Thanks for this. The OP states that "it would be rather strange to say 'so cute it must be a little boy' in English," and attributes the strangeness to "cultural difference"; your comment clarifies the point that we are not talking about "Chinese" culture here, but rather a specific subculture that has its own, often deliberately counter-intuitive, beliefs and value systems.

    I have some further reflections at my own blog, including a couple of questions that people may be interested in discussing here: (1) Have there been any systematic studies of recent Japanese-Chinese character-borrowing (e.g. 萌) and phonetic borrowing (e.g. 卡哇伊)? It seems they would interesting to look at quantitatively if there are suitable corpora available. (2) With the growing popularity of Korean pop music and television drama, are there comparable examples of Korean-Chinese borrowings of either type?

  20. Nuno Sobral said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 3:42 pm

    @Daniel Trambaiolo
    I've found the original. You can see it here:
    It's a group of music videos (which are referred to as MV throughout the site) curated by QQ music. Apparently Justin Bieber is a 正太.

    I take "一個都不能少" to mean "You mustn't miss any [of these awesome videos]!".

    Thanks to Wentao comment for the illuminating comments.

  21. Frank L Chance said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 4:45 pm

    Dru has understood the "Safety Up" riser precisely. It is a riser between the road and the parking area at my friend's house in Osaka. I have recently seen the same risers used around temple gates in Kyoto to make them safer for pedestrians as well.

  22. Tairy Greene said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 4:55 pm

    The kid's weird expression, alongside all the declarations of adorability, is a funny combination.

  23. Moses Hall said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 5:38 pm

    Regarding the productive use of "up" in Japanese, my Japanese too-concerned-about-body-image ex girlfriend tried a (one of many) quack breast enlargement product called B2-UP.

  24. Guy said,

    July 23, 2013 @ 2:11 am

    Just in case anybody is still confused, my translation of the ad:

    So cute it must be a boy
    Moe boys, shotas
    Not even one is left out
    Loveable boy MVs to drive you moe crazy

    This ad relates to the “moe” genre of Japanese manga. Its promoting a music video collection. I'm sure this genre must be very alien to Westerners.

    “So cute it must be a boy” = this is a popular catchphrase from moe comics. They have replaced the character for boy ("nan2") with the character "nan1" but indicating it should be read "nan2". Its humorous because the "nan1" character is written with a component which indicates "female".
    “Moe boys” = common archetype from this genre
    “Shota” = another common archetype from this genre
    “Loveable” = Chinese-speakers love describing things as “ke ai” (cute, loveable)
    MV = slang for “music videos”

    To be honest, the ordinary Chinese speaker of a certain vintage would not understand this ad, unless they are otakus or Gen Y or younger.

    The ad "feels" very Taiwanese to me, except it mixes traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese and hanyu pinyin. So it seems to be a very pan-Chinese online target audience.

  25. Dave Cragin said,

    July 25, 2013 @ 11:13 am

    It appears that a relatively recent borrowing from Japanese is 料理 (Chinese: liàolǐ) to mean "cuisine" in Chinese.

    A friend in Japan had sent me the characters for "iron chef" in Japanese: 料理の鉄人. The last 2 characters made sense: iron person (and の = Chinese de 的.). However, my Chinese dictionaries define liàolǐ (料理) as "take care of" or "manage."

    A Chinese friend who studied Japanese explained "take care of" is an older Chinese meaning and that China imported the Japanese meaning (i.e., cuisine) for liàolǐ 料理.

    It’s not apparent when the Japanese meaning came into use. My dictionaries all date from 2005 and later, but dictionaries can be slow to offer new meanings. Does anyone know when the meaning of cuisine for 料理 was introduced into Chinese? (i.e., is this a long standing meaning not reflected in dictionaries?)

  26. PH said,

    July 25, 2013 @ 2:00 pm

    I believe the 'MV' is an adaptation from Korean English which, as mentioned by Victor already, refers to 'music video'. I am uncertain, though, if the Korean abbreviation was derived from Japanese practice ('PV').

  27. Taffy said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 12:33 am

    "Taiwan UP" was used as a widely-ridiculed slogan to promote Taiwan, and was emblazoned on the side of Taipei 101 after the New Year firework display in 2010. This news article gives the intended meaning as 台灣奮起, exhorting Taiwan (and her people) to strive for greater heights, but I prefer to think it was an attempted translation of the common encouragement 加油 (literally "add oil", but more idiomatically "come on!" or "go go go!", something like Italian forza!).

    For Dave Cragin: 料理 has been used in Taiwan ever since the Japanese era (1895–1945). While it is still most commonly associated with Japanese food (日本料理), it's also used more generally to mean "(national) cuisine", so you can have Hánguó liàolǐ (Korean cuisine) and Dézhōu liàolǐ (Texan cuisine, which seems to consist entirely of steak in the Taiwanese imagination).

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