Black hair and cattle

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From Mark Swofford:

Many Language Log readers will be familiar with the fabled, highly marbled, extremely expensive, Japanese Wagyu beef.  That's what's being referred to in the description pictured above.  Apparently "A5" is the designation for the prime grade among this superior type of beef.

The title reads:

Rìběn A5 hēimáo héniú


Japanese A5 black haired Wagyu

"Wagyu" (Wagyū 和牛 ("Japanese cattle") is a proper noun for a select type of beef cattle in Japan.

So what happened with the mistranslation in the title above?

It's all due to the the polyphony and polysemanticity of the innocent seeming Sinograph 和.  Basically, it can mean “and; with”, "peace; calm; harmony; contentment"; or “Japanese”.

I'll just run through some of its many pronunciations in Chinese and Japanese, together with their various meanings.


1. hé — peaceful, harmonious (e.g., hépíng 和平 ["peace, peaceful"]); gentle, kind; warm, temperate; sum, total; to make peace, to become reconciled; (chess) to tie; (music) an ancient mouth organ; Japanese (e.g., héfú 和服 [kimono, Japanese traditional clothing"]); (a surname​) Hé

2. hé, hàn, hài — and; with (N.B.:  back in the early 70s in Taiwan, I learned 和 in the sense of "and" as hàn, whereas most Mandarin speakers nowadays say )

3. hè — to make sounds in concert with; to echo

4. huó, huò —  to mix with water to make something stick together; to knead

5. huò — to mix (usually substances in powder or grain form); to add water to make something less thick; classifier for the number of rinses when washing clothes; classifier for the number of times a dose of traditional Chinese medicine is boiled

6. hú — (mahjong) to have a winning hand

7. huo — warm


wa — peace, harmony, tranquillity, serenity; (arithmetic) sum; Japan, Japanese, Nippo-

There are many other pronunciations and meanings for 和 in Japanese, but they mostly occur in very complicated compounds, of which I will only mention one very important instance, viz., Yamato:

Yamato (Japanese大和) was originally the area around today's Sakurai City in Nara Prefecture of Japan, which became Yamato Province and by extension a name for the whole of Japan.

Yamato is also the dynastic name of the ruling Imperial House of Japan.

(source — which includes a long list of the uses of this term in / for history, geography ([Japan, United States, Antarctica], meteorites, ships, companies, animals, language, people, entertainment [anime and manga])

One could write a whole treatise just on the linguistic aspects of Yamato 大和.  When one considers all the other terms into which 和 enters, and then start to think about their cultural and historical implications, one could readily establish a whole new field of 和ology.

You gotta have wa!


  1. Bruce Rusk said,

    February 16, 2022 @ 1:17 pm

    Following the old reading of 和 in Taiwan, I used to joke with friends there that the great Morohashi dictionary 大漢和辞典 was Dà Hàn-Hàn cídiăn.

  2. Cervantes said,

    February 16, 2022 @ 3:32 pm

    Uhm, I didn't see that you explained where "black hair" comes from, which I took it to be the whole point. What am I not getting?

  3. Bruce Rusk said,

    February 16, 2022 @ 3:52 pm

    @Cervantes: it comes from the cow's follicles! The beef is from black-haired cattle (think Black Angus etc.).

  4. Terpomo said,

    February 16, 2022 @ 8:51 pm

    It's a little alarming no one has even commented on the fact that they're peddling corpses of conscious beings. But I suppose we're just desensitized to the horror of it.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    February 17, 2022 @ 3:57 am

    It has taken me almost a whole day to realise what is, in essence, the key point here : that what I have always thought of as "wag-yu" is in fact "wa-gyu". I now feel appropriately chastened …

  6. bks said,

    February 17, 2022 @ 9:10 am

    Terpomo, are you sure plants aren't conscious?

  7. Peter Grubtal said,

    February 17, 2022 @ 12:17 pm

    Philip –
    you don't do Japanese? you'd know otherwise that in Japanese no syllable ends in g, (or most other consonants, with a few special exceptions).
    Or was your comment a bit of waggery, along the lines of "I like something on my plate that's wagged its tail"?, a sentiment close to my heart.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    February 17, 2022 @ 1:23 pm

    Peter — my Japanese is limited to a few polite phrases, of which gomenasai has been by far the most useful, although I was able to use sono mama on one occasion when two Japanese who had asked me to take their photograph would not stand still …

  9. Terpomo said,

    February 17, 2022 @ 4:59 pm

    bks, pretty sure, or at least not in the same sense that animals are. (Though even if they were, the option that results in the suffering and death of vastly fewer conscious beings would still be eating plants- you have to feed those animals on plants at extremely inefficient ratios of calories of feed to calories of meat, so it's far more plants in total.)

  10. Josh R. said,

    February 17, 2022 @ 7:34 pm

    Fun fact, the expression "Say cheese!" before taking a picture has made it into Japanese, but has defacto become a signal that the photographer is now pushing the button. So instead of,

    "Say cheese!" (pause) *click*

    it becomes,


    Most folks click on the "zu", but I've seen some folks click on the extended "ii" or even on the "chi", defeating the whole purpose of saying "cheese."

    All of which is to say, if you find yourself in the same situation, Philip, just say, "Hai, chii-" and your subjects will quickly get into photo-taking mode.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    February 18, 2022 @ 7:57 am

    My nephew came to visit me earlier this week. By his own choice, he has been a vegetarian since the time he was a little boy. He has often been to India, where he feels very comfortable, and stayed there for considerable periods of time.

    Matt-Batt was surprised and pleased when I referred to meateaters as non-vegetarians.

    Matt-Batt is 53 years old now, but I've never once in his whole life heard him cast aspersions on non-vegetarians.

  12. Terpomo said,

    February 19, 2022 @ 8:12 pm

    I'm not sure why he wouldn't, unless his vegetarianism isn't on moral grounds. (Though if he still consumes eggs and dairy it probably isn't, or else he's ignorant of the realities of those industries.)

  13. Victor Mair said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 12:15 am

    My nephew is a vegan, and he knows why he is a vegan. He just doesn't want to put himself in the position of being "holier than thou" and lecturing others about his own beliefs.

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