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Marvelous post in Pinyin News by Mark Swofford:

Pinyin, US trademark law, and myths about Chinese characters

    芝麻 vs. ZHIMA

Posted on Sunday, February 5, 2023

The entire post, and the legal ruling that it reports, are of such importance in clarifying the interrelationships among language, transcription, and translation, especially for those who have an interest in the combination of legalistic and linguistic reasoning, that I will quote the better portion of it, starting from the beginning:

The Mandarin word for “sesame” is zhīma (written “芝麻” in Chinese characters). That’s all the Mandarin anyone will need to know for this post. But if any of you non-Mandarin speakers are curious, an approximate pronunciation would be the je in jerk + ma (with the a as in father).

OK, let’s get into it now.

Everyone knows open sesame from the story of Ali Baba and the forty thieves, thought Jack Ma, when he was deciding upon a name for his new company. Alibaba Group Holding Limited is now one of China’s and indeed one of the world’s largest companies. So it’s no surprise that “open sesame” and just plain ol’ “sesame” are still very much associated with the company. And yet the company was acting as if this were not so, at least when it comes to Pinyin.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board recently ruled finally against a trademark application by Advanced New Technologies Co. (hereafter “Applicant”), which was acting on behalf of Alibaba. The mark applied for was “ZHIMA” (as such). The application (serial no. 86832288) was originally filed on November 25, 2015; Applicant requested reconsideration after earlier rejections.

The trademark office has a longstanding rule that trademark applications must, “if the mark includes non-English wording,” include “an English translation of that wording.” But Alibaba didn’t want to do that.

Mark then quotes some of the claims put forward by those arguing for Alibaba as listed in the ruling of the U.S. trademark board ruling.

    1. There are no Chinese characters (or other non-Latin characters) in Applicant’s Mark;
    2. A purported meaning of Chinese characters (or any nonLatin characters of even designs or stylizations) cannot be attached to a mark that does not contain such characters);
    3. Even if similar lettering is used as a transliteration of Chinese characters, Applicant’s Mark, ZHIMA – the only wording at issue – is not a transliteration of Chinese characters;
    4. Applicant’s Mark ZHIMA is not a translation of Chinese characters;
    5. Applicant’s Mark does not mean “sesame” in English;
    6. There is no logical or acceptable reason to ascribe the meaning of any Chinese characters to Applicant’s Mark. Applicant’s Latin-character Mark is a coined word with no translation in a foreign language or meaning which can be attributed.

Applicant concludes that ZHIMA is a coined term, not a foreign word; therefore, a translation/transliteration statement is not necessary.

Mark opines:

Although I’m not a lawyer, I do know a thing or two about Pinyin, Chinese characters, and the difference between languages (e.g., Mandarin, English, Swahili, Hebrew) and scripts (the means of writing those languages, e.g., Chinese characters, the Roman alphabet, the Hebrew alphabet). So I feel confident in stating that Alibaba’s claims were risible.

What's more,

The ruling also quotes the Applicant as claiming that “it is the Chinese characters which translate to ‘sesame’ and that ‘zhima’ is merely a transliteration/pronunciation of these Chinese characters.”

The ruling sums that up as follows: “In other words, according to Applicant the Chinese characters 芝麻 pronounced ZHIMA mean ‘sesame,’ but ‘Zhima’ itself has no meaning.”

Mark persuasively concludes:

I believe most people would have no trouble laughing at the claim that zhima (the way to write in Pinyin the Mandarin word for sesame) has “no meaning” but is merely something coined by the company. Would anyone believe that this was just some sort of coincidence?

The authorities at the Patent and Trademark Office of course had no trouble finding plenty of examples of zhima being used as such to write the Mandarin word for sesame, including by Alibaba itself. And so the application for a U.S. trademark on “ZHIMA” as a coined word that was supposedly not Mandarin at all but merely something without meaning was rejected once and for all. Importantly, this decision sets a precedent, which should help stop such claims in the future.

Although I’m pleased that the correct decision was reached, I don’t think the decision was necessarily a foregone conclusion, however obviously absurd the claims of Alibaba were. The problem is that a lot of people — including many who really should know better — actually believe nonsense like Chinese characters are necessary to convey the meaning of Mandarin words. The truth is that Mandarin is a language, and Chinese characters and Hanyu Pinyin are scripts (means for writing that language). Chinese characters are not some sort of über language. And, by extension, no matter how many times such claims are repeated, even in what would normally be considered reputable sources, there is no such thing as an “ideographic language” or a “logographic language.”

Speech is primary, not secondary, to the existence of a living language. If by some sort of quirk in the universe every single Chinese character vanished from the face of the Earth, Mandarin would still exist, hundreds of millions of people would still be speaking it with one another, and the Mandarin word for sesame would still be zhima, regardless of how one might write it or what the lawyers for a huge company claim.

I have nothing of substance to add to Mark's elegant and witty presentation of the legal facts of the matter, nor to his consummate understanding of the transcriptional issues at hand, but merely wish to raise the philosophical question of the relationship between the thing (das Ding — the actual, physical sesame seed) — and the concept (der Begriff), idea (die Idee), word (das Wort) for it.  The thing (sesame seed) exists — das Ding (Sesamsamen) existiert, and there is need for humans to refer to it with a word (mit einem Wort).  They can speak about the sesame seed in their various languages and write about it in their various scripts.  The real thing is the physical object, and the true linguistic referent for that thing is the spoken word, while the visual representation of the spoken word is accomplished through writing.  One can only "own" a word if one attaches it to a special product or service that one has created and which is not identical with the original thing.


Etymological afterword

sesame (n.)

early 15c., sisamie, "annual herbaceous plant cultivated primarily for its seeds," probably from Latin sesamum (nominative sesama), from Greek sēsamon (Doric sasamon) "seed or fruit of the sesame plant," a very early borrowing via Phoenician from Late Babylonian *shawash-shammu (compare Assyrianshamash-shammu "sesame," literally "oil-seed"). Medieval Latin had it as sisaminum; Old French as sisamin.

It first appears in English as a magic charm in a 1722 translation of Galland's "Mille et une nuits," where it causes the door of the thieves' den in "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" to fly open. It began to be used in contexts outside the Tales by 1790s.

A warehouse, a shop, or more generally a stable, is under every private dwelling-house. When you ring the bell, the door is opened by a long string from above ; like the "Open Sesame," in the Arabian Tales. [Southey, "Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal," 1799]



zhīma 芝麻 (where 麻 by itself could mean "hemp" and zhī 芝 ("grass; sod") early on could be used in the expression língzhī 靈芝 ("numinous grass [magic mushroom] Ganoderma]" and in the Japanese word for "theater; play" [shibai (芝居, apparently from the old custom of sitting out on the grass to watch performances]), from earlier zhimá 脂麻 (where 脂 by itself means "fat; grease; lard")


Selected readings


  1. Ebenezer Scrooge said,

    February 5, 2023 @ 4:50 pm

    The Uniform Commercial Code has a similar problem. Article 9 of the UCC relies mostly on "financing statements:" a way of claiming dibs on particular collateral of a particular debtor. The financing statement must use the precise real name of the debtor. For US corporates, that is defined as their incorporation name. It has to be absolute precise on the financing statement, so that third parties who search against names will know that the filer has claimed original dibs on the collateral. The filing office works in standard US Roman: 26 characters and no accents.

    With foreign firms, things can get difficult. Does "Bankhaus Höß" transliterate to "Bankhaus Hoess" or "Bankhaus Hoss" or some other combination? (Arguably, some filing offices will only recognize "Bankhaus H", and throw out the funny foreign characters.) Firms chartered in non-Roman jurisdictions are even worse. Fortunately, the Japanese are kindly, and use multiple names: one of them in good old American Romaji.

  2. AntC said,

    February 5, 2023 @ 5:46 pm

    Oh, I was hoping this was going to be about an etymological connection between sesame and zhima(?) Is -shammu too phonetically remote to be cognate?

    Archaeological remnants of charred sesame dating to about 3500-3050 BCE suggest sesame was domesticated in the Indian subcontinent at least 5500 years ago.[18][19] It has been claimed that trading of sesame between Mesopotamia and the Indian subcontinent occurred by 2000 BC.[20] It is possible that the Indus Valley civilization exported sesame oil to Mesopotamia, where it was known as ilu in Sumerian and ellu in Akkadian.

    But not traded from Indus valley to China?

  3. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    February 5, 2023 @ 6:09 pm

    I wonder how an attempt to trademark something along the lines of ˈsesəmi would fare. (This is a genuine bona fide question.)

  4. Michael Watts said,

    February 5, 2023 @ 6:31 pm

    As much as it's obvious that Alibaba was going for "sesame" here, it seems like they deserved to win the suit. Apple Inc. (formerly Apple Computer Company, today nothing but "Apple Inc.") is arguably named in English with a word that is meaningful in English. And in fact they go by the name 苹果公司 (literally "apple company") in China. But the Apple in their name doesn't refer to an apple, it refers to them, and if they wanted to go by Apole (however spelled) in China, that would make just as much sense, and the argument for that would be "our name is "Apple", not "Pingguo". I don't go around telling Chinese people that my name is sheixiangshangdi.

    Was Alibaba trying to convey the idea of "sesame" to its American customers? If I, an American, file for a trademark on "WOMEN", will it defeat my application that I didn't mention that my mark is Chinese for "us"?

  5. ~flow said,

    February 5, 2023 @ 6:59 pm

    @Michael Watts: exactly this. Am I not allowed to trademark an arbitrary combination of letters and digits, like, say 'R2D2' (imagining that to be a novel combination)? Also, should it transpire that I'm hailing from, say, a place called Tatooine, and that in Tatooinian, 'R2D2' happens to be read 'atuditu' meaning 'sesame', would my application be acceptable to the trademark office only up to the point where someone working there connects the dots (my native language and its peculiar orthography)? Why is it taken for granted that ZHIMA is written in Pinyin at all? There's lots of words from other languages than Mandarin that are customarily spelled with what could be read as Pinyin, like MEN, WOMEN, HE, GANG, and so on, so what makes the office so sure that ZHIMA is in fact a rendering of the Mandarin word for 'sesame'?

  6. Jon W said,

    February 5, 2023 @ 7:12 pm

    @Michael Watts — The reason for the trademark office's requirement is that some people in the U.S. speak Chinese. The goal is to avoid situations in which somebody (not Apple Inc.) registers Pingguo as a trademark to sell computers in the U.S., and Chinese speakers in the U.S. are confused as to whether this is Apple Inc. or not. I see no reason why Alibaba's registration of ZHIMA would have led to the same confusion, but the trademark office bounced its application all the same because it didn't comply with the rules.

  7. VVOV said,

    February 5, 2023 @ 7:12 pm

    The discussion reminds me tangentially of cases in which acronyms "officially" do not stand for the words that originally composed them.

    I'm sure there are more, but the example that comes to mind is the SAT (the American college entrance exam) which originally stood for "Scholastic Aptitude Test". However, since 1997 the College Board's official position has been that "SAT" does not stand for anything (since, they admit, it is not a good measurement of scholastic aptitude), but is just an arbitrary string of letters that refers solely to the name of the test.

  8. Jon W said,

    February 5, 2023 @ 7:15 pm

    And to be clear — the rule is not that people can't register marks that include non-English wording; it's just that if they seek to register such a mark, they have to disclose the meaning in the non-English language so that the trademark office can evaluate the possibility for confusion.

  9. xiesong said,

    February 5, 2023 @ 7:19 pm

    As always, Word War starts prior to World War. You linguistists are much needed now as long as the war stays in word. I am here posting an unpublished fiction ( only part one is permitted by the author to make public). It is about the "plutonic" connection between Chinese word "gui (規)" and English word "compass."

    A Chef and A Mason
    by Hongcheng

    A Chef, who quickly run out his fortune on the mission Cook Chinese Food Free for the Whole World, came back to his Chef's Kitchen. A Mason who just got promotion walked into the Kitchen.
    M What's new? Chef!
    C it is on the menu, Sir.
    Mason sat down, opened up the menu and saw Guiju 規矩 under the Today's Main Course; Quan 犬, Ju 巨 under the Side Dishes.
    M what the hell is Guiju?
    C it's on your shirt, Sir.
    Mason knew his brand new shirt had a big masonic logo on it. Feeling uneasy, Mason raised his voice a little bit, "Well, Mr Chef, you better explain to me why in the hell you want to cook THE logo." "no offense, no offense, Sir." Chef apologically explained "it's just a name, a name of the dish. We got all kinds of names, King, Queen, Dragon, Tiger…sooner or later, President will be on the menu too. You know, Chinese love fancy names. They call their home White House, their farm Royal Garden and their orchard Eden…and so on. They admire prestige and die to be one of you. Sir." Being relieved now, Mason couriously asked "why then does Guiju have any business to do with my compass and square?"
    C Well, you see, Gui規 in Chinese is a compass, and Ju矩 is a square.
    M Ok, so yours is just a name; mine are simply tools for our profession. Fair enough.
    C Oh, no, no, Sir. yours are not just tools when the two come together.
    M Uh hum, go on.

  10. xiesong said,

    February 5, 2023 @ 7:22 pm

    A Chef and A Mason (2)
    by Hongcheng

    C See, in Chinese, we put these two words together to make a short phrase. That phrase Guiju 規矩 actually means rules and regulations, the two kind of inseparable anymore, being used all the time for thousands of years now.
    M Uh hum, Intersting!
    C Sir, if you look carefully at the Chinese character Gui 規 for compass, you can tell it is actually made of another two characters. One on the left Fu 夫 means "husband"; one on the right 見 means "see".
    M You didn't answer my question why it has anything to do with my compass.
    C Sir, Sir, be a little patient please. I am getting there.
    Chef qiuckly pulled out a piece of napkin and hurrily wrote down following Chinese characters: Ren 人; Da 大; Fu 夫; Er 兒; Er 儿.
    Fearing more characters may cause even worse disconfort for Mason, Chef immediately pointed his finger at the first word 人, asking Mason "this does look like a compass, doesn't it?"
    M Yeh?
    C But it means in Chinese "person; people."
    M Why?
    C On the top of two legs is where we human come from, agree?

  11. xiesong said,

    February 5, 2023 @ 7:24 pm

    A Chef and A Mason (3)
    by Hongcheng

    Mason showed a big smile on his face and said "I like your interpretation, Chef. Yes, I am totally with you. You people are smart. Please go on. I'm litsening."
    Chef finally got his normal mood back and continued: "some people though like to interpret it more specifically, saying it represents a man walking, because his legs are spread."
    M There is nothing wrong with that.
    C The second one 大 looks a lot like the first, except that his arms strech out. For that, people interpret the word as "a man running" like a bird flying and gliding in the sky. (Pause for a second here) Sir, You don't run in your house, do you?
    M Well, I occasionally rush to the bathroom, but not a lot.
    C I certainly hope you are not running in my kitchen. Well, the point I was trying to make is that it is why the word is settled to its meaning as "big."
    M Oh, yeh. running does need a lot of space. Making sense, understandable. I finally got it. Let me guess the third one. It follows the second word 大, which is a big running man. So husband 夫 means the big man runs the house in the sense of "being in charge." I got it, did I? But husband still uses his legs a lot, arms too, not mentioning the mouth and the mind. Oh, God, husband is a tough job.
    C You are absolutely correct. Husband also needs to know the rules and regulations and leads wife and kids to follow them. One more thing I need to add here. Have you noticed a short bar on the top?
    M Of course, that is how it looks different than the "big 大." So what is it?
    C It is a pin holding a cap during a ritual for a male youth who reaches adulthood and is ready to be a husband.

  12. xiesong said,

    February 5, 2023 @ 7:27 pm

    A Chef and A Mason (4)

    M Wow, interesting! What about the last two 兒儿?
    C The upper part of 兒 symbolizes the baby's skull opening on the top of the head. They formally call it "fontanel" which is not completely closed until the baby reaches 18 months old. The lower part 儿 is a person who is sitting with his legs bended, not like what we have seen so far, either walking or running. The writing form, though, fits the situation perfectly because a baby couldn't even stand up by himself, and let alone walking and running.
    M Do you have a word for a person who stands still?
    C Yeh, we do. (Chef wrote down 亻on the napkin.)
    M Wow, now I have learned so much about chinese writing of a person, sitting, standing, walking, running, adult, and baby. The last one 儿 looks identical to the low part of the baby 兒, I assume it has the same meaning, sitting man. Am I right?
    C Yes, you are a good learner, Sir.
    M Thanks, Chef!
    C Well, speaking about the baby 兒, I forgot to tell you it has a very important extended meaning.
    M What is it?
    C It is "son 兒". Unfortunately, this word is replaced by sitting man 儿 in mainland China for the reason of simplication. It became hard for me to explain to my chidren why I have to knelt and kowtow to my parents like a baby in a ritual situation. With the traditional form 兒, it would be a lot easier to show them no matter how old you are, you are always a baby son as long as both or either one of your parents is still alive.
    M Good point! We do that too. We knelt and pray to our God Father in church services. Well, time flies. We haven't even finished one word yet. So what about the word 見 on the right? You said a little while ago it means "see." Let me try to figure out why, because I already saw the sitting man 儿 showed up again here. I already knew it means "see." Does the upper word (目)have anything to do with "eye?"
    C Bingo! It is Mu 目 in Chinese, meaning eye. You people are smart too.

  13. xiesong said,

    February 5, 2023 @ 7:29 pm

    A Chef and A Mason (5)
    by Hongcheng

    M How do you pronounce "see" 見?
    C "Jian" in mandarin, but "gian, or gien" sound in southern part of China is considered to be ancient pronunciation. I heard people say King is the man who sees it all. I wonder whether or not it has anything to with chinese Jian 見, which originally means the man who has extreme vision and wisdom. It was a noun, not a verb.
    M No way. But the eye 目 in Jian 見 does look extremely big, even bigger than the man 儿 down below it.
    C Yes, it is a lot like the big eye you were wearing the other day. Remember? The logo on your other shirt with big eye above the pyramid.
    M Uh hum, Uh hum, you could say that, you could say that. Some connections there.
    C Do you know what I am thinking about the pymamid?
    M What is it?
    C It is a guiju 規矩.
    M Why?
    C Well, the bottom of the pymamid is a square sitting on the ground and above the square are four compasses leaning against each other. That is a guiju 規矩 to me.
    M Good observation. Debatable but reasonable.
    C I also think the English word compass has both eye and ren (人) in it.
    M What? How so? Are you teaching me English now?
    C You see. When you pass, your legs have to be spread, don't they?
    M You mean that is the form of a compass. That's ok. I can take it for the moment but where the hell is the eye? You don't mean "com" is an eye, Don't you?
    C Well, Sir. Your great great…great grand masters, whom I hold highest respect like all the sages in ancient China. But it seems to me, they liked to play mind games.
    M Go on, I shall know what game being played here as you claimed.
    C You see, in chinese character 規, the element of 人 is on the left side and the eye 目 on the right. Your masters switched 人 to the right and 目 to the left, so you should read "com" backward.
    M Mo…moc…mok, mok?
    C Yes, it's Mu 目, the eye.
    M But it doesn't sound exact the same.
    C Mok is the ancient pronunciation, but people down the south of China are still using it on a daily basis. Easy to find it out.
    M Wow, holy molly. I will be shocked if all this turns to be true.

  14. Michael Watts said,

    February 5, 2023 @ 8:55 pm

    The reason for the trademark office's requirement is that some people in the U.S. speak Chinese. The goal is to avoid situations in which somebody (not Apple Inc.) registers Pingguo as a trademark to sell computers in the U.S., and Chinese speakers in the U.S. are confused as to whether this is Apple Inc. or not.

    But this is nonsense. When the scammer registers Pingguo as an American trademark, the problem is not that, because "pingguo" means "apple" in Chinese, American speakers of Chinese might be confused over whether the American company "Pingguo" is the American company "Apple".

    The problem is that, because 苹果 is the Chinese name of Apple Inc., American Chinese speakers might be confused over whether the American company "Pingguo" is the Chinese company 苹果.

    The trademark office is not concerned about the confusion you refer to and isn't set up to catch it. If I register the trademark AMAZONG, that happens to be the Mandarin pinyin for "Amazon", the tribe of one-breasted women from Greek mythology. There is no risk of confusion with "Amazon", the online retailing company, since the name of that company in Chinese is 亚马逊 yamaxun, a meaningless collection of characters that cannot be said to have an English translation other than "it's the name of". (And the river is 亚马孙 yamasun, different again!)

    If the USPTO were concerned about this, they would be checking trademark filings against registered Chinese trademarks; a Chinese dictionary has nothing to contribute.

    What is the relevance of the putative English translation of AMAZONG supposed to be?

  15. Martin Schwartz said,

    February 5, 2023 @ 9:04 pm

    Open SESAME?? There is a pleasant and learned article by the late Iranist, Ilya Gershevitch, "Sissoo at Susa", which showed that the Old Persian wood called yakā is Dalbergia sissoo, a wood traditionally popular in Iran etc. for making doors. This is known i English as sheesham wood, and is familiar for carved bookstands
    etc. from India. Gershevitch noted that this wood was mistranslated as "sesame" in "open sesame", a phrase indeed odd as to realia.
    @xiesong; As to your final line, that should be "holy moly".
    My generation learned that phrase from Captain Marvel Comics
    (not to be confused with the later Marvel Group of comic books).
    Moly (môlu) is a magical plant in Homer. According to Diosco(u)rides, a wonderful source for plant names in various ancient languages, many lost, moly/môlu is is the Cappadocian
    name for Peganum harmala.
    Martin Schwartz

  16. Michael Watts said,

    February 5, 2023 @ 9:41 pm

    Also, based on consulting a Chinese dictionary, Alibaba's case that ZHIMA cannot be identified as meaning "sesame" in the absence of some sort of indication of meaning looks like a slam dunk. Other dictionary entries include 织麻 "to weave linen" and 纸马 "paper horse [to be burned as an offering to the dead]" ; the second of those is so common that it is a prominent suggestion when the pinyin "zhima" is entered into an IME.

  17. ohwilleke said,

    February 5, 2023 @ 11:50 pm

    An aside to the open sesame story.

    It turns out that the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves was a late addition to the 1001 Nights Anthology of stories probably added from oral tradition received in Syria by a Frenchman who is the first person to have put it in print, centuries after the other stories were written down.

    And, the code word "Open Sesame" in the story, perfectly corresponds to the Serbian phase "otvori se za me" meaning "open yourself for me.", which is just what the magical stones do when prompted by the code word.

    But, what is a Serbian phase doing in an Arabian story?

    Well, it turns out the Slavs were relocated by the Byzantines to serve as buffer populations between the Byzantine Empire and the the Umayyad and subsequent Abbasid caliphates, right along what is now the Syrian border. So it is natural that a Serbian phrase or story might make its way into an orally transmitted tale in Syria.

    See generally

  18. Victor Mair said,

    February 6, 2023 @ 7:22 am

    Thank you, ohwilleke, for that informatioon about the Serbian involvement with the "Open sesame" catchphrase. (but see the skeptical comments below)

    "From 'Servia' to 'Serbia'" 912/21/15)

    "Slavs and slaves" (1/17/19)

    "Slaves and clients; Arabic Mamluks and mawlas: a fishy Turkic tail" (5/11/21)

    "European slaves in the year 1000" (5/5/20)

  19. Jon W said,

    February 6, 2023 @ 8:43 am

    @Michael Watts: The U.S. trademark office's understanding of what confusion it is trying to avoid is different from yours. See, e.g., Ex parte Odol-Werke Wien Gesellschaft M.B.H., 111 USPQ 286 (Comm’r Pats. 1956) (affirming the refusal to register the mark "Chat Noir" in the U.S. because the words "Black Cat" were already registered here for related goods). For more extensive background, see Anne Lafonde, Far from Fluent: Making Sense of the Doctrine of Foreign Equivalents, 112 Trademark Rep. 771 (2022). And I can assure you that if you sought, as you say, to register the trademark AMAZONG in any trademark class, the trademark office would indeed find a risk of confusion with the Amazon retailing company.

  20. Lameen said,

    February 6, 2023 @ 9:21 am

    And, the code word "Open Sesame" in the story, perfectly corresponds to the Serbian phase "otvori se za me" meaning "open yourself for me"

    Not in Arabic it doesn't: it's iftaḥ yā simsim. It vaguely works in French (sésame = [sezam]), but then you'd have to assume the attested Arabic versions just derive from translations from French, in which case you should be looking for mysterious Serbian oral traditions in France, not in Aleppo.

  21. languagehat said,

    February 6, 2023 @ 10:20 am

    And, the code word "Open Sesame" in the story, perfectly corresponds to the Serbian phase "otvori se za me" meaning "open yourself for me.", which is just what the magical stones do when prompted by the code word.

    This is the folkiest folk etymology I've heard in some time. I hope no one takes it as an actual explanation.

  22. RfP said,

    February 6, 2023 @ 4:06 pm

    Rest assured that the phrase in the story comes from Popeye’s famous incantation: “Open Sez Me!”

  23. Rube said,

    February 6, 2023 @ 4:16 pm

    @RfP: When I was a child, in a household so whitebread I had never heard of sesame seeds, I'm pretty sure I thought the Popeye etymology was the real one.

  24. Michael Watts said,

    February 6, 2023 @ 5:14 pm

    but then you'd have to assume the attested Arabic versions just derive from translations from French

    Isn't the French version of the story the earliest attested one?

  25. ohwilleke said,

    February 6, 2023 @ 5:38 pm


    It is. In particular, as noted in the OP: "It first appears in English as a magic charm in a 1722 translation of Galland's "Mille et une nuits," where it causes the door of the thieves' den in "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" to fly open."

  26. Terry Hunt said,

    February 6, 2023 @ 7:13 pm

    @ohwilleke, I have read elsewhere that the story was told by a Syrian professional storyteller who had travelled to Paris and related to the Frenchman many traditional stories, plus this one which was probably his own original creation.

  27. David Marjanović said,

    February 6, 2023 @ 10:04 pm

    That reminds me of the book that proves the Serbs are the oldest nation. Exhibit A: all words in all other languages come from Serbian. For example, Muḥammad is muha ("fly"; with [x]) + med ("honey"), and so on for many, many pages.

  28. Andreas Johansson said,

    February 7, 2023 @ 4:37 am

    Tangential, but why do the Mandarin renderings of the Amazon river and the Amazon company have Ya- where the that of the mythical women warriors have A-? An attempt to render an English fronted vowel while the mythological name is taken from some other western language?

  29. Rodger C said,

    February 7, 2023 @ 10:55 am

    Andreas, I think that's a sign that the name was first borrowed into Cantonese, which has (I think, again) a glottal stop instead of /j/ there. Cf. "Yazhou" for Asia.

  30. Chris Button said,

    February 8, 2023 @ 7:43 am

    It’s interesting that 芝麻 was originally 脂麻. The sense of 脂 seems to accord with the apparently literal sense of Akkadian šamaššammu as “oil-seed"

  31. Kate Bunting said,

    February 8, 2023 @ 11:18 am

    I hadn't heard of sesame seeds as a child either, and always supposed it was just a 'magic word' like 'abracadabra'.

  32. Mark S. said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 11:45 pm

    @Michael Watts:
    We seem to have very different ideas of what makes a "slam dunk." This is not a context-free situation. For example, if one looks at the logo (top left) on one of the relevant Alibaba sites, one sees that it is a squiggle plus the following:


    "信用" is how the Mandarin word for "credit" (xìnyòng) is usually written. That leaves the equation of "芝麻" with "ZHIMA", which doesn't really offer a lot of room for various interpretations of what is meant by "ZHIMA".

    Anyway, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board did look in dictionaries and rejected the argument put forward by Alibaba's representative.

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