No word in any European language for "a vice common in Asia"

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Mark Swofford recently encountered a variation of the "no word for" trope in a footnote in an 1831 work, History of the Pirates Who Infested the China Sea from 1807 to 1810 (Jìng hǎi fēn jì 靖海氛記), translated by Karl Friedrich Neumann.

Here's the passage:

Chang paou was a native of Sin hwy, near the mouth of the river, and the son of a fisherman. Being fifteen years of age, he went with his father a fishing in the sea, and they were consequently taken prisoners by Ching yĭh, who roamed about the mouth of the river, ravaging and plundering. Ching yĭh saw Paou, and liked him so much, that he could not depart from him. Paou was indeed a clever fellow—he managed all business very well; being also a fine young man, he became a favourite of Ching yĭh,[39] and was made a head-man or captain.

The note reads: "39. The word pe (8335) cannot be translated in any European language. It means a vice common in Asia."

That raises several questions. What Chinese character does "pe" refer to?  What does 8335 signify? And how should we translate the word in the original?

Another question would be why Neumann chose to write in English rather than German. I suspect this is because in China at that time the British were far more important than the Germans.

The complete text of the book the quotation is from can be found here.

Mark has already checked the whole of the translator's preface. It doesn't explain the numerical reference. (Similar numbers are used throughout the text.)

Let's begin by attacking the problem of what Chinese word "pe" is referring to and then concern ourselves with the number.

At first I thought that the word in question might be pǐ 癖 ("addiction; obsession; weakness for") — cf. pǐ'ài 癖愛 ("obsessive love"), pǐxìng 癖性 ("obsessive; addictive"), pǐbìng 癖病 ("addiction; obsession").  However, both for phonological and semantic reasons, I came to feel that pǐ 癖 ("addiction; obsession; weakness for") does not work as well as bì 嬖 ("bestow favor on; show favors to; take as a favorite; be in somebody's good graces; enjoy the favor of; a favorite"), e.g., bì zhī 嬖之 ("show favor to him / her"), but here used euphemistically.

N.B.:  both pǐ 癖 ("addiction; obsession; weakness for") and bì 嬖 ("bestow favor on; show favors to; take as a favorite; be in somebody's good graces; enjoy the favor of; a favorite") share the same phonophore, viz. 辟, bì ("monarch, sovereign; invest a subordinate with an official post") / pì ("open up [territory, land]; break ground; refute; repudiate; penetrating; incisive").  Note also that bì 嬖 ("bestow favor on; show favors to; take as a favorite", etc.) has the "woman" semantophore / radical at the bottom, even though — as we shall see below — it often refers to males.

In his magisterial Chinese History:  A New Manual (pp. 588b-589a), Endymion Wilkinson briefly recounts the story of the pirate Zhang Baozai (i.e., the "Chang paou" of Neumann's translation).  It is not surprising that a pirate, even a married one, who spends long periods of time on the seas, might be inclined to "pe" (more precisely, bì 嬖 ["bestow favor on; show favors to; take as a favorite", etc.] one of his subordinates).

That Neumann's "pe" is actually bì 嬖 ("bestow favor on; show favors to; take as a favorite", etc.) is corroborated by the occurrence of bìtóng 嬖僮 // 嬖童 ("favored lad / boy") in premodern texts (see Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 漢語大詞典 [Unabridged dictionary of Sinitic], 4.417b), which is synonymous with luántóng 孌童 ("catamite; pedophilia; pederasty").

Now, how to explain the number 8335 in Neumann's note 39?  Since such numbers occur regularly with romanized transcriptions of the sounds of Chinese characters in his text, it is fairly obvious that they must be serial numbers for entries in a dictionary.  Inasmuch as "pe" is #8335, this must mean that Neumann was referring to a large dictionary of 10,000 or more characters.  The only such dictionary with romanized transcriptions dating to 1831 or before that I can think of is Robert Morrison's A Dictionary of the Chinese Language in Three Parts.  Fortunately, it is in Google Books, so I raced to it and, lo and behold, found on p. 650a of Part II, Vol. 1 (Macao:  Printed at the Honorable East India Company's Press by P. P. Thom, 1819), with the serial number 8335, pe 嬖.

Morrison there lists the following compounds:

bìqiè 嬖妾 ("favored concubine")

bìxìng 嬖幸 ("fortunately favored")

bìtóng 嬖童 ("favored lad / boy")

bìrén 嬖人 ("favored person")

Morrison groups the latter three under the following definition:  "persons abused for unnatural purposes".

Another large dictionary from the 19th century is Herbert A. Giles, A Chinese-English Dictionary, 2nd ed., rev. and enlgd., (Shanghai and London, 1912; 1st ed., Shanghai, 1892), which has the following entries on p. 1094a:

bìrén 嬖人 or àibì 愛嬖 ("a favourite")

bìtóng 嬖童 or bìxìng 嬖幸 ("a catamite, a pathic" [a word I didn't know before, but which essentially means "a person who suffers; a victim"])

bìqiè 嬖妾 ("a favorite concubine")

Inasmuch as "catamite" has been in English since at least the sixteenth century, there was definitely a word for this "vice common in Asia" before Neumann's time.  Quite possibly there may be a more appropriate and even older word.  And the formidable Robert van Gulik, who not only penned the Judge Dee mysteries, but also wrote about sex in ancient China (plus much else besides), would probably have known lots of appropriate words in several European languages.  At any rate, "pe" is hardly untranslatable — unless the translator simply refuses, protesting rather too much that this is an Asian thing. Perhaps he had his own, pre-Burtonian definition of "the sotadic zone."

Granted, the nuances of "pe" (i.e., bìtóng 嬖童 ["favored lad / boy"] and "catamite, pathic", etc. are not exactly the same, but there is always bound to be some slippage when translating from one language to another.

[Thanks to Endymion Wilkinson, Keith McMahon, Sanping Chen, Julie Wei, and Rebecca Fu]


  1. Bill W said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 11:21 pm

    "Pathic" has a more specific meaning than "person who suffers", "victim":

  2. rootlesscosmo said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 11:23 pm

    Yes–I first encountered "pathic" in an article about Roger Casement. From the context I took it to mean a man who takes the receptive role in anal intercourse.

  3. Carl said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 11:44 pm

    I had never heard the term "sotadic zone" before, although I had wondered if the Afghan practice of "bacha bazi" might be a culture descendent of the ancient Greek invasion.

  4. John Swindle said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 12:51 am

    "[C]annot be translated in any European language" is unambiguous, but I wonder nonetheless whether K. F. Neumann meant that it wouldn't be proper to do so, even in Latin or French.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 12:52 am

    From Axel Schuessler:

    Generally speaking, many languages (any language) has unique words and concepts not readily available in other languages, or in a particular other language. Hence "no word in any European language" should not be a surprise. (Of course it would help to know what this vice is, i.e. what people were actually doing). — When I first came to America and learned English, I constantly ran against a linguistic wall because there were no English equivalents for what I wanted to say (gönnen, Unverschämtheit, and especially (modal?) particles like mal, auch, aber, doch, ja….— How translate an ordinary statement like: "Das hat er ja aber doch auch schon öfter mal gesagt"); or English equivalents exist only in dictionaries but are never used in actual speech. Ironically, American English borrows German words on occasion for which there exist perfect English equivalents (Angst = dread, fear, worry). And of course Chinese has many culture-specific words which cannot be readily translated. Think how often you find that translators just give up and use a Chinese term.

  6. William Steed said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 2:04 am

    So, the 'vice common in Asia' is also the 'Greek vice'. It seems that the circumlocution for pederasty in older texts is to recast it in another culture ("We don't do it here").

  7. Bill Benzon said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 2:37 am

    @William Steed: See this note on "the English vice" (spanking):

  8. Joseph Bottum said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 3:17 am

    Like Mr. Swindle above, I wonder if the "cannot be translated" here is intended with social and moral force rather than expressing linguistic possibility—referencing the vice that is "not named among Christians," not because there were no words for it, but because to name it incited the mind to consider it as a possible behavior. The root is surely Paul, in Ephesians 5:3: "But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints" (KJV).

  9. John said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 4:26 am

    At first I thought the phrase he was talking about literally meant "a vice common in Asia", rather than referring to a specific one. That would certainly be an oddly specific semantic space; I suspect somebody looking to say that would go with something like "the Asian disease/vice", much as commenters above have mentioned "the Greek vice" and "the English vice".

    (Or perhaps "the China syndrome"…?)

    But yeah, it definitely seems more a deliberate avoidance of an "improper" subject than a serious academic assertion that there's no such word in Western parlance, because he must have been fully aware there are several.

  10. Jason said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 6:44 am

    Interesting that the work of Robert van Gulik comes up. I've always thought that he could only get away with the reasonably frank depiction of what he calls "sapphism" in The Chinese Maze Murders, a topic associated with cheap sleazy dime novels of the time, because he retained the appropriate veneer of scholarly anthropological detachment. Much like the "anthropological nudity exception" that still exists today.

    In other words, you can refer to "a vice common in Asia" so long as you don't intimate that we could be guilty of such a terrible thing.

  11. Vilinthril said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 10:06 am

    What's wrong with “impudence/insolence” for Unverschämtheit? Gönnen is more difficult, granted, but some formulation involving “not to begrudge” would work …

    Particles are always difficult, of course, yeah …

  12. languagehat said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 10:24 am

    "Pathic" has a more specific meaning than "person who suffers", "victim"

    Yes indeed, and you don't have to go to a Greek dictionary to find out; the OED (updated June 2005) says quite straightforwardly "A man or boy who is the passive partner in homosexual anal intercourse," with citations from 1605 (B. Jonson, Sejanus i. i. 216: "He..was the noted Pathike of the time") to 2001 (Irish Times 12 Sept. "Those who prosecuted him..claimed he was a paedophilic pathic").

  13. un malpaso said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 10:33 am

    Interesting, but since we "don't have a word for it" in my particular language, English, obviously I find myself utterly unable to conceive of what you are talking about. As a matter of fact, I have no idea what "it" even refers to here. My mind has become a total blank.


  14. Vicki said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 10:53 am

    I suspect that even if it had been true that there was a Chinese practice for which there was "no word in any European language," Neumann would not have been qualified to say this with certainty. To do so, a person would have to be fluent not only in English, German, French, Greek, and Latin, but in Basque, Serbo-Croatian, Welsh, Hungarian, Swedish, Albanian, and Finnish, and quite a few others. Fluent in, not merely familiar with or able to order a meal or understand road directions in.
    "Any language of Europe" is a long enough list to be more evidence that what he actually meant was something like "any word that I, as an educated gentleman, am prepared to suggest that my readers know," and not "I know three dozen European languages, and nobody discusses this in any of them."

  15. Milan said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 11:35 am

    @Vicki: Obviously He wouldn't need to be fluent in all European languages. It would be enough to be able to describe the concept to speakers of all those languages (in a third language) and ask them whether the knew a word to express it. He probably would be too prude to do so though…
    Anyway, European, I think, in this case doesn't not refer to the actual, physical Europe but to a metaphysical community of the enlightened and educated European. European language then would be the languages that were commonly spoken among them and in which scholarship was conducted.
    What's about the possibility that he literally couldn't name the vice in any such language, because that would mean the censors could understand it?

  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 11:40 am

    Gibbon famously said "My English text is chaste, and all licentious passages are left in the obscurity of a learned language" (often quoted as "the decent obscurity of a learned language"), and I'm pretty sure he was not the only writer of the 18th and 19th century who adopted the stratagem of leaving sexually-explicit passages in untranslated Latin or Greek in the middle of a modern-vernacular text (or even perhaps giving the naughty parts of a Greek text in Latin translation in the middle of what was otherwise a translation into modern vernacular?). Using untranslated Chinese as the "obscur[e] learned language" might I suppose be considered a forward-looking and multicultural adaptation of the same practice.

    Neumann sounds like an interesting character. How many academics of more specialized recent generations have held joint appointments as professor of Armenian and Chinese (and then in retirement wrote German-language histories of the United States as well as of the Opium Wars)?

  17. Victor Mair said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

    @J. W.Brewer

    Clement Edgerton's English translation of the Chinese erotic novel known as The Golden Lotus rendered the explicit pornographic passages into Latin. The whole novel has now been masterfully retranslated into English by David Roy as The Plum in the Golden Vase, 5 volumes (Princeton University Press, 1993-2013).

  18. Cal said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 12:16 pm

    I was reading a travel narrative a month or so ago written by a British traveler named Alexander Hamilton (sadly, not the famous, American Hamilton). His book, published in 1727, has this to say about sex in Canton:

    "The abominable Sin of Sodomy is tolerated here, and all over China, and so is Buggery, which they use both with Beasts and Fowls, in so much that Europeans do not care to eat Duck, except what they bring up themselves, either from the Egg, or from small Ducklings."

    So perhaps this is what Neumann was referring to. (Although for the sake of all those poor ducks, I hope not.)

    Link to the Google Books entry.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

    From a German friend:

    In polite society we would say in German that as an educated person Karl Friedrich Neumann "hat durch die Blume gesprochen" in order to avoid offending his readers.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

    If you want to see the full page of Cal's link, click on the page number (p. 240) at the top left.

  21. Paul R. Goldin said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

    A little digression on the German expressions that Axel mentioned.

    "Impudence/insolence" isn't quite right for Unverschämtheit, because the latter is countable (one of the reasons why it's so hard to translate). A lovely German exclamation like "Das ist doch eine Unverschämtheit!" can only be translated periphrastically, I think. ("Who do you think you are?" or "How dare you?" because literally it's something like "That is indeed an instance of insolence!")

    Gönnen is indeed close to "not to begrudge."

    Ja, mal, schon–those are all more characteristic of spoken German than written German. We have nearly untranslatable words like that in English too ("well" and "like" come to mind).

  22. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 2:42 pm

    @ J W Brewer, re Gibbon: curses, you beat me to it.

    The passages about the empress Theodora's pre-imperial career as an actress (harrumph) helped my Greek comprehension quite a bit.

  23. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 2:49 pm

    Edward Sapir, in his Southern Paiute texts, puts some of the bits less likely to conform to the taste or prudery of contemporary Anglos into Latin in his en face translations, so the custom persisted well into the twentieth century.

  24. Sean M said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 3:12 pm

    A 20th century Penguin translation of Catullus printed some of the more sexually explicit lines in the Latin rather than translating them. Greek, Latin, and their myth certainly gave Neuman a wide selection of words or euphemisms which he could have used. Perhaps the patrons of the Oriental Translation Fund were prissy?

  25. Vilinthril said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 3:43 pm

    @Goldin: Yeah, countability is not directly translatable, but “What insolence!” comes quite close to Was für eine Unverschämtheit! to my ears.

    Agree on particles in German vs. in English.

  26. naddy said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 6:06 pm

    At least "membrum virile" pops up in Vasmer's etymological dictionary of Russian, showing that the use of Latin terms as euphemisms indeed persisted well into the 20th century.

  27. Philip Lawton said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 6:16 pm

    It's very interesting that the translator claimed there was no word for the "vice". I would agree that it is almost certain he knew of words for it, but was choosing to leave them in "decent obscurity".

    In my undergrad disssertation (published as Lawton: "For the Gentleman and the Scholar: Sexual and Scatological References in the Loeb Classical Library", Expurgation and the Classics, Bloomsbury Academic, 2012) I catalogued the different ways in which translators of classical texts avoided "rude" material, and footnotes played quite a big part, especially when translating from Greek. They included these two kinds:

    1) "There's something nasty here, some translators in the past have got rid of it, but I've given it to you, just in Latin, instead of English"
    2) "What I printed in the main body of the translation is nonsense, so here's what it really means, just in Latin again, not English"

    But never: "I really have no idea how to say in English what they're talking about, so I'll just leave it".

  28. Dave Cragin said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 9:41 pm

    Victor pointed out loan words in American English that originated in German.

    American English also has quite a number from Dutch as well including cookie, boss, waffle, spook, landscape, caboose, sleigh, and cruller. This is due to the early Dutch settlers. Even though they were few in number, they settled in strategically important ports and had a disproportionate impact on the language. Notably, most of these words are so dominant, there is no alternative (i.e., virtually no American would use the British term "biscuit" for "cookie").

  29. Emily said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 10:40 pm

    Regarding the use of Latin for concealing unchaste passages: The Loeb Classical Library version of Martial's epigrams (with English and Latin on facing pages) translates the more salacious ones into Italian. Although that seems to have been a last resort; a lot of them just seem to employ euphemisms in English.

  30. Endymion Wilkinson said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 10:58 pm

    When in doubt check the original. Only two exemplars of the editions of the text that Neumann translated are known to exist. Both are in the British Library. The Chinese author used the expression "bi zhi" 嬖之 (doted on him) which Neumann translated as "became a favorite of" and shortened and transcribed in his note as "pe". In the previous clause the Chinese author says Zhang Baozai was "intelligent, skilled in repartee and as a young man had the features of a woman" (保聰慧,有口辨,且年少色美) which Neumann obscures as follows: Zhang "was indeed a clever fellow—he managed all business very well; being also a fine young man."

    Zhang Baozai (1786-1822) only lived to be 36. But in that short span he managed to go from (1) fisherman and martial arts enthusiast to (2) a notorious pirate captain in command of a fleet of 800 ships to (3) assistant regional commander in charge of Green Standards naval forces at Penghu (appointed by the Qing authorities) who inter alia successfully suppressed his erstwhile comrades. He also went from being Zheng Yi's catamite to becoming (after the death of Zheng) the de facto husband of Zheng's widow ("outwardly mistress and servant; in reality husband and wife"). She too was a pirate leader but her power in a few years was taken over by Zhang Baozai (then in mid career at about age 28).

    Recent Chinese accounts of his life are as circumspect as Neumann saying that Zheng Yi thought the 14-year old boy was intelligent and "kept him by his side." They also emphasize his patriotic actions in fighting against the foreign imperialists (indeed he captured several foreign ships for their gunpowder and opium).

  31. Yuanfei said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 12:10 am

    Despite the obvious trait of Neumann's "Orientalist" take of the word "pe," I wonder perhaps that there is also some linguistic or even aesthetic aspect to the difficulty of translation between non-Romanized characters and romanized letters. Sometimes I am struck by how peculiar a Chinese character looks that I forget how to translate it into English as if the peculiar morphological aspect of the character stands for its semantic uniqueness. 嬖 seems to be an unusual word, more unusual than 孌 and 癖.

  32. Mike said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 12:26 am

    Pathic, from the verb Gk pathein, also has the meaning of "to undergo something", which is closer to the semantic field of passive sexual partner than "sufferer". Related terms are (medical) patient, someone who undergoes a treatment, and pathos, in the sense that we are overcome by or undergo intense emotion.

  33. Paul R. Goldin said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 12:41 am

    @Mike: Not sure about all that. "Patient" is from Latin pati, "to suffer" (which also gives us "passion"), and I don't think the root is related to Greek pathos, because the latter goes back to a Proto-Indo-European labiovelar (*kw-).

    @Dave Cragin: To paraphrase Roman Jakobson, a biscuit doesn't taste nearly as delicious as a cookie.

  34. Bill W said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 7:36 am

    @Emily: Many of the older Loebs have been revised to translate the obscene passages into explicit English. The new edition of Martial by Shackleton-Bailey is a case in point. The older editions were produced in an era when there was a very real concern about censorship.

    You can read about it here:

    and here:

  35. Victor Mair said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 10:50 am

    From Carmen Lee:

    @Dave Cragin: "…virtually no American would use the British term 'biscuit' for 'cookie'"

    I have always wondered if "Cookie Monster" could have had such a monstrous success if he were called "Biscuit Monster". Well, perhaps "Biccy Monster". . . . BTW, do you know the Chinese name for "Cookie Monster"? It would be interesting to see how the names of Sesame Street characters are translated into different languages.

  36. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 11:03 am

    The only example of non-literal Muppet-name translation I happen to know of without doing actual research is that in the dubbed-into-German version of the Muppet Show the Swedish Chef becomes der dänische Koch. Presumably someone thought the German audience would find Danes more intrinsically humorous than Swedes? According to wikipedia, Cookie Monster is just transliterated as クッキーモンスター in Japanese, but that article doesn't link to a Mandarin-language equivalent.

  37. yt said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 2:00 pm

    Cookie Monster is translated as 餅乾怪獸 (wiki entry for 芝麻街 and Sesame Street China – Muppets). It looks like the only other Sesame Street character with a name with a literal translation is Big Bird (大鳥). The other names are translated phonetically.

  38. JS said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 9:43 pm

    餅乾怪獸 is clumsy… and it does look like the more satisfying 甜饼怪 is more common on the interwebs. for what it's worth.

  39. Vanya said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 5:23 am

    Presumably someone thought the German audience would find Danes more intrinsically humorous than Swedes?

    One humorous element of the Swedish Chef is that he speaks gibberish with lots of Swedish-like front rounded vowel sounds, which to Americans sounds very silly and humorous. For some reason Americans tend to associate front rounded vowels with silly foreigners (see also French). Swedish is close enough to German (and German also has front rounded vowels) that the producers may have felt that joke wouldn't work – but Danish sounds like gibberish even to fellow Scandinavians.

  40. Anthony said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 2:38 pm

    Forgive me if this has been discussed before, but I realized that English doesn't have *a* word for "doesn't have a word for", surely a dreadful omission. Does any other language have a single word we anglophones could adopt for such a useful and common phrase?

  41. Dave Cragin said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 12:45 am

    Victor – A while back, the Franklin Institute (in Philadelphia for those outside the area) showed an astronomy based Sesame Street show that had both Mandarin & English. It was called Big Birds adventure: One World, one sky.

    Vanya: The Nordic languages gave a sound to English that can be felt in the throat: rugged, muggy, egg, ill, are a few examples. Also, English words that begin with Sk are typically Nordic, while the Sh- is Dutch or German. Sometimes we retained both words: Skirt & Shirt originally had the same meaning. Or ship and skipper. (from Seth Lehrer's History of the English Language).

  42. Matt_M said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 1:35 am

    @Dave Cragin:

    It's simply not true that most sh- words in English derive from Dutch or German; the vast majority (including "ship" and "shirt") are native English words. You can try looking them up at, which is a pretty reliable and very convenient source.

    Note that when it says that "ship" (for example) is derived from proto-Germanic *skipam, it doesn't mean that the word has been borrowed from German, but rather that it descends from a word reconstructed as "skipam" in the language that was the common ancestor of English, Dutch, German, and Old Norse.

  43. Matt_M said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 5:01 am

    It's also worth noting that "skipper" is not a borrowing from a Scandinavian language — it comes from the Middle Dutch "scipper".

  44. Dave Cragin said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 3:26 pm

    In my note above, instead of Dutch/German, I should have said "of Germanic origin." Old English began with the the Germanic invaders of Britain (the Angles, Saxons & Jutes) and was later influenced by the Nordic Germanic Danes & Vikings. Hence, "native" Old English words primarily derive from these sources – but which source?

    S Lerer's point was to explain why English can have 2 similar sounding words. D Crystal's Encyclopedia of the English language also notes that many modern English "sk" words derive from the Nordic influence (in agreement with Lerer).

    For ship, the Danes say "skib", the Swedes: "skepp", the Norwegians "skip", whereas the Germans say "Schiff" and the Dutch "schip." This is consistent with S Lerer's comments.

    However, Germans say "skipper" for skipper (which disagrees with Lerer's view), whereas the Dutch say "schipper". In addition, these reflect the modern language, i.e., not that from the 8th century. It makes me wonder why the Germans say "skipper" and "schiff", i.e., was skipper "borrowed back" from the Nordic languages or did "skipper" always maintain the "skip…" pronunciation noted by Matt and only the word "ship" evolved into schiff?

    For those interested, Lerer's exact wording regarding the Nordic influence on Old English: "These words were distinguished by special sounds in the Scandinavian languages, in particular, the sounds "sk-" and "k-", which corresponded to the sounds "sh-" and "ch-" in Old English. Thus, Scandinavian skirt, kirk, skip, and dike have Germanic family cognates in Old English shirt, church, ship, and ditch." (Lerer is a Prof at Stanford).

  45. Areios said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 6:42 pm

    It depends on the meaning of "can", I think. I'd suspect the note "The word pe (8335) cannot be translated in any European language. It means a vice common in Asia." may not have been intended to mean "European languages don't have a word for pe", but rather "It is not appropriate to translate it" or "You are not free to translate it". As, for example, in "You cannot park over there!" or in similar German sentences ("Das kannst du nicht machen!"; Neumann was German).

  46. Matt_M said,

    November 30, 2013 @ 11:23 am


    You're absolutely right about the Norse origin of most words in English that are spelt with an initial sk-. When I said "native English words", I meant words of Old English origin that predate the Norse invasions of Britain.

    Dutch, English and German are all West Germanic languages — that is, they derive from a common ancestor distinct from the North Germanic languages of Scandinavia. Proto-West Germanic still retained the /sk/ sequence inherited from proto-Germanic (as did proto-North Germanic); however, the ancestors of both English and German (Old English and Old High German) very early underwent the same phonological shift from /sk/ to /ʃ/ (where /ʃ/ represents the sound of English "sh"). Dutch, on the other hand, did not. In the mediaeval period (considerably later than the shift in Old English noted above), Middle Dutch /sk/ became /sx/, and the spelling later changed from "sc" to "sch" — note that this "sch" does not denote the same sound as the German "sch" spelling. Modern Dutch "schip" doesn't sound at all like English "ship"; it is pronounced /sxɪp/ (which sounds rather like "skip" to English ears — you can hear a sample pronunciation here). In fact, Dutch is the source of several words in English that have the /sk/ sound: skipper, schooner, scow, scum, skate, sketch, and landscape, for example. Interestingly, the -scape morpheme in "landscape" is cognate to the English word "shape".

    About the German word "skipper" — my guess that it has been borrowed either from Dutch or (at second hand) from English.

  47. Victor Mair said,

    November 30, 2013 @ 6:53 pm

    From South Coblin:

    We have just returned from a Thanksgiving trip to CA, so I am only now reading your note. The reference is indeed to item no. 8335 嬖 pe, of Morrison’s great Chinese dictionary. Among his glosses there are “depraved; concupiscence, lechery”. I daresay the note to your text was pitty-patting around the fact that the captive boy became the pirate’s catamite.

  48. Dave Cragin said,

    December 2, 2013 @ 9:24 pm

    Matt – thanks for your input. Due to that the languages are all Germanic in origin, it takes some explanation.

    After posting the above, I found a good discussion of shirt/skirt in "Word Mysteries & Histories". The book notes skirt/shirt both derive from Germanic "skurtaz" which became scyrte in Old English and skyrta in Old Norse. Our word shirt, borrowed from Old Norse, came to denote the lower part of the garment, whereas the original meaning of scyrte is less clear but it came to mean the upper part. In contrast, the original Germanic word regarded clothing that covered both parts of the body.

    Another good book on the topic, The Story of English, has a short discussion of what it would have been like for the Norse-speaking Vikings to talk with the Saxons and how this influenced the simplification of English & elimination of grammatical genders.

  49. Eric Vinyl said,

    December 7, 2013 @ 11:18 pm

    I've always felt bad that Cookie Monster goes by the same American name in the UK and Ireland. Biccy Monster is a quite good adaptation to my American ears.

    A brief sojourn to the interwiki links on the left side of the Wikipedia entry gives us the name in other languages: I knew he was literally translated into Spanish as el Monstruo de Galletas, but I don't think I remembered that he's also called the Comegalletas and Lucas (!). In German he's the Krümelmonster; Swedish and Norwegian, Kakmonstret and Kakemonsteret, respectively (Norwegian doesn't have a good word for cookie); in Russian, Korzhik; 'Ugi-fletset in Hebrew; Brazil, Come-Come; Portugal, Monstro das Bolachas. In Dutch, of course, he's the Koekiemonster. Funnily enough in Bulgarian he is called Biskviteno Chudovishte. There's the always-invaluable Muppet Wiki for more. The French name is the best; Macaron le glouton.

    In Spain Bert + Ernie are Epi y Blas. Figure that one out.

    Cruller is not part of my idiolect and I'm not quite sure what one is, though I've certainly heard the word through various Chicago- and New York-produced television. No doubt because of the relative lack of Dutch emigration it's not a word used on the West Coast. I do know I saw one once and exclaimed, "Oh! …That's a 'cruller'?! We just call it…" But it doesn't matter. Doughnuts east of the Rockies are horrible.

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