Bean crud

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Arnold Zwicky kindly called the following choice Chinglish label to my attention:

The metathesis was bound to happen sooner or later. In fact, it has definitely happened countless times, and not just in China:

All right, that's enough. The misspelling (bean curd –> bean crud) occurs thousands of times, so maybe we should accept it as a variant or an innovation!

Here's what the label actually says:

Shuǐkǒu là fǔrǔ 水口辣腐乳
("Shuikou spicy fermented bean curd")

The last three characters are pretty straightforward, but the first two, although they look and seem simple, pose a bit more of a challenge. If you invert them thus, kǒushuǐ 口水 ("saliva"), they can mean "mouth-watering", as in the expression liú kǒushuǐ 流口水 ("slobber; slaver; drool; make one's mouth water"). I suppose that, for many people (and even for me sometimes), spicy fermented bean curd can cause one to salivate.

Alas, what we have here is shuǐkǒu 水口 ("water-mouth"), not kǒushuǐ 口水 ("mouth-water").

In fact, shuǐkǒu 水口 is a toponym meaning "water gap", "outlet (for a river or stream"), etc. Naturally, there are many places in China that are called "shuǐkǒu 水口", but the one associated with our bean crud is in Kaiping city, Guangdong province. This Shuikou town is famous for its fermented bean curd. Although the main brand of fermented bean curd in the vicinity is Guǎnghé 广合 (a company that goes back to 1893), Shuǐkǒu 水口 is also a known brand from the area. Here is an introduction concerning fermented bean curd production and its history in Shuikou town.

In closing, I'd just like to mention that this is the second Language Log post within a week to deal with a fermented foodstuff. The discussion on kimchee is still going strong. May this post on spicy bean crud, er, curd generate equal enthusiasm. Perhaps someone will even describe their experience with spicy bean curd's odiferous cousin, chòu dòufu 臭豆腐 ("stinky bean curd").

[Thanks to Fangyi Cheng and Rebecca Fu]


  1. Morten Jonsson said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

    I'm familiar with the St. Louis news source, and I'm not surprised that they'd make a mistake like that. But given the joky tone of the article, I'm pretty sure that this time they did it on purpose.

  2. cs said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 12:43 pm

    For what it's worth, I think the spelling 'crud' is intentional in the St. Louis news example, although that 'article' is so all over the place it's hard to tell.

  3. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 12:50 pm

    My desk Random House dictionary says that "crud" is dialect for "curd" and that "crud" (ME 1345-75) is an earlier form of "curd."

  4. Victor Mair said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 12:58 pm

    In an amazing bit of synchronicity, just after I had sent in this post, Nathan Hopson — quite out of the blue — asked me the following question:


    Do you happen to know how/why the characters for 豆腐 and 納豆 appear, at least, to be inverted? I can't shake the feeling that natto is the "rotting beans" and tofu is the "contained beans." This has been bugging me for a while now, and I was just talking about it with one of my colleagues here at Yale, but neither of us could come up with a good explanation other than transcription error. But as even Chinese Wikipedia knows, natto is Japanese in origin (納豆是日本常見的傳統發酵食品). So tofu would have been around before that…


    Indeed, tofu was known in China from at least the Southern Song Dynasty, because the famous poet Lu You referred to it in an essay (Hanyu Da Cidian, 1343b). It used to be thought that tofu had been invented in the Han Dynasty by Prince Liu An (c. 179-122 BC), but more careful research reveals that it appears to have been perfected in the Tang period (618-907). So far as I know, natto is distinctively Japanese.

    As for how to interpret the characters for tofu and natto, I would say that the former may be thought of as "fermented mass made from beans". Not being a Japanologist, I shall refrain from speculating how the characters for "natto" come to specify that super sticky leguminous conglomeration.

  5. Kimchi said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 1:00 pm

    I first thought they were talking about the culinarily useful by-product of soy milk production biji (Korean) okara (Japanese). I most often see it translated "soy refuse".

  6. X said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 5:26 pm

    The best 臭豆腐 is at 口吅品. I only recently learned there's a 㗊, which didn't make the cut, I guess.

  7. John said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 5:55 pm

    What also makes this interesting is that it's the reverse of the metathesis that I typically see in my students' writing here in China – "ture" for "true and "destory" for "destroy" are especially common, but there are also other instances of CrV becoming CVr in writing. The phenomenon also seems to have become more frequent over the past couple of years.

    If my students knew "crud" (which they almost certainly don't), I wouldn't be at all surprised to see it turned into "curd".

    Occasionally, this also affects /l/ with "bule" for "blue".

  8. Victor Mair said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 5:58 pm

    For the two unusual characters typed by X, see:

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 6:11 pm


    All 198 comments:

  10. Rubrick said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 6:20 pm

    Bean crud is the preferred food of MMORPG rouges.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 8:15 pm

    From Gene Anderson:

    and the best of it is…it may be etymologically correct. One theory of the origin of the word is that metathesis.

  12. Matt said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 8:17 pm

    According to the Nihon Kokugo Daijiten, the food we moderns refer to as "natto" was indeed invented in Japan, but no record of it can be found until the Muromachi period (1337-1573).

    However the word 納豆 was used for another fermented bean product known as 塩辛納豆 (shiokaranatto, "salty natto") or 唐納豆 (karanatto, "Chinese/foreign natto"), which as the second name suggests was said to have been imported from China. Their earliest citation is from the 11th century Shin sarugaku ki, which includes the sentence "精進物者… 春塩辛納豆".

    So, even though the stringy version that is the default meaning of "natto" today was invented in Japan, it seems that the character combination 納豆 might have been imported (along with the food itself) from the continent!

  13. MaryKaye said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 8:32 pm

    My local Chinese restaurant translates chòu dòufu as "tofu of strong odor" and recommends that you not get it for takeout. I haven't had any yet as I'm one of those people for whom a nasty smell outweighs a good taste (as with blue cheese, durian fruit, etc).

    A different local restaurant mentioned, on their menu, "numbing green beans." We laughed over this, wondered if Numbing is a place in China–then got the dish and were startled to discover that the name is correct and descriptive. Wikipedia says this is "Sichuan pepper." Its import to the US was banned until 2005 which might be why I never encountered it before. I was perplexed by it–it's right outside my normal definition of "flavor."

  14. Victor Mair said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 9:13 pm


    Once when I was in Las Vegas, about 15 years ago, I tried to buy some Sichuan pepper (huājiāo 花椒; it also has a number of other names) in a Chinese grocery store there. It was kept under lock and key and treated like a controlled substance. I think that I had to show my driver's license and sign some document when I purchased it, as I do here in Philadelphia when — at the peak of allergy season — I am compelled to buy Alavert (I believe that's because of the pseudoephedrine that it contains). They would only let me buy a limited amount of the Sichuan pepper.

    I thought that these stringent restrictions were due to the fact that it has — to my mind, at least — anesthetic properties (when I eat a dish that has lots of Sichuan pepper in it, my mouth feels like I just walked out of a dentist's office!). Now, however, looking at this Wikipedia article, I realize that the restrictions were due to the fact that the peppercorns can carry citrus canker.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    January 10, 2014 @ 1:16 am

    Etymology of natto (esp. for Nathan Hopson):

    From Japanese 納豆 (なっとう nattō), from Middle Chinese 納 (nop "wet", "soaked") + 豆 (dùw "bean").

    Source of the etymology:



    ***Here's the real answer:

    This is from the Shuōwén Jiězì 說文解字 (100 AD), the earliest dictionary dealing with the construction of Chinese characters. It states that wet / moist (that dreaded word) silk threads are referred to as nànà 納納, a reduplicated binom that goes back to the Chǔ cí 楚辞 (Elegies of Chu AKA Songs of the South) where it has the meaning "wet; moist; soaked".

    The image of wet / moist silk threads is perfect for natto. Not only does the name nattō describe this fermented bean food well, it also is learned in the sense of having a deep historical origin for the first morpheme. As for the second morpheme, well, a bean is a bean is a bean, the musical fruit. Hence: "wet / moist / soaked thread beans".

  16. Victor Mair said,

    January 10, 2014 @ 1:34 am

    Good general Wikipedia article on natto:

    Culturally informative article on natto:

    Fun article on natto:

  17. maidhc said,

    January 10, 2014 @ 2:43 am

    As can be seen from the picture linked below, 臭豆腐 is usually translated as "stinky tofu" around here.

    [VHM: To save you time looking around for it on this food truck, the stinky tofu sign is the yellow one with red border line just to the left of the serving window.]

    There are several local restaurants where it is considered a house speciality.

  18. a George said,

    January 10, 2014 @ 6:40 am

    "ture" for "true and "destory" for "destroy" …… "crud" turned into "curd". ……. "bule" for "blue".

    —- aren't these merely examples of what we used to call 'dyslexia'? Perhaps that is now yet another "no-no" term.

  19. Ellen K. said,

    January 10, 2014 @ 8:13 am

    @ a George: Seems to me it could be. Seems to be it depends on what's going on with pronunciation.

  20. Breffni said,

    January 10, 2014 @ 9:55 am

    a George, Ellen K.: When Chinese learners of English exhibit a shared, highly specific pattern of misspelling, dyslexia doesn't seem a very plausible explanation.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    January 10, 2014 @ 11:05 am

    From Jonathan Silk:

    no one that I noticed on one of your links commented on the story that my brother told. Years ago when a student at Stanford, he used to listen on the radio to a show from San Fran. about food. There was a Chinese guy talking about sea food, and he was eager to get people to eat something: "I love crap, I serve crap to all my friends" is how my brother heard his accent! Nice final unaspirated p / b confusion, isn't it?

  22. Gene Anderson said,

    January 10, 2014 @ 11:48 am

    Metathesis (reversal of phonemes) is really very common, not dyslexic. People do it all the time, and it changes words a lot; cf. Latin acer > Spanish arce, maple tree, and the formerly near-universal confusion of cavalry and Calvary in the US; when I was a kid there was even a song about a girl who wore a ribbon "for her lover in the U. S. Calvary."

  23. Bob Ladd said,

    January 10, 2014 @ 12:07 pm

    Dan Lufkin and Gene Anderson are right that this particular metathesis (vowel-R and R-vowel) is pretty common, and (according to the sources I can easily check) that crud is the earlier form. There are a lot of such doublets in English, including girdle – griddle, through – thorough (that's why signs say "No thoroughfare"), pretty – purty, the names Christine – Kirsteen, and the place name components burgh – borough. The normal Scottish fast-speech pronunciation of Edinburgh is sometimes written Embra, which is a reasonable approximation of what it sounds like. Especially if you pronounce /r/ as an apical tap/flap, it can be difficult to say whether the vowel "is" before it or after it.

    Gene Anderson's Spanish example is also one of very many, and other Romance languages (especially Sardinian) have a lot as well (e.g. Italian coccodrillo 'crocodile' or Spanish Argelia 'Algeria'.

  24. Neil Dolinger said,

    January 10, 2014 @ 1:35 pm

    Given the similarities of the characters and sometime intersection of semantic space, I have wondered whether there is any etymological relationship between the 府 of 政府【zhèngfǔ】 "government" and the 腐 of 豆腐【dòufu】.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    January 10, 2014 @ 5:21 pm

    From Bob Ramsey:

    The word natto is supposed to be what the Japanese call a 唐宋音, Victor. At least that’s what I was taught. That is, like a lot of Japanese food terms, it’s said to have been borrowed long after all those 漢音 readings.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    January 10, 2014 @ 5:22 pm

    From Nathan Sivin:

    The Wikipedia article might well have mentioned that natto is a delicacy in Kansai as well, but in the form of a further-fermented, dry relish that has none of the off-putting qualities of the traditional article. The most famous version is Daitokuji natto, from the Zen temple in Kyoto. It is a regular part of vegetarian meals served in the temple and surrounding restaurants.

    The reason for the long cooking is that soy beans are a poor food if they are not so prepared. Among other things, they destroy the ability to metabolize meat protein. The only ways to make them useful are long boiling or steaming, frying in hot oil, or preciptation as doufu.

    I was also surprised that the article claimed choudoufu is a Japanese product. Some of it may be produced in Japan, but I'd be willing to bet the producers are Chinese (e.g., in Nagasaki).

  27. Ken Brown said,

    January 10, 2014 @ 7:16 pm

    You learn something every day. I know this isn't Foodage Log – but I've never even heard of natto as far as I remember. I've been buying and eating miso since the 1970s, and tofu for a while as well – but natto? Does that even exist in Britain?

  28. Victor Mair said,

    January 10, 2014 @ 10:04 pm

    Uh-oh! Now we have a completely different interpretation of the etymology of natto. This comes from Seishi Karashima:

    Though the food natto could have been invented in China, the name "natto" was invented in Japan. It is said that this food was made and preserved in "納所" (storehouse in a monastery), therefore it was named "納豆".

    Cf. "由于豆豉在僧家寺院的纳所制造后放入瓮或桶中贮藏,所以日本人称其为“糖纳豆”或“咸纳豆”(link) also "納豆は、精進料理として納所(なっしょ、寺院の倉庫)で作られた食品でこれが名前の由来という説が『本朝食鑑』という書物に載っている。納所に勤めていた僧侶が納豆造りをしていたので、納所の字をとって「納豆」になったという。"(納豆)

  29. Brian Page said,

    January 10, 2014 @ 10:35 pm

    臭豆腐 fried served with spicy picked veggies is what we ate for dinner tonight with jie rou tang and rice… chicken soup with rice and stinky bean crud. It is really fascinating that soy bean products from China are still and probably always have been a subject of much fasciation. I will never forget watching the dedicated professional craftspeople in Anhui near Tian Zhu Shan making it. I would tell my students that in this case the Chinglish may be forgivable but it might frighten away those Dirong (wairen) who otherwise do not know the heavenly taste of stinky tofu! See Tofu Culture of China:

  30. Brian Page said,

    January 10, 2014 @ 10:43 pm

    This is a wonderful discussion of how important tofu is to some parts of Chinese culture. Here we see the tofu xishi, "bean curd beauty" and other great expressions of folk culture that have developed around this central dish.

  31. julie lee said,

    January 10, 2014 @ 11:14 pm

    @Neil Dolinger:

    On the relationship of 府 in zhengfu政府 "goverment" and fu 腐 in furu 腐乳 "fermented beancurd" , I don't know if the following explanation will be helpful:

    The element fu 付 is a word "pay/give (taxes, wages, price, etc.)" which is used as a sound element here. Fu 府 means "residence, house, seat (of government)". The element that wraps around the top and left of fu 付 in fu 府 is a semantic element that indicates "building, house". So fu 府 "residence, house, seat (of government)" is composed of a sound element 付 and a semantic element, one giving the sound, the other the meaning. So zhengfu政府 ("government" ) literally means "govern(ing) seat or building/center".

    Fu 腐 means "rot,rotted, decay, decayed". And ru 乳means "milk". So furu腐乳 (fermented beancurd) literally means "rotted milk". In the character fu 腐 , fu 付 is the sound element, and rou 肉"flesh" is the semantic element; it's a clue to the meaning of the character腐 "rot, rotted". The elements together tells you "something close to flesh with the sound of fu付". Phonetic elements and semantic elements in a character are often only clues to its sound and meaning. (Perhaps originally furu "rotted beancurd" meant "milk curd", and the name furu "rotted milk or milk curd" was borrowed for beancurd.)

  32. Gene Callahan said,

    January 11, 2014 @ 12:37 am

    "I'm one of those people for whom a nasty smell outweighs a good taste (as with blue cheese…"

    But… (sputtering noises for some time)… the smell of blue cheese is like an advanced whiff of heaven!

  33. Matt said,

    January 11, 2014 @ 7:22 am

    Not to quibble with Seishi Karashima (two of whose monographs I have open in other windows as we speak!), but the 本朝食鑑 etymology shouldn't be taken too seriously. The book was published in 1697 and even back then the author was dubious about the information. Here's the full passage:

    納豆字未詳 或謂僧家庖厨號納所 納豆者近代僧家多造故以此豆出于僧家納所而名之乎 此未爲的當

    "The [reason for using] the characters 納豆 is not yet clear. Some say: "A monk's kitchen is called a 納所. Of late, most natto is made by monks, and so these beans come out of a monk's kitchen and are therefore named [after the kitchen]." This [explanation] cannot yet be considered [proven] correct."

  34. julie lee said,

    January 11, 2014 @ 11:28 am

    @ Neil Dolinger:

    a further note: I see what you mean. Fu 府 "house, residence, seat (of government)" is the phonetic element in fu "rotted". Yes, it suggests using that fu 府 means the milk curd or beancurd is made in a residence; home; seat/center (of county, district, etc.). Or maybe even local-government sponsored. If so, fu would be both a phonetic and a semantic element here.
    However, that does not seem to be the case. If I'm not mistaken, Fu 付 is fourth tone in Standard Mandarin, while fu 府 "residence, government seat" is third tone. And fu 腐 in furu腐乳 "beancurd" is third tone. So I believe the scribe who invented the character fu 腐 ”rot, rotted" was only using fu 府 "residence; government seat" as a phonetic element for the sound fu, third tone.

  35. Andy said,

    January 11, 2014 @ 11:40 am

    More of a food history note than etymological one, but I watched an NHK special years ago that had good proof that natto was first made in Vietnam.

  36. Philip Wiliams said,

    January 12, 2014 @ 12:32 pm

    A derivative of nattô known as nattôkinase is often taken in capsule form as a cardiovascular tonic by middle-aged and older people in and out of Japan.

  37. Victor Mair said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 2:22 pm

    From a Swedish friend:

    I’m amused at your linguistic analysis of natto. Not until I got a Japanese wife had the stuff caused a problem. Well, as you know, Sweden has an equally stinky foodstuff (“surströmming”) — and I don’t like it either.

    [VHM: Surströmming is fermented Baltic herring. I've had it, and it is fouler than stinky bean curd and natto put together, perhaps even worse than beer cheese / beer kaese / Bierkäse / Bierkaese, which I think of as a kind of concentrated Limburger.

  38. hanmeng said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 7:07 pm

    @Neil Dolinger,

    I've seen 豆腐 written as 豆府 in Chinese restaurants. Maybe the staff sees a connection.

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