Give me a word, any word

People always take pride at the fact that their culture and language have reached other places.

In the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Gus Portokalos is so proud of his Greek heritage and believes all English words can be traced to Greek. He challenges his interlocutor, “Give me a word, any word, and I show you that the root of that word is Greek.” 

As a Chinese, I am also proud of Chinese culture and language. Even though it was probably not true, I still want to believe that Marco Polo brought noodles and pizzas to Italy from China. And when I was learning English, I was always interested to learn that some English words have a Chinese root, coming either from putonghua or other dialects, such as the word “yin yang”, “feng shui”, “tea”, “ketchup”,“dim sum”, and “kung fu”. It was like “oh, hello, I know you!”

Languages always absorb new elements. Mandarin is not an exception. For non-Chinese speakers who are learning Mandarin, it is equally fantastic to know that many Chinese words are from their languages.

There are a few different ways for a foreign word to become a Chinese word.

Phonetic translation

The first is through phonetic translation, that the sound of Chinese words resemble so much of their origins. For example the following words.

坦克: tank

逻辑: logic

基因: gene

三明治: sandwich

马拉松: marathon

雷达: radar

咖啡: coffee

Of all the above words, I particularly like the word 雷达, “thunder reach”, which conjures a nice image for the modern equipment, which the original word does not have. And I must mention that, except English, all my European languages are rusty, therefore I use English words as the roots for the above words. It is possible the real roots can be Latin, Greek, or other languages. Having said that, I do recognise that the word 咖啡 sounds closer to the French word “café” than the English word “coffee”. 

Many names which were translated phonetically have been accepted and widely used in Mandarin. Such as the following words.

道琼斯: Dow Jones

波音: Boeing

大卫: David

三星: Samsung

It is a lot of fun for students to decipher these words!

Phonetic translation plus meaning translation

Another way for Chinese to absorb foreign words is through a mixed translation. Part of the word is a phonetic translation and the rest is translation by meaning. Such as the following words.

啤酒: beer

吉普车: jeep

迷你裙: miniskirt

华尔街: Wall Street

In this words, the first one or two characters are phonetic re-writing of the English words, while the last character gives us the meaning. And 迷你裙 is especially good. In English, “mini” only means small, tiny. But after it entered Chinese, it became more expressive. Not only does it capture the sound of the original word, but also gives the effect of the word, “charm you”. It is like turning a bicycle into a motorcycle. 

Sometimes a word was first brought into Chinese phonetically, but later transformed into a different Chinese word which is clearer in meaning and easier to use. For example the word “democracy”. It was first translated into 德谟克拉西, and now it is 民主. Another example is “romantic”. It was first translated into 罗曼蒂克, and later became 浪漫. 

Meaning translation

There are also many words translated into Chinese based on their meanings. And these words have blended in seamlessly. Look at these words.

黑板: blackboard

代沟: generation-gap

星球大战: star war

蜜月: honeymoon

相对论: theory of relativity

Roman letters in Chinese

One thing in common with all the previous examples is that all translated words are made up with Chinese characters. Different from them, there are some Chinese words which have incorporated with a Roman letter. Such as these words. 

T恤: T-shirt

X光: X ray

A型血: Blood Type A

维生素C: Vitamin C

O型腿: O-leg

Sometimes, one Roman letter is not enough, the whole English acronyms came in and stayed as they are. For example, OK, DNA, CPU, MP3, WiFi, CEO, VIP, PM2.5, DVD. It is common to hear someone says: “酒店有WiFi吗?” These words are very popular nowadays, and also have sparked some debates on whether or not they are corrupting the purity of Chinese language. 

Sometimes, I also hear a kind of sandwich language that English words and Chinese words are mixed together. It is quite common in Hong Kong. Take a look at the following sentences. 

那个晚会上,大家都很 high。

你要注意 keep fit。

昨天老板出了 memo。


Chinese made English words

It is interesting to learn that Chinese language has welcomed and transformed many words from other languages. However, the real genius of Chinese people goes beyond simply making some foreign words their own. There are, in fact, foreign looking words which are home made. For example the following words.

阿Q: Probably the most famous character in modern Chinese literature, created by Lu Xun.

QQ: An instant messaging software service developed by the Chinese tech company Tencent.

AA制: Nobody knows for sure what the AA stands for, “Algebraic Average”, “Acting Appointment”, or “ana”? Neither are we certain where this word was originally coined, possibly in Hong Kong or Guangzhou. Nonetheless, it is being used widely. (For people who do not know, it means to split the bill evenly.)


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
(852) 9739 8065


MSL Master
3/F, Dah Sing Life Building
99-105 Des Voeux Road Central
Hong Kong

© 2022 MSL Master. All Rights Reserved