Sarah Zhang uses the recent appearance of a mandarin duck in Central Park as a springboard to share an interesting bit of etymology:

Yes, true, mandarin ducks are native to China, where Mandarin is the official language. But the word mandarin has a more roundabout origin. It does not come from Mandarin Chinese, which refers to itself as putonghua (or “common speech”) and China, the country, as zhongguo (or “Middle Kingdom”). It doesn’t come from any other variant of Chinese, either. Its origins are Portuguese.

This one word encapsulates an entire colonial history. In the 16th century, Portuguese explorers were among the first Europeans to reach China. Traders and missionaries followed, settling into Macau on land leased from China’s Ming dynasty rulers. The Portuguese called the Ming officials they met mandarim, which comes from menteri in Malay and, before that, mantrī in Sanskrit, both of which mean “minister” or “counselor.” It makes sense that Portuguese would borrow from Malay; they were simultaneously colonizing Malacca on the Malay peninsula. […]

Over time, the Portuguese coinage of “mandarin” took on other meanings. The Ming dynasty officials wore yellow robes, which may be why “mandarin” came to mean a type of citrus. “Mandarin” also lent its names to colorful animals native to Asia but new to Europeans, like wasps and snakes and, of course, ducks. And the language the Chinese officials spoke became “Mandarin,” which is how the English name for the language more than 1 billion people in China speak still comes from Portuguese.

(For more on the history of Mandarin Chinese itself, see the very interesting comment by Bathrobe in this LH thread.) Thanks, Trevor!


  1. See also minus273’s comment at the same thread about competing standards for Chinese.

  2. I’m curious why she didn’t mention the etymology that is commonly found, that it came from Portuguese mandar “to command, order”. Checking with Etymology Online, it states only that it was “influenced” by the Portuguese term.

  3. Savalonôs says:

    Mandarin as a name for a variety of Chinese language has serious shortcomings. I can think of three main senses: it refers most commonly refers to putonghua/guoyu, the current standard. It’s also a name for a vast dialect bloc, containing putonghua along with many and varied local forms; this dialect bloc can also be called Beifanghua “northern speech”. Thirdly, Mandarin can refer to one or more of the premodern chancery languages that were the standard in their day, one of which is the chief ancestor of putonghua. The latter is presumably the least common use in practice, although it is also presumably the original, since it is by definition the language used by mandarins.

  4. Agree with Savalonôs.

    However, I think there is a historical progression here:

    1) one or more of the premodern chancery languages that were the standard in their day (this changed with the capital city but northern speech was, I understand, always preferred over southern)

    2) the most recent of those chancery languages, meaning the standard based on Beijing

    3) putonghua, theoretically taking Beijing pronunciation and northern dialect vocabulary as standard. In actuality, it tends to mean ‘Beijing minus pronunciation and vocabulary peculiar to Beijing’

    4) the linguists’ sense, a vast dialect bloc, containing putonghua along with many and varied local forms; this dialect bloc can also be called Beifanghua “northern speech”. However, the linguists’ sense also includes southwest Mandarin (Sichuan etc.), which would never be called Beifanghua in Chinese.

  5. Savalonôs says:

    I would like to call the dialect group 河江话 Héjiānghuà after the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, but so far no one else has adopted my terminology. Not sure anyone’s been informed of my terminology, either, prior to now.

    That said, Běifānghuà shouldn’t really be objectionable. Everyone knows that the reason they speak Mandarin dialects there is that people from the north moved there within recent centuries.

  6. I predict that as knowledge of Chinese language and culture becomes more widespread in the English-speaking world (as I think it’s bound to), terminology will become at least a bit more exact, or at least more congruent with Chinese usage.

  7. comes from menteri in Malay and, before that, mantrī in Sanskrit,

    So Mandarin is someone who recites mantras?

  8. Charles Perry says:

    Thought to be cognate with Greek Mentor (a Homeric proper name with sense of adviser).

  9. Mantra of the demented Mandarin mentor minding his own business

  10. I believe the Port. mandar > (*man-ta-le >) mandarin etymology goes back to the pioneering missionary sinologist and lexicographer Robert Morrison, who spent the latter half of his life in Macao and Canton. I find it more plausible than Malay menteri. (I’m currently reading Jonathan Spence’s [1996] God’s Chinese Son, which starts out with a composite characterization, meant to be more amusing than accurate, of Canton Pidgin from the 1830s.) I suspect the Chinese officials of that time and place were far more overbearing than scattered Malay officials might have been.

  11. Savalonôs says:

    I do have the impression that anglophones have become more aware than in the past of the distinction between Mandarin and Cantonese, and maybe other dialects as well. I’m doubtful that the additional senses of Mandarin will ever be relevant enough to become known by hardly anyone. Note that the polysemy of “Mandarin” exists in Chinese as well: both the old chancery languages and the large dialect bloc are guanhua, “official speech” (of which “Mandarin” is presumably a calque).

  12. of which “Mandarin” is presumably a calque

    The whole message of Sarah Zhang’s article is that “Mandarin” is not a calque of 官話…. (It’s even remotely possible that 官話 is a calque of “Mandarin” — although I would not be prepared to bet any money on this.)

    My impression is that the old Cantonese/Mandarin thing has been reasonably well-known to at least some English speakers for quite some time. The problem is that it’s outdated. It was always a Hong Kong thing to ask whether you know “Cantonese” or “Mandarin”, because Hong Kong is one of the few places (except maybe various Chinatowns around the world) where Cantonese is a serious alternative to Mandarin. This is no longer the case. The number of people who seriously want to study Cantonese appears to be in decline.

  13. Soon China will turn into another France and share of Cantonese speakers in Guangdong will be approaching the share of Occitan speakers in le Midi.

  14. The whole message of Sarah Zhang’s article is that “Mandarin” is not a calque of 官話

    Are you applying a very narrow definition of calque here? Zhang writes that “Over time, the Portuguese coinage of “mandarin” took on other meanings… The language the Chinese officials spoke became ‘Mandarin.'” This seems more or less equivalent to saying that “Mandarin [language]” is a calque of guanhua 官話 (=”the language of officials”). In any case, the term guanhua appears in the writings of He Liangjun 何良俊 (1506-1573), so you would probably be right not to bet money on the calquing having happened the other way around.

    The OED’s first citation for “Mandarin” in English is from Chambers’ Cyclopedia (1728): “Their publick officers, as Notaries, Lawyers, Judges, and chief Magistrates, write and speak the Mandarin.” This was the same year that the Yongzheng emperor, vexed by the low standards of guanhua in Fujian and Guangdong, instructed the local officials in these regions to promote the language and proclaimed that after an eight-year grace period, lack of ability in guanhua would render students ineligible to sit the civil service exams.

  15. Savalonôs says:

    Is it true that, during the Qing period, Manchu was called Guóyǔ (“national language”)?

  16. Yes and before that the term was applied to Mongolian, Jurchen, Khitan and Tuoba languages.

    However, the term didn’t mean what it means now.

    The above mentioned peoples were called “guo ren” which didn’t mean “national people”, but rather “people of the state”, in other words, “ruling dynasty’s people”.

    So, the meaning of “guoyu” was more like “ruling dynasty’s people’s language”.

  17. SFReader, do you know of examples of such usages in which the reference of guoyu is not primarily governed by context? The examples cited in 漢語大詞典seem to rely on the context for the reader to understand that “guoyu” refers to “Manchu” (or Mongolian, etc.). None of them seem to support the idea that “guoyu” unambiguously meant “ruling dynasty’s people’s language.”

  18. @ DMT

    Thank you for the instructive background.

    Yes, I was applying a narrow definition of calque and your explanation seems to me to be on the borderline between a calque in the strict sense (coining a new word based on a literal, word-for-word or root-for-root translation) and a usage that arose naturally in the circumstances (‘we call the language used by the mandarins, known to the Chinese as 官話, Mandarin’).

    Since I didn’t put any money on my surmise I have fortunately escaped financial loss.

    @ SFReader

    In modern China, 國人 (guoren) appears to refer to the Han, or at least it has done so in contexts I’ve seen, where a Mongol (from Inner Mongolia) referred to the Han as guoren.

  19. makes sense. After all, the Han Chinese are certainly the ruling dynasty people now…

  20. Back to 官話 and Mandarin, is linguists’ use of 官話 to refer to the whole complex of northern and southwestern dialects inspired by the English term ‘Mandarin’ or was it applied spontaneously as a Chinese term? 官話 does have a more specific meaning in Chinese (namely the language of the bureaucrats) than ‘Mandarin’ does in English, and applying it to the dialect continuum seems to me to sit less naturally than ‘Mandarin’ does in English. (This was the original reason for my suspicion over the origin of the term 官話).

  21. So was there a native Chinese name for “Mandarin”, or did the Chinese only start to study it (and invent a term for it) in response to western interest in the “colloquial” language as opposed to classical Chinese?

  22. I can speak only from my patchy knowledge. The Chinese name for the vernacular written language, based on the northern spoken language was 白話 báihuà ‘white speech, plain language’. It was the language that the ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ was written in and there was therefore a name for it in Chinese.

    I’m not sure what the word for the language of the residents of Beijing was, maybe just Beijing-hua. As pointed out earlier, 官話 guānhuà referred to the spoken language of the Mandarins, the class of people who had passed the Imperial examinations and were posted over the empire as administrators. They would have interacted with each other using 官話 as their common spoken language, and that would have been based on the language of the capital. Local people would have used their own dialect, and people who had to interact with the local Mandarin would have needed an acquaintance with 官話.

    Local dialects were not necessarily regarded as earthy and low class, unless spoken by earthy, low-class people. There were significant traditions of reading Classical written works in formalised pronunciations based on dialect readings.

    The linguistic topography of Chinese has been forever changed by the adoption of 白話 / 官話 as a single national standard. Hong Kong is possibly the only place where the old topography remains much as it was before.

    Incidentally, initial native attempts at describing Chinese according to the lights of Western grammar were focussed on the Classical written language. Descriptions of báihuà came somewhat later.

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