1. Inspired by this LH post, Joel of Far Outliers has posted a very useful summary of the history and uses of the Japanese kana syllabaries.

2. It turns out the word ramen does not have a firm etymology. Wikipedia:

Though of Chinese origin, it is unclear when ramen was introduced to Japan. Even the etymology of the term “ramen” is a topic of debate. One hypothesis and probably the most credible is that “ramen” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese 拉麺 (lamian), meaning “hand-pulled noodles” (a name that is still used in Chinese for these sort of noodles). A second hypothesis proposes 老麺 (laomian, “old noodles”) as the original form, while yet another states that ramen was initially 鹵麺 (lúmiàn), noodles cooked in a thick, starchy sauce. A fourth hypothesis is 撈麵 (lāomiàn): 撈 means to “dredge up” and refers to the method of cooking these noodles by immersing them in boiling water before dredging them up with a wire basket.

Now, this is Wikipedia, so I’ll let those qualified to judge say which of those etymologies are credible and which are just silly, but the OED says “prob[ably] f. Chinese pull, stretch, lengthen + miàn noodle,” so the basic fact of uncertainty seems pretty certain.

3. I’ve just run across another piece of incredibly bad annotation in the Bunin diary. In the April 24/May 9, 1919, entry (p. 123) Bunin describes a Bolshevik poster attacking the White general Denikin and finishes up by saying “The inscription says: ‘Don’t hanker, Denikin, for land that is not yours!’ ‘Don’t hanker’ must mean ‘don’t think to bury yourself.'” Now, think about that for a moment: what would be the point of “don’t think to bury yourself”? What is the point of the whole bit I’ve quoted? In the translation, it’s completely unintelligible. But the footnote explains all: “In Russian, “don’t hanker” is “ne zaris’,” and “don’t think to bury yourself” is ne zar’sia.” Ahahahaha! So what’s happened is that Bunin is correcting the Bolsheviks’ bad grammar: the correct imperative of зариться [zárit’sya] is зарься [zár’sya], not the зарись [záris’] of the poster; the hapless annotator, true kin to Kinbote, has mistaken зарься for the imperative of зарыться [zaryt’sya] ‘to bury oneself,’ which is actually заройся [zaroisya]. The only burying here is the burying of the truth in cartloads of ignorance. (You’d think the fact that Bunin follows this up with “I swear by Michael the Archangel himself that I will never accept the Bolshevik orthography” might have provided a hint that form rather than content was under discussion, even if the incoherence of the “explanation” wasn’t enough of a clue.)

4. Helen DeWitt describes the way things used to be in jolly old England:

I went up to Oxford to read Literae Humaniores in 1979. Britain has a higher voltage than the US (230V rather than 120), which means it is possible to heat water quickly in an electric kettle; one of the first things any undergraduate does on going to university is buy an electric kettle. So I went into the Woolworth’s in Cornmarket, bought an electric kettle, took it back to my college and took it out of the box — only to find a cord ending in three wires where an American expects to find a plug.

Yes. In Britain, in those far-off days, electrical appliances could not be sold with a prefitted plug. The buyer had to buy the plug separately (making sure it had the right number of amps). The buyer ALSO had to buy a tiny screwdriver. The back of the plug had to be unscrewed, tiny screws inside had to be loosened, coloured wires threaded under the appropriate screws, the screws retightened, the back of the plug screwed back on, and an hour or so later the novice electrician was either sitting down to a nice hot cup of ground cockroach or frying on the floor. It’s said that electrical fires were a common source of death.

Once you got the electric kettle up and running, of course, you appreciated it in a way that you wouldn’t if you hadn’t had to work for it. On the one hand, just switching it on was a source of pride; on the other hand, you always wondered if it was about to blow up.

I know this has nothing to do with language, but it’s just so batshitinsane I had to pass it on. Does anybody happen to know why appliances were not sold with plugs??


  1. I wonder if “laomian” might be the correct origin. There are some ramen shops which, in an attempt to make the spelling of “ramen” look more traditional and fit the Chinese pronunciation, write it らぅめん (‘raumen’ with a small ‘u’).
    “Does anybody happen to know why appliances were not sold with plugs??”
    I thought it was because there were two or three different plug standards used in Britain at the time, and appliance makers couldn’t know ahead of time which one you had in your home.

  2. The question also remains, however, why the US has remained so insensible to the usefulness of the electric kettle…
    BTW, last week I read ‘The Last Samurai’ on your recommendation.

  3. 撈麵 = Mandarin lāomiàn = Cantonese lou1min6 = Chinese restaurant lo mein. (Ramen does link to Lo Mein, but doesn’t make this more basic point very clear.)

  4. BTW, my parents call it “lamyan” when they are speaking Tagalog.

  5. RE: The question also remains, however, why the US has remained so insensible to the usefulness of the electric kettle…
    Probably because of the speed and the fact that the microwave has superseded it for small quantities. I have an electric kettle but it is no faster than heating water on the gas burner, while for a single cup, the microwave is much faster.

  6. The ‘different plugs’ explanation is new to me but makes sense. What I was told at the time was that it was all to do with the stranglehold the unions had on British manufacturing.

  7. Cum grano salis says

    ‘Twas the days before mollycodling and one had to be be self sufficient, if thee wanted to eat, then came the Yankee way, do not let the B****** t’ink, make it easy and get the monies and have more time for the bigger mouse trap, now, no more reckonning no change needed.
    What will happen when there be no plugs working for that gizmo?

  8. Cum grano salis says

    plug problem: Unions and years of lack of standardisation [eons or individual rites]
    The conflict of individual freedom of choice and maxist standardisation.
    Monopoly was the perogative of kings till they lost control to the hoi poloi and kept the idea going for the Boys, may the best money maker win.

  9. mollymooly says

    To bring point (4) into the realm of language: I surmise that Americans must be unfamiliar with the idiom “not knowing how to change a plug”, meaning lacking any knowledge of how to perform basic domestic maintenance.

  10. LH, perhaps that lack of standardisation is easier to understand if you reflect on the US resistance to metric systems of measurement, for which the advantages are uncontested.
    As well as I can recall, the standard kind of electric plug that we have in Australia is always pre-fitted. But we can buy such plugs separately, too. Can you in the US, readily? Our standard three-prong plug is unusual in the world (though it was one of the three coexisting types I found in China); and it is a cursed nuisance when we want to import our own special appliances, or travel with one. Our voltage system is the same as in the UK, though.

  11. LH, perhaps that lack of standardisation is easier to understand if you reflect on the US resistance to metric systems of measurement, for which the advantages are uncontested.
    I surmise that Americans must be unfamiliar with the idiom “not knowing how to change a plug”, meaning lacking any knowledge of how to perform basic domestic maintenance.
    Quite true.

  12. J. Del Col says

    Yes, benighted though we may be in metric matters, Americans can buy any electric plug there is.
    Why, I can buy them here in West Virginia, the American east coast’s outback. I even have a set of plug adapters for use with the half dozen or so plugs used in other countries. In addition, only a short drive away is a store that carries special purpose security plugs, pilot-lit plugs, any damned plug a person might want or need.
    I have also changed plugs on appliances without electrocuting anyone.
    There are three basic types of plugs in the USA, For 110-117VAC there are two-prong polarized, and three-prong polarized, grounded. The two-prong plugs will work in three-prong sockets. For 240VAC appliances such as stoves and clothes dryers, there is a special, heavy duty three-prong grounded plug.
    Heavy industrial equpment which uses polyphase high voltage current uses different plugs and connectors here, as it does everywhere else.
    Keep in mind, this is the land of Edison and Westinghouse. If we use 110-117 VAC housecurrent, it’s because we were the pioneers, and the cost of converting our huge grid to 240VAC would be prohibitive.
    J. Del Col

  13. bud driver says

    The UK plug explanation is not that mysterious. There were 3(at least) different plugs common in the UK and you needed to match the plug in the shop to the one found in your house.

  14. Re plugs.
    I’m fairly sure there was one standard three-pronged plug in the UK long before it became a legal requirement to includes plugs with appliances, so it wasn’t about standardisation. My understanding is that there were three reasons for not supplying them:
    (1) It allowed manufacturers of electrical goods to sell their inventory in any European country.
    (2) For cheaper goods, it kept the price down marginally.
    (3) It was encouraged by the retailers who were able to sell plugs at a healthy mark-up, thus increasing their profit on each sale.
    Not really a reason, but also important to remember is that British plugs are fused and so it’s more likely that knowledge of the inside of one will be useful for the average person in the UK. I’ll try to remember to double-check the above with my Dad, an electrical engineer, next time I speak to him.
    It’s interesting to sense the bafflement at this state of affairs from, if you will excuse me, members of a consumerist culture that values convenience above all else. It was perfectly acceptable for many years in the UK. (not ‘England’, LH). A slight inconvenience, but life is full of them and at least this one taught people a practical skill. I fully accept that the current situation is better, but were you to travel back in time and east in location and express your incredulity at this outre’ arrangement, the response would probably have been equal incomprehension at the degree of molly-coddling which you took as your right. How times change.

  15. mollymooly: I grew up in the States and that phrase is known to me, but I always figured it referred to spark plugs and by extension basic automotive maintenance.

  16. I should for completeness add that the plugs for some appliances in Australia lack the “lower middle” earthing prong; but the socket itself is practically always three-holed.

  17. Why plugless appliances?
    1) So that women always had an excuse to strike up an acquaintance with, for example, a new male neighbour (ah, the lost art of flirting over a plug – how the sparks flew!)
    2) When I was at school (UK, 1980s) the buildings (admittedly, old buildings) still had some old-style sockets. Changing over plugs was a practical skill. What also tended to happen was that, if you had changed plugs on a number of appliances for use in different locations, you ended up with a little stock of spare plugs. Acquiring a new appliance with a plug attached meant adding to your stock of plugs – and it was more convenient simply to put a plug on than to take one plug off and put another on. (Of course, twice as much work also meant twice as much potential flirting time when a female acquaintance came round with the pretext of requiring a plug wired…)

  18. Well, it reminds me the old days when the plugs were not standardised in Hong Kong.
    Funny enough, until 1993 that a new legislation was enacted to regulate the plug standard and raise the supply voltage from 200V (apparently the only place with such a voltage on earth then!) to 220V, you could literally find every kind of plug in Hong Kong! Unlike the UK, most appliances came with their original plugs fitted, that means we get 2-pin flat prongs, 2-pin round prongs, 3-pin round prongs and few 3-pin square prongs (British Standard). That meant we need a plethora of universal adaptors to actually use them properly. 😛
    When the new law is enacted, people have to somehow convert their plugs immediately because of the real danger of electric fires. Besides, new adaptors only have 3-pin square prongs. Therefore, everyone has to be a skillful electrician and convert their old plugs into the standard! 🙂 I’ve done a fair share of such conversion myself, though my father did the most of course.
    American plugs are premoulded in such a way that it is infeasible to sell plugs individually. However, British wiring standards (which utilises ring circuits) mean that fuses are needed at the plug to protect the circuit otherwise a power surge would not only affect one socket, but the whole ring! Therefore even now, suppliers are quite unkeen to used moulded plugs, which is why British plugs remain so clunky.
    Chinese standard is supposedly to be the same as Australian one because normal appliances are sold in such plug, but such is the affair of standardisation in China that other plugs (American 2-pin flat prongs and British 3-pin square prongs) can be found.

  19. Ginger Yellow says

    The real question is why computer printers usually don’t come with a printer cable.

  20. Alan Gunn says

    About the comments on the metric system. Why would anyone consider it superior, on the merits, to the English system? The millimeter is a unit too small to be marked off with an ordinarily sharp pencil, unlike the sixteenth of an inch, which is really the standard small English unit of measure. Furthermore, the twelve-inch foot can be evenly divided into inches by two, three, four, and six; with a decimal-based system, only two and five work. Kilometers aren’t any worse than miles for driving distances, to be sure, but they aren’t any better, either.
    I build things, usually using English measures but sometimes metric (if the plans call for it). English measures are far more convenient.

  21. Is there any reason why ramen should derive from one and only one Mandarin phrase? It seems more intuitive to me that a number of similar-sounding phrases referring to noodles would be adapted into a foreign language as a single, simplified term using the local phonology. That is, why can’t all the proposed Mandarin phrases contribute to the etymology of ramen?
    If I were a 17th c. Japanese trader hanging out eating noodles with Chinese sailors, I’m not sure I could have distinguished between lamian, laomian, or lāomiàn, let alone pronounce it. I’d call it ramen and be done with it.

  22. Hamilton Lovecraft says

    Ginger Yellow, my brother-in-law, who works for HP, tells me that most of their printer sales today are upgrades to people who already have a USB printer, so they don’t need the cable. I still think that’s idiotic — better to have too many cables than not enough, and for a company like HP it can’t cost more than a buck a cable to throw one in the box — but that’s what I’m told.

  23. re: Bunin
    Actually, Bunin does not say, “I SWEAR by Michael the Archangel himself…” What he says is, “I will never accept the Bolshevik orthography, even if Michael the Archangel were to tell me to do so.”

  24. Thanks! I don’t have the Russian text (it doesn’t seem to be online), so all I have to go on is the translation.

  25. David Marjanović says

    About the comments on the metric system. Why would anyone consider it superior, on the merits, to the English system?

    Because it’s feasible to do math with the metric system, that’s why.
    And besides, you’d need a very thick pencil to be unable to mark a mm.

  26. Большое спасибо!

  27. Wow, now that I can compare I see how terrible the translation is. He makes simple blunders like translating преобладает as “resides” rather than “predominates,” he completely messes up the quote from Tatishchev (ища брат брата достояния лишить, не ведуще, яко премудрый глаголет: ища чужого, о своем в оный день возрыдает becomes “each one trying to rob the other of dignity [should be ‘possessions’!]; each one incapable of leading, but trying to be the smartest [s/b ‘not knowing, as the wise man said:’]; each one wanting what the other one had and crying over what they have not [s/b ‘on that day they will begin to weep’]…”), he renders Смирно! as “Pay attention” instead of “Attention!” (it’s a military command), he doesn’t recognize quotes from Pushkin and the “Workers’ Marseillaise”… what a mess. Shameful.

  28. The reason for the unpopularity of electric kettles in the U.S. (apart from the tea vs. coffee question) is simply that 110V circuits at 15 amps provide only half the wattage, and therefore the water boils (mutatis mutandis) in twice the time. Electric stoves are 240V even here (and have special plugs and sockets), so it makes sense to use a non-self-powered kettle on them.

  29. Well, standard wall-sockets here in Scandinavia are 240V on 10A fuses, and electric kettles are usually rated at 2000W. Stoves get 3-phase 16A for a theoretical max aggregate of 11.5kW, but mine is rated at 9.5kW and that covers the oven as well. The fastest plate is 2.3kW — using an uninsulated kettle on that will probably lose enough heat that the electric one will be faster.

    I guess your stove will be on a 240V/40A circuit with 8 gauge copper wiring (heavy stuff, we only need 13 gauge (2.5mm²) stranded wire), so the power budget is about the same. Difference to a kettle rated 1500W might save you a whole minute — that’s important when waiting for coffee. I bought one of those capsule machines instead, it’s ready in like 20 seconds 🙂

  30. Rodger C says

    therefore the water boils (mutatis mutandis) in twice the time

    Ceteris paribus?

  31. Oops, yes, ceteris paribus.

    I have a gas stove and a plain aluminum kettle. While the kettle boils, I have just enough time to get the ground coffee and half-and-half out of the refrigerator, get the plastic filter-holder and a paper filter to put in it, get the mug out of the cabinet, and set the whole thing up. Then it’s pour and wait, possibly refilling the filter partway through. The result is then microwaved for about 15 seconds (there’s a lot of half-and-half in it, perhaps a third by volume), sweetened, and served to my wife, who takes maybe half an hour to sip it (she keeps it on a small warming plate between sips). Faster boiling wouldn’t help at all.

  32. My wife takes hours sipping her coffee after each meal; I down mine within five minutes. Hot things hot, as my mother always said.

  33. It’s precisely because it’s so hot that she sips it; per contra, she drinks soda in one of those mugs with slurry in the walls that you keep in the freezer, and with as many ice cubes as the mug will hold. “Hot things boiling, cold things freezing.” I’m relatively indifferent to the temperature of most foods, with the exception of milk which I like very cold.

  34. David Marjanović says

    In German-speaking places it is widely believed that it’s unhealthy to drink anything ice-cold. It took Coca Cola decades of marketing, basically the whole 20th century, to overcome that to a noticeable extent.

    Electric stoves are 240V even here (and have special plugs and sockets)

    Electric stoves are 3-phase 380 V here, and have special plugs and sockets. Kraftstrom.

  35. @David Marjanović: It’s a superstition in China as well that drinking cold water is unhealthy. I assume these kinds of superstitions date from before there was a consistently safe water supply, so any drink that was made mostly from water had to be boiled to make it safe.

    Electric stoves and other heavy appliances (like electric clothes dryers) are also three phase in America. And I once had to troubleshoot a digital current loop that converted two-phase power to three-phase power. (It turned out it was working fine; the problem was elsewhere in the system.)

  36. David Marjanović says

    @David Marjanović: It’s a superstition in China as well that drinking cold water is unhealthy. I assume these kinds of superstitions date from before there was a consistently safe water supply, so any drink that was made mostly from water had to be boiled to make it safe.

    No, I specifically mean anything ice-cold. People drink tap water all the time.

  37. @Brett, do you mean that every household in the US with two-phase utillity power has a converter like that? Because what I see on DIY sites is that lots of places just run stoves on two phases of 120. (Two phase is so easy to supply, you get your HV distribution in on two conductors and use a center-split stepdown transformer).

    I worked at ABB Ludvika for a while, they do converters too — from 525kV alternating to 800kV direct current for transmission lines, and back. They were working on the 1MV version when I left. And that means -1MV on one side, +1MV on the other, they built a 5-story building for testing because 2MV arcs really well.

  38. @Lars: I actually don’t know much about the details of power delivery systems (although I have thought about learning more). But I think the three phase power used for heavy appliances is delivered on a separate circuit from the two phase used for most applications. (I looked it up, and apparently, many stoves and ovens in America are actually on two-phase power, but electric dryers almost always seem to be three phase.) The three-phase system I was working with was actually the power supply to a high precision linear motor. It used three-phase power to cut down on millisecond irregularities in the applied acceleration (although the result was still not actually smooth enough for what my employers wanted it for).

  39. All the big appliances in my country house are 240V two-phase, including the dryer.

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