I confess that my inner twelve-year-old never gets tired of stories about Chinglish that mention “such delectables as ‘fried enema,’ ‘monolithic tree mushroom stem squid’ and a mysterious thirst-quencher known as ‘The Jew’s Ear Juice,” but I probably wouldn’t post the Andrew Jacobs story “Shanghai Is Trying to Untangle the Mangled English of Chinglish” in the NY Times if it were just the usual superficial collection of laugh lines. However, Jacobs has taken the trouble to interview actual experts like Victor H. Mair, whose occasional essays at the Log are always readable and enlightening. And I very much like the examples in this passage:

Among those getting paid to wrestle with Chinglish is Jeffrey Yao, an English translator and teacher at the Graduate Institute of Interpretation and Translation at Shanghai International Studies University who is leading the sign exorcism. But even as he eradicates the most egregious examples by government fiat — businesses dare not ignore the commission’s suggested fixes — he has mixed feelings, noting that although some Chinglish phrases sound awkward to Western ears, they can be refreshingly lyrical. “Some of it tends to be expressive, even elegant,” he said, shuffling through an online catalog of signs that were submitted by the volunteers who prowled Shanghai with digital cameras. “They provide a window into how we Chinese think about language.”
He offered the following example: While park signs in the West exhort people to “Keep Off the Grass,” Chinese versions tend to anthropomorphize nature as a way to gently engage the stomping masses. Hence, such admonishments as “The Little Grass Is Sleeping. Please Don’t Disturb It” or “Don’t Hurt Me. I Am Afraid of Pain.”
Mr. Yao read off the Chinese equivalents as if savoring a Shakespearean sonnet. “How lovely,” he said with a sigh.

Ah well, such are the casualties of progress. Thanks for the link, Bonnie and Jill!


  1. “If your little car sleeps in my driveway, a big angry bird might swoop down and eat it for breakfast.”
    Okay, I’ll give it a shot.

  2. What do you think they write for “alternate side of the street parking”?

  3. Perhaps. But does it sleep furiously?

  4. I covered this kind of thing some time back at Style Plaza or Amorous Square. At the time I struggled to find some rhyme or reason behind the strange names but could only come up with unfounded guesses. Later I was told that a lot of the names used on shop signs are a result of some kind of computer translation programs. Indeed, English translations appear to be provided as a kind of “service” by the sign-makers. Thus a hapless restaurant may find itself with a sign outside proclaiming it to be a “girlie bar”, a translation provided by the sign company. Unfortunately I never went any further into the matter, so I never did find out exactly how computer programs could come up with such incredible translations in the first place.

  5. I think the only problem with 黑木耳露 is the The. It really is called that in English.

  6. I’ll be damned, so it is. OED:
    [Erroneous rendering of med.L. auricula Judæ Judas’s ear; so called from its shape, and from its being frequently found on the elder, on which tree Judas Iscariot was reputed to have hanged himself.]
    1. An edible cup-shaped fungus (Hirneola or Exidia Auricula-Judæ) growing on the roots and trunks of trees, chiefly the elder, and formerly in repute as a medicine; also locally applied to species of Peziza (Britten & Holl. 1879).
    1544 T. PHAER Regim. Lyfe (1560) Tjb, Take the musherom yt groweth upon an elder tree, called in englyshe Iewes eares. 1597 GERARDE Herbal III. lxxi. 1233 There groweth oftentimes vpon [elders] a certaine excrescence called Auricula Indæ or Iewes eare. 1634 HEYWOOD & BROME Witches Lanc. III. Wks. 1874 IV. 209 All the Sallets are turn’d to Iewes-eares. 1646 SIR T. BROWNE Pseud. Ep. II. vi. 101 Jews eares.. an excrescence about the roots of Elder, and concerneth not the Nation of the Jews, but Judas Iscariot, upon a conceit, he hanged on this tree. 1694 SALMON Bate’s Dispens. (1713) 705/2 Let the Throat be anointed with Oil of Jews-Ears; which is made by boiling the Jews-Ears.. in Oyl-Olive till they are crisp, and pressing out the Oyl, and repeating the boiling in like manner with fresh Jews-Ears, to the third time. 1694 MOTTEUX Rabelais IV. lx. (1737) 245 Sallats, a Hundred Varieties, of Creeses,.. Sives, Rampions, Jew’s Ears. 1882 Garden 2 Sept. 207/2 There are several tree-growing edibles besides the two just mentioned. Of such is the Jew’s ear.
    2. Locally applied to the Tomato (Britten & Holl.).

  7. marie-lucie says

    Auricula Indæ or Iewes eare
    This must be Auricula Iudae.

  8. This must be Auricula Iudae.
    Good catch! The two places this passage of the Herbal is quoted online both have -u-, so it’s presumably a rare OED typo.

  9. Looks like an OCR error in OED2. It’s right in OED1 (as far as my eyes can make out).

  10. “about the roots of Elder, and concerneth not the Nation of the Jews, but Judas Iscariot, upon a conceit, he hanged on this tree.”
    And a vain conceit it is, since elders don’t grow anywhere near the area. But then again, maybe there isn’t any useful kind of mushroom that grows on a Judas tree

  11. m-l found a typo in the OED? Wow.

  12. Are there still typos in the bible — old versions, like the King James?

  13. There are typos everywhere. Somewhere I must still have a collection of Xeroxes I made of typos in the Bible, dictionaries, Oxford Classical Texts, and other works that presumably had been proofread to within an inch of their life, that I used to carry around and thrust under the noses of annoying bosses who dared complain about the proofreaders missing things. Our aim was to be as good as humanly possible, but perfection is not humanly possible.

  14. Yeah, but you’d think God would take care of the Bible. Is that proof of His nonexistence?

  15. marie-lucie says

    AJP, it is not as if I had been reading the entire OED, only the paragraph cited above.

  16. komfo,amonan says

    Yeah, but you’d think God would take care of the Bible. Is that proof of His nonexistence?
    The gods in question are perfectly happy with the Hebrew/Aramaic and the Greek. They’ve handed believers a perfect opportunity to learn Greek! And they’ve just fumbled it.

  17. But to get back to Chinglish, how I have loved having a Beijing penpal for exactly these reasons! She has made me re-think my own relationship to language.

  18. it is not as if I had been reading the entire OED, only the paragraph cited above.
    That’s right. You found a typo in your first paragraph. Even more amazing.

  19. marie-lucie says

    What would be amazing would be if I never made any typos.

  20. dearieme says

    Does God have free will?

  21. “Yeah, but you’d think God would take care of the Bible. Is that proof of His nonexistence?”
    If he needs to prove he exists, then he doesn’t.
    “The gods in question are perfectly happy with the Hebrew/Aramaic and the Greek. ”
    More to the point, since they’re the ones transmiting the texts, I can’t imagine any of those churches giving much of a crap about written doctrines. so even if their versions have their own share of boo-boos, it’s not like it’;s a big deal. The Church(es), not some book, are the authorit(ies) on all those matters. Only a Fundie or a Calvinist or some one else like that who’d never get admitted to communion anyway, gets wound around the axle about scriptures.

  22. Does God have free will?
    He can’t decide. The answer He gets depends on who He asks.

  23. There’s a Sinful Bible where the “not” is left out of one of the prohibitions.
    God put the misprints in to keep us on our toes. He’s like a HS teacher that way.

  24. my inner twelve-year-old never gets tired of stories about Chinglish
    My inner twelve year old wants me to post a gratuitous link to the associated superficial collection of laugh lines.

  25. Of the examples at Nijma’s site, “Please don’t make confused noise while chanting” seems like a good translation, or almost. It’s asking people not to chant scriptures in a certain kind of way, and someone who knew Chinese and chanting better than I do would know what that way is. “Fragrant and hot Marxism” is a translation of a bit of Chinese word play —
    it should be “Fragrant-hot-ism”, as though that style of cooking were an ideology.

  26. Bathrobe says

    Except that 诵经时请勿喧哗 Sòngjīng shí qǐng wù xuānhuá is an exhortation to be quiet while chanting is in progress.
    喧哗 is one of those words that has a different meaning in Chinese and Japanese. 喧哗 xuānhuá means ‘noise, racket, hubbub, uproar’ in Chinese. In Japanese, 喧嘩 kenka means ‘quarrel’.

  27. marie-lucie says

    “Please don’t make confused noise while chanting”
    – “Except that 诵经时请勿喧哗 Sòngjīng shí qǐng wù xuānhuá is an exhortation to be quiet while chanting is in progress.”
    Here the translator seems to have confused “while” and “during”, the meaning of which out of context might appear to be the same.

  28. m-l, totally OT, but some time ago there was a thread where the French caroling tradition of la Guiannèe came up. (More at my URL.) At the time, no French version of the song was to be found anywhere, but this week I found the French lyrics (I had always been told by someone who participated every year that the song said, “bring out your oldest daughter in her best dress”):

    Bon soir le maitre et la maitresse et tout le monde du logis
    Pour le dernier jour de l’annèe la Guiannèe vous nou devez.
    La Guiannèe vous nous devez, dites-nous-le.
    Si vous voulez nous rien donner, dites nous le.
    On vous demande seulement un èchinèe.
    Une èchinèe n’est pas grand chose, ca n’a que de dix pieds de long.
    Et nous enferons une fricassèe de quatre-vingt-dix pieds de long.
    Si vous voulez nous rien donner, dites-nous-le.
    On vous demande seulement la fille aînèe.
    Nous lui ferons faire bonne chère, nous lui ferons chaffer les pieds.
    Quand nous fûmes au milieu des bois, nous fûmes á l’ombre.
    J’ai attendu le coucou chanter et la colombe.
    Et le rossignol du vert bocage, l’ambassadeur des amourreaux.
    Mai va-t-en dire a má maîtresse qu’elle a toujours le coeur joyeux.
    Qu’elle a toujours le coeur joyeux, point de tristesse
    Toute les filles qui n’ont pas d’amant, com-ment vit-elle?
    Ce sont amours qui la reveillent et qui l’empêchent de dormir.


    Good evening master and mistress and all who live here.
    On the last day of the year la Guiannèe is due us.
    La Guiannee is due us, tell us so.
    We ask only for a backbone of pork.
    A backbone is not a great matter, it is only ten feet long.
    We will make of it a fricassee ninety feet long.
    If you have nothing to give, tells us.
    We ask only for your eldest daughter.
    We will give her good cheer, we will warm her feet.
    When in the midst of the woods, we are in the shadows.
    We hear the cuckoo sing and the dove.
    The nightingale in the verdant grove, the ambassador of love.
    Go tell my mistress always to have a joyous heart, without sadness.
    All the girls who have no lover, how do they live?
    It is love which wakens her and which hinders her sleep.

  29. marie-lucie says

    Nijma, I remember that discussion. Where did you dig that up? There seem to be a few typos or mistakes in the French text (it looks like it is made up of bits and pieces of several folksongs) and in the translation too (although the gist is there).

  30. m-l,
    It’s from an out-of-print book called The French Colony in the Mid-Mississippi Valley. Photo of the page, clickable, at my URL, but I’m pretty sure I copied it right. The lyrics in wikipedia are a little different.
    The LH thread about the town Prairie du Rocher is here, but there is an even older comment about it (from Hat) here.
    And I’ve just found a YouTube recording of La Guillanee too. I was in Prairie du Rocher last summer–the locals spell the song (and the event) “la Guignonee” and pronounce it (ghee-OH-nay). The name of the town is pronounced just plain “roacher”; they drop the prairie part.

  31. I’ve posted this before too, but maybe we have new readers. There remained French-speaking communities in Missouri, Indiana, and Illinois up until very recently, though I think only old people speak French any more.
    Old Mines 1
    Old Mines 2
    There’s also a town in N. Minnesota, Red Lake Falls, which is about 10% French speakers. There were a lot of French speakers in Minnesota when the state founded — usually the same people as the Canadian Metis except on the other side of the line. The town was founded by some of them, and new settlers and a priest were recruited from Quebec.
    Some towns around here do have lots of French surnames, and I have an acquaintance from around here who’s a bit touchy about being called French.

  32. Old Mines is, in the technical sense, it’s a small village on Route 21 North of Potosi, Missouri, about 45 to 50 miles due west of Ste. Genevieve…. But the Old Mines region itself is anywhere from 40 to 50 miles square…. And in this area there have been French miners who have mined originally lead, for the king of France, and then tiff [barite], a chalky white substance that is the base of lead paint. And it basically, you find it concurrent with lead, in lead veins, and it was something they were able to continue to do independently. And this independence allowed them, in many way–because of their isolation in the Ozarks–the independence of being miners has allowed them to continue their language, continue their culture, their music.
    The Crown granted trade monopolies to trading companies in return for bringing over colonists, increasing agriculture, importing slaves, and searching for mines. The French Colony: “Exploring for minerals, particularly gold and silver, was an important goal; it was hoped that the lead mines would produce, not only lead, but silver as well. The mines were located in present Missouri and most of the miners and slaves needed for working the mines lived there.”
    There is a Welsh town in Illinois a bit east of the French settlements, don’t remember the name but I stay away from it since it has a wicked pie shop, but I believe it’s a mining town, coal, and has distinctive Welsh architecture. I wonder if it’s Welsh because Illinois was north of the Mason-Dixon line. (My in-laws knew all kinds of underground RR lore for the state.) There are some tantalizing bits on the internet about blacks with Welsh surnames, but it’s mostly behind a paywall, I’m guessing a mining connection.

  33. But what does this sign about the grass have to do with “how we Chinese think about language”? It seems to have more to do with how the Chinese think about grass.

  34. ktschwarz says

    MMcM (2010) on Auricula Indæ for Auricula Iudae: “Looks like an OCR error in OED2. It’s right in OED1”

    Not OCR — no OCR could handle the OED1, and even more so in the 1980s! That mistake was made by human eyes. John Simpson’s memoir has fun with those who recommended OCR:

    We always gave these obliging consultants a few pages of the OED, and said we would be delighted to check over the results when they had run it through their state-of-the-art text-scanning equipment. Curiously, we never saw any of them again. Perhaps some went mad, and maybe others were sighted selling ice creams on the sea-front in Brighton. But they certainly didn’t come back to us with scanned text that we could make use of.

    So it was all typed in, and tagged, by 150 humans in Florida working for International Computaprint Corporation, and checked by 50 freelance proofreaders managed by the OED office.

    The entry Jew’s ear was revised in 2019, but instead of correcting the quotation, they dropped it. (The book is still cited over a thousand times, with the author’s name now standardized to “J. Gerard” and the title to Herball.) The etymology also now adds the detail that the earliest known attestation in Latin isn’t until 1576, later than the earliest English evidence, though the 1544 citation “called in englysshe iewes eares” does indicate that it was a calque. They also re-worded “the elder, on which tree Judas Iscariot was reputed to have hanged himself” to “the elder, on which Judas Iscariot was reputed to have hanged himself”, which I’d count as evidence of the obsolescence of the determinative “which”.

  35. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I remember a long case study I read long ago, very possibly in the 80s. About digitizing many volumes of a reference work on the English Stage or something. Which used about 10 different fonts to differentiate work titles, authors, actors and more. They ended up using dentists’ drills to modify IBM Selectrix type balls so that O and 0 (probably) were different enough to OCR reliably, and then sent the thing off to East Asia somewhere to be retyped single-sided and double-spaced with semantic tags. Maybe it was feasible to use computer terminals for the typing-in when the OED did theirs, but that’s just a detail. OCR from the original pages was not a thing yet.

    (Most memorable: When the tech lead was told that the keyboarding bureau’s cited error rate of 1% was not per character, but per page).

Speak Your Mind