Loan words from English and other Western languages in Mandarin have always interested me for a variety of reasons. However unlike Japanese, Chinese seems very cautious to import words directly into its lexicon via transliteration (that is, creating a new word by matching the sounds of the original one using Mandarin syllables). This post will break down all the major transliterations in Mandarin from English and other Western languages; I won’t be including loan words created by literal translation (e.g. 热狗 règǒu “hot dog”, 肥皂剧 féizàojù “soap opera”, etc), but there will be a post on that later.
Sometimes the word is simply a phonetic representation of an English word, e.g. 沙发 shāfā (“sofa”), 雪茄 xuějiā (“cigar”), 木乃伊 mùnǎiyī (“mummy”), 幽浮 yōufú (“UFO”) and 卢布 lúbù (“ruble”). Sometimes the word is transliterated from English, but is given a suffix to hint its meaning, for instance in the words 雅皮士 yǎpíshì (“yuppie”) and 嬉皮士 xīpíshì (“hippie”), both which are affixed by 士 shì (“person”), 麦克笔 màikèbǐ (“marker”), which is made up of a transliteration of “marker” plus 笔 bǐ, “pen” and 溜溜球 / 遛遛球 liùliuqiú (“yoyo”), which combines a transliteration of “yoyo” plus 球 qiú (“ball”).
Sometimes the transliteration matches the word both phonetically and semantically, for instance 香波 xiāngbō (“shampoo”), which can also be read literally as “fragrant wave”. Other times, it matches both phonetically and semantically, but in a different way – e.g. 泰迪熊 tàidíxióng, a combination of “teddy” (transliteration) and “bear” (translation), and 呼啦圈 hūlāquān, a combination of “hula” and “hoop”. Sometimes only one particular syllable from the original English word is used in the transliteration, e.g. 拉拉 lālā, a modern slang expression for “lesbian”.
Sometimes an English word or phrase is transliterated, but the meaning is changed, for example in the Taiwanese Mandarin slang 嘿咻 hēixiū, which though derives from English “hey show” in fact means “to get it on”, for inexplicable reasons. 麻吉 májí, another slang expression, comes from English “match”, but specifically refers to a “wingman” or “good friend”.
Sometimes a particular word from English is selected for transliteration, but only one sense is activated. Thus though 贴士 tiēshì derives from the English word “tip”, it exclusively refers to its meaning of “hint”. 拷贝 kǎobèi, originating from “copy”, is just a technical word for a “copy”, “replica” or “print” of a film or document. 模特(儿) mótè(r) (“model”) only refers to fashion models (though note dictionaries claim it comes from the French modèle, not necessarily English). 摩丝 mósī (“mousse”) only refers to hair mousse. And so on, and so forth. These kind of transliterations can be misleading for learners if they assume the Chinese word can refer to any potential meaning in the original English word.
And, of course, many transliterations do not always follow a predictable pattern. Take, for example, the Mandarin translation for “Ku Klux Klan” – 三K党 sān-K-dǎng – literally, “three K party”, which is half-transliteration and half-sense-translation.
It was inevitable that words relating to creative expression would play a big part in the lexicon of modern China, since the kind of concepts and genres us Westerners take for granted simply didn’t exist in traditional Chinese culture. In terms of musical genres, the only three I can think of are 朋克 péngkè (“punk”), 爵士 juéshì (“jazz”) and 迪斯科 dísīkē (“disco”). In terms of musical instruments, 吉他 jítā (“guitar”), 贝司 bèisī (“bass”) and 萨克斯管 sàkèsīguǎn (“saxophone”) are well-known and accepted translations. 巴松管 bāsōngguǎn, by contrast, may be understood as “bassoon”, but I get the feeling that the sense-translations 低音管 dīyīnguǎn and 大管 dàguǎn are often preferred (and, indeed, Google hits back me up on this). I’ve also read it claimed that 号 hào, as in 长号 chánghào (“trombone”), 大号 dàhào (“tuba”), etc, is a transliteration of “horn”, but I’m not entirely convinced.
Transliterations for dance styles are even more numerous:
- 探戈舞 tàngēwǔ – Tango
- 迪斯科舞 dísīkēwǔ – Disco
- 芭蕾舞 bālěiwǔ – Ballet
- 霹雳舞 pīlìwǔ – Breaking; b-boying
- 华尔兹舞 huá’ěrziwǔ – Waltz
- 比根舞 bǐgēnwǔ – Beguine
- 恰恰舞 qiàqiàwǔ – Cha-cha
- 伦巴舞 lúnbāwǔ – Rumba
- 桑巴舞 sāngbāwǔ – Samba
- 波尔卡舞 bō’ěrkǎwǔ – Polka
- 吉格舞 jígéwǔ – Jig
- 哈娑舞 hāsuōwǔ – Hustle dance
- 莎莎舞 shāshāwǔ – Salsa dance
- 布鲁斯舞 bùlǔsīwǔ – Blues dance
- 拉丁舞 Lādīngwǔ – Latin dance
- 爵士舞 juéshìwǔ – Jazz dance
Some of these transliterations derive from languages apart from English – for instance, “beguine”, “salsa” and “samba” derive from French, Spanish and Portuguese respectively. It is hard to say, without hard evidence, which language Mandarin originally took the transliteration from.
Then, in the visual arts, you have 卡通 kǎtōng (“cartoon”), though 漫画 mànhuà (yes, it’s a cognate of Japanese manga) is also common. Moreover I find 马赛克 mǎsàikè (“mosaic”), 蒙太奇 méngtàiqí (“montage”) and 图腾 túténg (“totem”) quite interesting.
Yes, concepts is a big and far-reaching category. Overall one can safely say that Mandarin has resisted translating them phonetically and instead opted for a sense-translation in many cases. Nonetheless, you get perplexing words like 幽默 yōumò (“humour”) and 逻辑 luóji (“logic”), to which one has to ask, how is it possible that these ideas did not exist prior to China’s contact with the West? This is still not something I am entirely sure about, and I somehow doubt scholars have made up their minds either. Then you have a word like 摩登 módēng (“modern”) which I’m fairly sure has been largely superseded by 现代 xiàndài. I shan’t go too much into political concepts, but as far as I know 法西斯 fǎxīsī (“fascist”) and 纳粹 Nàcuì (“Nazi”) are the two most notable transliterations in that sphere. And I do love Chinese’s translation of “romantic” – 浪漫 làngmàn, or its wordier cousin, 罗曼蒂克 luómàndìkè.
Religion comes into it too; 耶稣 Yēsū for Jesus (*though this probably came from Spanish), and 撒旦 Sādàn for Satan. And don’t forget to say 阿门 āmén (“amen”) so you’ll be let into 乌托邦 wūtuōbāng (“utopia”). For some though shopping is a religion, and if you wanted to translate that Western concept you have three options – 购物 gòuwù, 买东西 mǎidōngxi and, naturally, the less common transliteration 血拼 xuèpīn.
Western ideas of entertainment also had some effect on the Chinese lexicon. The word “fan” is usually rendered as 粉丝 fěnsī, which also has the meaning of “vermicelli”. Rumour has it that this word was chosen deliberately to metaphorise the concept of fans being flexible and fickle. Personally, I’m a big fan of 脱口秀 tuōkǒuxiù, a common transliteration of “talk show”. You’ll also come across 派对 pàiduì (“party”) from time to time, though I think the word “PARTY” is often used in conversation since the concept is so foreign to Chinese culture. (This is similar to “city”, which is usually spoken as “CITY” despite the existence of a native word – 城里 chénglǐ – in Mandarin.)
What kind of clothing do we have here? Well, for starters, 贝雷帽 bèiléimào (“beret”) and 比基尼 bǐjīní (“bikini”). But easily the most interesting transliteration in this category would have to be 迷你裙 mínǐqún, “miniskirt”, or taken literally, “enchant-you skirt”. T恤衫 T-xùshān (“T-shirt”) is also worthy of note since it employs that cool mix of Latin letter and Chinese character. When translating the word “jacket” or “parka” you may be tempted to use the transliterations 夹克 jiákè (or its alternative form 茄克 jiākè) and 派克 pàikè but my feeling is that 上衣 shàngyī and 外套 wàitào are more common. Amusingly, the translation for ugg boots – UGG靴子 yū-jī-jī xuēzi – is a transliteration of the trademark “ugg” in which the three letters are sounded out individually. Lastly, there are four fabric terms you should be aware of which are commonly transliterated:
- 尼龙 nílóng – Nilon
- 开司米 kāisīmǐ – Cashmere
- 蕾絲 lěisī – Lace
- 法兰绒 fǎlánróng – Flannel
Food & Drink
Food words derived from English are pretty numerous too, and were among the first words I ever learnt in Mandarin. 汉堡包 hànbǎobāo (“hamburger”), 冰淇淋 bīngqílín (“ice cream”), 比萨饼 bǐsàbǐng (“pizza”), 巧克力 qiǎokèlì (“chocolate”), 牛轧糖 niúgátáng (“nougat”), 曲奇 qūqí (“cookie”) and 布朗尼 bùlǎngní (“brownie”) are fun. There are a couple of notable fish: 沙丁鱼 shādīngyú (“sardines”) and 吞拿魚 tūnnáyú (“tuna”). Some food words, like 土司 tǔsī, 优格 yōugé and 玛芬 mǎfēn are not terribly common; the more meaningful sense-translations of 烤面包 kǎomiànbāo (“roasted bread” – toast), 酸奶 suānnǎi (“sour milk” – yoghurt) and 松饼 sōngbǐng (“soft cake” – muffin) are usually preferred. It’s understandable why 玛芬 mǎfēn never took off as a loan word – unfortunately it sounds too much like 马粪 mǎfèn (“horse poo”) to be taken seriously.
Indeed, the translation of food has always been a messy affair; there are half a dozen possible translations for “bacon” in Chinese, but at least you’ve always got the transliteration 培根 péigēn to fall back on. Nor are there always standard rules; for “pudding” one might say 布丁 bùdīng, but 布甸 bùdiàn is also used. Once you get past the three possible sense-translations for “cheese” – 乳酪 rǔlào, 干酪 gānlào and 奶酪 nǎilào, you still have two more transliterations – 芝士 zhīshì or 起司 qǐsī – to choose from.
But the feast is only just beginning. Shall we start with a 咖喱 gālí (“curry”)? Or perhaps just a 三明治 sānmíngzhì, the cute sound-borrowing of “sandwich”? (I like that the “three” part 三 sān works well on a visual level considering sandwiches are often triangular.) 可可 kěkě (“cocoa”) leaves a long list of derived terms in its wake – 可可豆 kěkě dòu (“cocoa bean”), 可可粉 kěkě fěn (“cocoa powder”), 可可油 kěkě yóu (“cocoa butter”) and 热可可 rè kěkě (“hot cocoa”). If you’re on a diet you might just want to eat a 沙拉 shālā (“salad”), with a 芒果 mángguǒ (“mango”) or 柠檬 níngméng (“lemon”). 慕斯 mùsī (“mousse”) apparently exists too, though I have no idea if that applies to hair mousse as well. Also, don’t forget you can create any kind of “pie” with the 排/派 pái suffix.
And after all that, you’re bound to have consumed a few 卡路里 kǎlùlǐ (“calories”)!
When it comes to drinks, probably the most famous loan word in Mandarin is Coca-Cola which translators have cleverly rendered as 可口可乐 kěkǒu kělè, literally, “tasty and fun”. However many might not be familar with 蝌蝌龈蜡 kēkēkěnlà, the original transliteration, which literally means “tadpole chews wax”, not the greatest message with which to impress the Chinese with an exotic new drink. Soon after, its rival Pepsi came up with 百事可乐 bǎishìkělè – “one-hundred-things cola”. For more of a caffeine fix, check out 咖啡 kāfēi (“coffee”) and 苏打 sūdǎ (“soda”). The common milkshake is usually transliterated as 奶昔 nǎixī, though you may see 雪克 xuěkè from time to time.
The many shades of Western alcohol allow for plenty of opportunities to transliterate. 啤酒 píjiǔ (“beer”) is the obvious one, but perhaps less known is 扎啤 zhāpí which supposedly tries to represent “draught beer”. In terms of cocktails and other spirits, the sky’s the limit: 马提尼(酒) mǎtíní (jiǔ) (“martini”), 威士忌(酒) wēishìjì (jiǔ) (“whisky”), 白兰地(酒) báilándì (jiǔ) (“brandy”), 波本(酒) bōběn (jiǔ) (“bourbon”), etc. Further, I assume that, since Russia and China have a long, historic relationship, the word for “vodka”, 伏特加 fútèjiā, comes from the Russian and not the English loanword, but I could be wrong. Lastly, let’s not forget my favourite: 香槟(酒) xiāngbīn (jiǔ) (“champagne”)!
As English became more and more globalised during the past few decades, common interjections in spoken English slowly started to appear in Mandarin. Undeniably the most common is 拜拜 báibái, which originates from English “bye-bye” and is the standard phrase spoken at the end of a telephone call or instant message conversation (in which its number-abbreviation “88″ is usually used). The pervasive buzzword of the past half-century in English, “cool”, was transliterated as 酷 kù in Mandarin, though its scope is much narrower since in Chinese it is usually only said when referring to something as fashionable (whereas in English it retains a number of different and varied applications). “Thankyou” is sometimes rendered as “sān-Q” (“3Q” in Internet-speak), often for comedic effect. Another interjection I have come across recently is 喔麦尬 ōmàigà, a phonetic representation of “oh my God” supposedly popular in Taiwan. Lastly, one should mention 哈罗 hāluó, Mandarin’s answer to “hello”, though I must admit I have never actually heard it used in real life.
A number of words for places in Mandarin have successfully been imported from English. One of particular interest is 吧 bā, a phonetic representation of “bar”, which can be combined with other characters to form words such as 酒吧 jiǔbā (“alcohol bar” = “bar; pub”) and 网吧 wǎngbā (“net bar” = “Internet cafe”). I can think of three more place words, though unfortunately I frequent none of them myself: 沙龙 shālóng (“salon”), 三溫暖 sānwēnnuǎn / 桑拿 sāngná (“sauna”) and 迪厅 dítīng (“disco hall; discotheque”).
Plants and Animals
Despite the diversity of mother nature, surprisingly there are not too many of these. Sure, for plants there’s 康乃馨 kāngnǎixīn (“carnation”), but you’re just as likely to see the sense-translation 麝香石竹 shèxiāngshízhú in its place. What else? 墨角兰 mòjiǎolán (“marjoram”) is a contender, I suppose, but we’re really grabbing at straws. In terms of animals, you’ve got 考拉 kǎolā (“koala”) and 丁狗 dīnggǒu (“dingo”) but these are also commonly substituted by 树袋熊 shùdàixióng (“tree pouch bear”) or 澳洲野犬 Àozhōu yěquǎn (“Australian wild dog”) respectively.
Even though transliterations are, as a rule, uncommon in Mandarin, proper nouns could be considered one of the exceptions. Take, for example, the gamut of famous company names:
- 麦当劳 Màidāngláo – McDonald’s
- 肯德基 Kěndéjī – KFC
- 索尼 Suǒní – Sony
- 柯达 Kēdá – Kodak
- 沃尔玛 Wòěrmǎ – Wal-Mart
- 安联 Ānlián – Allianz
- 惠普 Huì-Pǔ – Hewlett-Packard
- 福特 Fútè – Ford
- 沃达丰 Wòdáfēng – Vodafone
But there are many more, of course, including countries: 澳大利亚 Àodàlìyà (“Australia”) and 加拿大 Jiānádà (“Canada”); cities: 墨尔本 Mòěrběn (“Melbourne”) and 多伦多 Duōlúnduō (“Toronto”); famous places: 好莱坞 Hǎoláiwù (“Hollywood”) and 迪士尼乐园 Díshìní lèyuán / 迪斯尼乐园 Dísīní lèyuán (“Disneyland”); famous people: 莎士比亚 Shāshìbǐyà (“Shakespeare”), 牛顿 Niúdùn (“Newton”) and 奧巴馬 Àobāmǎ (“Obama”); and trademarks: 凡士林 fánshìlín (“Vaseline”), 托福 Tuōfú (“TOEFL”), 雅思 Yǎsī (“IELTS”) and 的确良 Díquèliáng (“Dacron”). We could go on all day, though I’d rather not.
Science and Technology
Science has always been a breeding ground for new words, both monolingually and bilingually. In biochemistry, the idea of the 安多芬 ānduōfēn (“endorphin”) was conceived; in physiology it was the 荷尔蒙 hé’ěrméng (“hormone”). Both of these, however, may be interchanged by the sense-translations 脑内啡 nǎonèifēi and 激素 jīsù respectively. Genetics centred around the idea of the 基因 jīyīn (“gene”), and saw the rise of the 克隆 kèlóng (“clone”). Medicine also saw a number of transliteration imports – 休克 xiūkè (“shock”), X光 X-guāng (“X-ray”), 艾滋病 àizībìng (“AIDS”), 淋巴 línbā (“lymph”) and 维他命 wéitāmìng (“vitamin”, also known as 维生素 wéishēngsù), to name a few. On a side note, one scientific transliteration that confuses me is 瓦斯 wǎsī, supposedly a phonetic representation of “gas” – if anyone can enlighten me in the comments what the difference is between it and 气体 qìtǐ I would much appreciate it.
Since pharmacology has by and large been dominated by the West in the past few centuries, it comes as no surprise that so many loan words are to be found in drug names. Some are simply basic transliterations of their English counterparts – 盘尼西林 pánníxīlín (“penicillin”), 尼古丁 nígǔdīng (“nicotine”), 阿司匹林 āsīpīlín (“aspirin”), 地西泮 dìxīpàn (“diazepam”), 奎宁 kuíníng (“quinine”), 吗啡 mǎfēi (“morphine”), 咖啡因 kāfēiyīn (“caffeine”), etc. Others are, coincidentally or not, quite vivid in their composition. Consider, for example, 鸦片 yāpiàn, which means “opium” but can also be translated literally as “crow tablet”. Most hilariously, 伟哥 wěigē (“Viagra”) can also be understood as “mighty older brother”.
Of course, as science developed, words for new technologies also were also imported into the language. You’ve got 马达 mǎdá (“motor”) which gave birth to the 摩托车 mótuōchē (“motorcycle”), 吉普车 jípǔchē (“jeep”) and 坦克 tǎnkè (“tank”). You’ve also got 巴士 bāshì (“bus”) which usually implies more of a private “coach” when compared to its sound-translation counterpart 公共汽车 gōnggòng qìchē. It can also be extended as 大巴 dàbā or 小巴 xiǎobā, which may respectively distinguish a “big bus” or a “mini-bus”. Other technology transliterations include 雷达 léidá (“radar”), 声纳 shēngnà (“sonar”), 帮浦 bāngpǔ (“pump”), 麦克风 màikèfēng (“microphone”) and 本生灯 běnshēngdēng (“Bunsen burner”). There’s also 雷射 léishè (“laser”) which is more common in Taiwan, not to mention BP机/BB机 BPjī/BBjī (“pager”), though that’s obviously obsolete now.
Of course the Internet spawned its own technological terms – 因特网 yīntèwǎng (“Internet”), 伊妹儿 yīmèir (“email”) and 黑客 hēikè (“black guest” – hacker) to name a few. 博客 bókè and 部落格 bùluògé, which both mean “blog”, are commonly used in mainland China and Taiwan respectively. And let’s not forget modes of measurement, of which there are many:
- 盎司 àngsī – ounce
- 加仑 jiālún – gallon
- 克拉 kèlā – carat
- 摄氏 Shèshì – Celsius
- 瓦特 wǎtè – watt
- 安培 ānpéi – ampere
I think, on the whole Mandarin has avoided translating sport names on the basis of sound alone; “soccer” is 足球 zúqiú (“foot” + “ball”), “cricket” is 板球 bǎnqiú (“board; bat” + “ball”), “volleyball” is 排球 páiqiú (“line; sequence” + “ball”), etc. However there are exceptions; notably 高尔夫球 gāo’ěrfūqiú (“golf”), as well as 保龄球 bǎolíngqiú (“bowling”) and 蹦极 bèngjí (“bungee jumping”), though I’m not sure if they are considered sports in the strictest sense. Lastly, “the Olympics” was translated phonetically as 奥林匹克 Àolínpǐkè, and it is there that you do see the odd “marathon” – i.e. 马拉松 mǎlāsōng.
Postscript: This original title of this post was“A Comprehensive Guide to English Transliterations in Chinese” but I soon discovered that many of these loan words probably came from Western languages other than English and so changed the title. Whilst it is very difficult to provide an indepth and accurate etymology for each loan word, I think learners can still gain a lot from learning more about words which have come into Chinese via foreign languages. If anyone has specific information about the history of some of these terms I’d love to hear about it in the comments.