I’ve always been curious about words in Chinese which can refer to two more different meanings in English. Here are 15 words I could think of that I have encountered before. If you can think of any more please let me know by leaving a comment at the bottom of this post!
1. 笑 xiào
笑 can mean both “smile” and “laugh”. To avoid possible confusion, the terms 微笑 and 大笑 can be used respectively. “Laughter” is translated as 笑声; “laughable” as 可笑. In most cases, context will make the intended meaning clear. For example, in the sentence 如果做得不好，请别见笑 it goes without saying that a person would laugh at someone’s poor job, rather than merely smile at it. Similarly, in the phrase 笑得很灿烂 (literally, “to xiao in a slendid and dazzling way”) it should be clear that “smile” is being referred to.
2. 声音 shēngyīn
声音 can mean both “voice” and “sound” in general. Context should make it obvious which sense is being referred to. For example, in the sentence 这女孩的声音很低沉 it would be absurd to translate it as “this girl’s sound is low and deep” – obviously it is her voice which is low and deep. In the same way, in the sentence 关门的声音把他唤醒过来 it must be the sound of a door shutting that woke the person up, since a door cannot speak obviously.
3. 打嗝 dǎgé
打嗝 can mean both “burp” and “hiccup”. To English-speaking people, these two concepts are almost never confused, and indeed they are two completely different mechanisms in the body. However it is possible that many Chinese have never thought of the difference, since 打嗝 is always used to refer to one or the other. The technical term for “hiccup” is 呃逆, however this word is not understood by the average Chinese. Note, though, that in some cases you can say 打饱嗝 (literally, “to dage on a full stomach”) to make it clear that you are referring to burping and not hiccuping.
4. 提醒 tíxǐng
提醒 can mean both “warn” and “remind”. Thus 让我给你提个醒 could mean either “Let me warn you that…” or “Let me remind you that…” depending on the situation or intonation of the speaker. However, in a legal context – for example, when a police officer is giving a warning – it should be noted that the term 警告 is used instead.
5. 常识 chángshí
常识 can mean both “general knowledge” and “common sense”. This distinction may be lost on the average Chinese person, but in English they are fairly different concepts. For example, 法律常识 would always be translated as “legal knowledge” or “general knowledge about law” – it would be strange to mention “common sense” in this situation. In English, “general knowledge” is made up all the things that the average person knows about the world. In Chinese this is often referred to as one’s 知识面. “Common sense”, by contrast, refers to judging matters in a practical way. Thus in English, “common sense” puts the focus on one’s good sense and sound judgement, and not on knowledge as it does in Chinese.
6. 棉花糖 miánhuātáng
棉花糖 can mean both “marshmallow” and “fairy floss” (or “cotton candy” as it is known in American English). This is something a friend of mine pointed out to me the other day, and I think it is quite strange that there does not seem to be a common word to differentiate one from the other. Obviously, “marshmallow” and “fairy floss”/“cotton candy” are two completely different sweets.
7. 电话 diànhuà
电话 can mean both “phone” and “phonecall”. It can also mean “phone number”. Thus some Chinese learners of English will say “I received his phone” rather than “I received his call”, since in Chinese “phone” and “call” are both expressed as 电话.
9. 马桶 mǎtǒng
马桶 can mean both “sitting toilet” and “toilet bowl”. The technical term for “sitting toilet” in Chinese is 坐厕, but in daily conversation most Chinese will simply say 马桶 to refer to it. For reference, a “squatting toilet” is known as 蹲厕.
10. 拐杖 guǎizhàng
拐杖 can mean both “walking stick” (“cane”) and “crutches”. As far as I know, Chinese lacks an exact term for “crutches”, the long walking stick with a crosspiece at the top that is used as a support under the armpit.
11. 裙子 qúnzi
裙子 can mean both “skirt” and “dress”. To avoid possible confusion, the term 连衣裙 can be used to refer to the latter term, but in daily conversation 裙子 is often preferred. This is a common phenomenon in Chinese, as native speakers will often use a simple word to refer to a range of different things. For example, “hood” (of a hoodie) is often referred to as a 帽子 (“hat”); a “pastry” as a 面包 (“bread”), etc.
12. 精神 jīngshén
精神 can mean both “spirit” or “spiritual” and “mind”/”psyche” or “mental”/“psychological”. This term is one of the most difficult to translate into English, depending on the context in which it is used. Many prefer to use the Chinese term 灵魂 when translating the term “spirit”, though it depends on the context, since 灵魂 can also mean soul. Note, also, that when pronunced as jīngshen it can mean “lively”.
13. 染 rǎn
染 can mean both “pollute”/“contaminate” and “stain”. It can also mean “dye”, though the full term 染色 is often used to avoid confusion. Notably, Chinese does not distinguish between “pollution” and “contamination” the way English does. In English, “pollution” usually refers to water or air, while “contamination” usually refers to a specific place, product or object. The phrase 被染了 can be translated as “it’s been polluted”, “it’s been contaminated”, “it’s been stained” and “it’s been dyed” – all dependent on the context in which it is said. In two-syllable words, 染 can also mean “infect”, e.g. 感染, 传染, etc.
14. 电梯 diàntī
电梯 can mean both “elevator” (“lift”) and “escalator”. To avoid confusion, 自动扶梯, 扶手电梯 and various other terms can be used to refer to “escalator” specifically, though again in daily conversation 电梯 is often preferred for the sake of convenience.
15. 讽刺 fěngcì
讽刺 can mean “satire”, “irony” or “sarcasm” depending on the way in which it is used. Like 精神, it is a controversial term, and notoriously difficult to translate in particular situations. Additionally, one could argue that there is no exact word for “irony” in Chinese – or at the very least that irony is conceptualised differently in either language. As for “sarcasm”, the term 反语 (or 反话) can be used to avoid confusion with other concepts.
These are the most I can think of that I’ve come across in my translation work. Of course, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Please leave any interesting words you can think up in the comments section at the bottom of this page.