The online Chinese dictionary everyone is using these days is nciku. Newbies and veterans alike all seem to dig it. The quality of the dictionary entries is a refreshing change from the deluge of unimpressive CEDICT clones. One common difficulty among nciku users of all levels, however, is that they can’t figure out how the hell to pronounce the name! Is it N-C-I-K-U, each letter pronounced like its name, or maybe N-C-I-koo, or something like In-see-koo? Just how do you really pronounce nciku, anyway??
By clicking on 简体 (or 繁體) in the footer to switch to the Chinese version of the site, you can see the nciku’s Chinese name: n词酷. So this should answer the original question: the “n” is pronounced like the name of the letter N, and the “ciku” part is pinyin cíkù.
But why?? What’s up with the name? Well, I have to say, it’s a pretty horrible name if your target market is foreigners. No one knows how to pronounce it when they see it. The name does make sense from a Chinese perspective, though.
First, the n. That’s the mathematical n, as in an unspecified number that could be really high. It might seem strange to bring mathematical variables into everyday conversation, but in modern Chinese it happens on a regular basis. In Mandarin when you do something n遍 (n times), you did it so many times you don’t even know how many. Like we say “a million” in English, or, perhaps more appropriate in its ambiguity, “a zillion.” Rather than n遍, you can also say n次, which also means a zillion times, but sounds quite similar to the beginning of the name n词酷.
词酷 is a concocted homophone for 词库, a somewhat technical word meaning “lexicon” or “word bank.” You can talk about a lexicon in terms of all the words of an entire language, or in terms of an individual’s own vocabulary.
So why 酷 for 库? Well, 酷 is the popular transliteration for “cool,” and the character 库, appearing in such words as 数据库 (database), 语料库 (linguistic corpus), 车库 (garage), 仓库 (warehouse), quite frankly, isn’t very cool.
So there you have it: n词酷, a zillion word banks (but cool).