Taxi: a Semantic Gloss in English of a Chinese Character

04 Oct 2010

Take a look at this Shanghai subway advertisement for plane tickets on Taobao. Pay attention to the main Chinese words in the ad.

Taobao Plane Tickets Ad

If you’re anything like me (and a few of the Chinese people I asked), you tried to read the Chinese before paying attention the English “taxi,” but started feeling something was strange around the “飞的” part. What’s going on here?

Well, in Mandarin Chinese, the character 的 is most commonly used as a structural particle, connecting different parts of speech together or doing other structural things. In this capacity, it is pronounced “de.” However, the character 的 has a number of other readings as well.

Aside from its purely grammatical function, 的 also appears in the loanword for “taxi,” which is 的士 (díshì) in Mandarin, a secondhand borrowing from the Cantonese “dik1si2” (a loanword from English). In Mandarin Chinese 的 can also represent the meaning “taxi” by itself. When it does this, it’s pronounced “dī.” So you can say “take a taxi” using the phrase 打车 or 打的 (“dǎ dī” and not “dǎ de”).

Anyway, in this ad, the 飞的 part should be read “fēi dī” and not “fēi de,” because it stands for “flying taxi” rather than “one that flies.” That means the sentence is:

> 打个飞的去旅行

So while you might, at first glance, be tempted to read it as, “take something that flies to go traveling” (which is grammatical, albeit a bit awkward), the correct translation is, “take a flying taxi to go traveling.” This is indicated by the “TAXI” above the 的, which tells us the character means taxi (not structural info), and therefore should be pronounced “dī.”

The interesting parts:

1. This was so potentially confusing that a gloss had to be given to a Chinese audience
2. The gloss given was an English word, indicating not the reading of the character, but the meaning of the character

When you think of a gloss for Asian languages, you tend to think of something like this (taken from the Wikipedia page on ruby characters):

Ruby Characters

I think the ad above is the first time I’ve ever seen a semantic gloss in a foreign language, intended for native speakers of the glossed language. Pretty cool! (I’m not sure it’s effective advertising, though…)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. John, this actually occasionally happens in Japanese. The pattern usually is as follows: a relatively obscure combination of characters have furigana marks on top of them that spell out English words. Movie titles (even movies made in Japan) use this a lot. Can’t think of a better example other than 輸舞曲(ロンド) but there are plenty around. I am yet to see actual Latin characters instead of katakana, though.

    • Ah, right, I know what you’re talking about… Japanese is kind of fun that way; the use of furigana is not a rare thing, so it’s sometimes used to play with the language.

      I think it’s quite rare in Chinese, though, and Chinese publications often don’t seem equipped to add glosses above (or next to, for vertical script) characters the way Japanese publications routinely do. I think they’re more often to appear as inline parenthetical glosses or footnotes.

  2. I think that’s especially funny considering the ‘other meaning’ of 打飞机. Maybe that’s why they wanted to make absolutely sure everybody knew what they were talking about 😉

  3. I also think this is hilarious. I love the unholy mixes of Chinese and English. Word play across languages is rather fun.

    Last year in Taiwan I was having a conversation in Mandarin when all of the sudden the person I talking to appears to break into Taiwanese. What I heard was oh-buok. It sounded Taiwanese so I asked for a translation. She says “I was speaking English.”

    Then she broke it down O 不 OK。 就是好不好的意思.


  4. Victor H. Mair Says: October 5, 2010 at 12:14 am

    The furigana glosses of English words for kanji expressions that I’ve seen are usually in katakana, but I once (probably about 10-15 years ago) saw one glossed with English directly: “car” for kuruma 車. Thus, Japanese may be the source of inspiration for the gloss of 的 as “taxi.”

  5. That is a beautiful example. One thing I’ll never be able to fathom about hanzi is why the system has to have unusual pronunciations for realllly common characters. The dī pronunciation for 的 is certainly one of these; jǐ for 给 as in 给予 also comes to mind.

    In my mind it’s entirely different from the situation where a character has multiple pronunciations but no single dominant one, e.g. I can even get used to choosing xíng or háng for 行 just because both occur pretty often. But re-using 的 for di1 or 给 for ji3 seems like an injustice to all those obscure characters languishing out in the long tail of hanzi, just begging to be used in a real word. As you’ve documented here, it apparently causes real comprehension problems for locals too, not just for us second language learners.

  6. 这个post很有意思!谢谢,John:)

  7. btw, I tried the ad on my 3rd grade daughter (native Mandarin speaker enrolled in regular Chinese school here in Beijing). She read it as “dǎ ge fēi de…”. I asked her if it made sense. She wrinkled her nose and shook her head. Then I told her it said di1 and then she said it made sense. But I don’t think she ever would have gotten the di1 reading on her own. I wonder how many adults miss the point too.

  8. jdmartinsen Says: October 5, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    The gloss is also made graphically by placing the English and Chinese on a taxi lightbox instead of inside a speech bubble like the rest of the text. Is this intended to aid readers who may not recognized the word “taxi” in English? I didn’t notice it at first, and it doesn’t seem to have been picked up by the other bilinguals in this thread.

  9. Yes, I noticed the lightbox graphic as well. I bet that people who don’t know English very well might still recognize the shape of the word from seeing it on top of actual taxis. That would make it appeal to a much wider audience.

  10. Woah, I just realized why they might have turned away from using 打飞机. There’s an underlying meaning for men akin to ahemjack offahem behind that little phrase… Maybe the Chinese marketing department was trying to avoid a slightly embarrassing subtext for subway commuters.

  11. I read it as a 打个飞的taxi去旅行。 To me it looks like they just inserted an English word in there to be fashionable, expecting that people who buy plane tickets on Taobao would know the English word taxi. Can it be read that way? I missed the 打个的 thing entirely…

  12. Just learned something different from that ad – the versatility of the word : 国内主要航线任你飞。

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