Happy Year of the Rooster/Cock/Chicken! Just as the English word “cock” has multiple meanings, the Chinese word 鸡 (“chicken”) does as well. By itself, it can mean “prostitute,” but the same sound “jī” is also part of the Chinese word for, well, “cock.” I guess I’m friends with a bunch of upstanding Chinese folk, because I didn’t see the many puns I feel I could have for this year’s barrage of Chinese New Year greetings.
Here’s one tame pun I did see this year:
So the original word is 点钞机, “money counting machine.” Substituting 鸡 (“chicken”) for 机 (“machine”) doesn’t change the sound at all, but 点钞鸡 falls right in line with the Chinese proclivity for wishing financial success in the New Year. And you can totally imagine a money counting rooster.
Chinese New Year is just around the corner, and I bring you this pun/characterplay combo. Unfortunately, neither is particularly clever, but at least it’s not hard to understand!
The large text of the ad reads:
This basically just means “happy New Year,” but the 呀 on the end is a modal particle you hear a lot in Shanghai. It adds a tone of playfulness, possibly childishness.
The pun is on 好牙, which refers to “good teeth.” (The two-character word for “tooth” or “teeth” is 牙齿). And since it’s an ad for dental services, the pun on good teeth is quite appropriate.
But do you see where the 口 component of 呀 (the modal particle) is actually a tooth? That’s the characterplay aspect. But the weird thing is that if you take away the 口, what’s left actually does literally mean “tooth.”
I like these subway ads for the QQ阅读 app:
The ads have been running for months already. The app is QQ阅读, an ebook reader app. 阅读 in Chinese can mean “to read” or “reading.”
The main line in the ad is:
The more you read, the more you understand yourself.
It’s a great usage of the 越……越…… (the more… the more…) grammar structure. But, in case you didn’t notice… it’s also a pun. It’s an ad for QQ阅读 (Yuèdú), and it starts with 越读 (Yuè dú).
This is one of the least cringeworthy ads I’ve seen in Chinese marketing, I must say! (No, I haven’t tried the app.)
Thanks to reader Lucas, who lives in 张家港 (north of Suzhou), for sharing this image:
The pun is pretty simple:
- 啤酒 (píjiǔ) beer
- 顽皮 (wánpí) naughty
So the 皮 was swapped for the 啤 (they sound identical), and “naughty beer” was born!
Summer is over, but I can’t help sharing this 一下 / 一夏 pun:
The “喝一夏” part is punning on a very common use of 一下 after a verb, whereas the “冰一夏” part is punning on the same usage in a less typical way.
An uninspired translation would be, “have a drink and cool off.” (Sorry, I have no inspired translation!)
This is a clothing store in Shanghai’s Jing’an Metro Station:
The name of the shop is 布言布语 (Bù Yán Bù Yǔ). The pun involves the character 布, which in this case, is a substitute for 不.
The original expression is: 不言不语, which means “to not say a single word.”
The pun gives us 布言布语 (the pronunciation matches exactly), riffing on words like 布料 (“cloth”) which use the 布 character.
Truth be told, 布言布语 is not a vey clever name. Sure, it has the pun, but 不言不语 has nothing to do with clothing. Still, somebody thought it was good enough for a clothing shop name.
Other Chinese brands have similarly used a language theme in their names. The first one that comes to mind for me is “BreadTalk,” which is 面包新语 in Chinese.
I spotted a punny McDonalds ad in the subway yesterday that might not be obvious to a lot of learners:
The ad presupposes knowledge of the word 充电宝, which is a pretty recent word, and isn’t in a lot of dictionaries yet. 充电 means “to recharge” (electricity, but sometimes metaphorically as well). 宝 means “treasure” and is also used in the common word for “baby” (宝宝), but here it just means “thing.” 充电器 already means “charger” (for electronics), but the difference here is that a 充电宝 is a battery that can be carried with you and used to recharge you smartphone. These portable chargers seem to be way more popular in China than the battery-extending cases (Mophie and the like) I’ve seen a number of Americans use.
OK, so back to the pun. It’s focused on the “bǎo” part of 充电宝 (portable charger). It uses the character 饱, meaning “full”. It creates the sense that a meal at McDonalds is a “recharging fill” (not “full recharge”).
Anyway, you get the idea.
I just finished Season 2 of the bleak HBO TV series True Detective, and enjoyed it (although it depressed me a bit). I’ve had a few discussions with Chinese friends about the show, and I realized that the Chinese name of the show is worth a mention.
So the Chinese name of the show is 真探. The word for “detective” in Chinese is 侦探. Notice that both are pronounced exactly the same: “zhēn tàn.”
So if you’re hearing the name of this show in Chinese for the first time, you’d probably think it is just called “zhēntàn,” translating to “The Detective” in English. You have to actually see the characters to realize that a “True” has been slipped in there. (Makes me think of a line from the show intro: “I live among you… well disguised.”) It’s different from the common character swaps you see in Chinese brand names because it’s actually a translation, and it’s the fusing of two meaningful words into one.
And this got me thinking about similar wordplay for other names. It’s not a true portmanteau, as I understand the term, because there is no phonetic fusing going on. The “fusing” is entirely writing-based, but extends to meaning once you see it. We can do this in English too, I’m sure, but I can’t think of any examples right now.
I actually see this a lot going the other way (semantically) in Chinese: a name makes you think of certain meanings associated with certain characters (that you think you hear), but then the name purposely switches out those characters (in an attempt to be more “subtle”?). One example of that is 肯德基. (The Chinese name for Kentucky is 肯塔基州, but since it’s the name for KFC, the brand could have used 鸡 instead of 基). Another examples is 珍爱网, a dating site, which is clearly playing on the “true love” meaning of the word 真爱.
Today is May 1st, China’s International Workers’ Day holiday. Yesterday I saw this amusing little joke, posted by a former student, “Monica.” The humor is based on transliteration. First the joke, then I’ll follow up with a translation and explanation.
> When I was in primary school, the kids that pronounced the word “English”
> as “yīng gěi lìxī” became bankers,
> as “yīngōu lǐ xǐ” became vegetable vendors,
> as “yīn-guǒ liánxì” became philosophers,
> as “yìng gǎi lìshǐ” became politicians,
> as “Yīngguó lǐ qù” became overseas Chinese.
> As for me, I accidentally pronounced it “yīnggāi lèisǐ,”
> and as a result became a glorious laborer….
> You’ve all been working hard; I wish you an early May 1st Labor Day!
For this to make sense, you have to read each individual character that makes up each transliteration (phonetic approximations of the word “English”). Here’s a quick gloss:
– 应给利息: “should, give, interest”
– 阴沟里洗: “sewer, in, wash”
– 因果联系: “cause-effect, connection”
– 硬改历史: “hard/insist on, change, history”
– 英国里去: “England, in, go”
– 应该累死: “should, dead-tired”
(The “washing in the sewer” one refers to washing vegetables in less-than-clean water, rather than bathing, I think.)
Chinese people with limited English ability really do pronounce the word “English” as something like “ying-ge-li-xi,” which makes the joke all the better.
A note to learners: please remember that pinyin “x” should not be pronounced like English “sh.”
The punny text reads:
[punning on 马上, “right away,” using the character 码, which refers to “code,” in this case, the QR code]
It’s been widely reported that Beijing is banning wordplay in attempt at pun control. This seems ridiculous, especially considering the Chinese penchant for giving the reader zero credit, and always putting the punned character in quotations marks (see above example).
David Moser’s quote on the issue:
> It could just be a small group of people, or even one person, who are conservative, humorless, priggish and arbitrarily purist, so that everyone has to fall in line. But I wonder if this is not a preemptive move, an excuse to crack down for supposed ‘linguistic purity reasons’ on the cute language people use to crack jokes about the leadership or policies. It sounds too convenient.
I’ll be watching to see if punning in advertising stops…
Today is Mid-Autumn Moon Festival in China, so here’s a little moon pun for you:
The first line is where the pun resides. It reads:
> 月圆月期待 [moon round moon looking forward (to it)]
This is pretty nonsensical because the character for moon, “月” has replaced the identical-sounding character 越. Most intmermediate learners will recognize this character as being part of the 越……越…… pattern.
So the meaning is:
> 越圆越期待 [The rounder it is, the more you look forward to it]
Still seems kind of nonsensical to me (in this context, anyway), but it’s just a lame pun for a billboard.
The brand an product is:
> 元祖雪月饼 [Ganso “Snow” Mooncakes]
Happy Mooncake Day!
I wasn’t expecting Star Wars to get in on the CNY festivities, but here it is:
The pun is (in traditional characters originally):
In simplified, that’s:
新年快乐 means “Happy New Year.” The pun replaces 新 (xin: “new”) with 星 (xing: “star”). The two are both first tone, and do sound very similar in Chinese (in fact, many native speakers don’t carefully distinguish between the “-n” and “-ng” finals of many syllables), and Star Wars in Chinese is 星球大战 (literally, “Star War(s)”).
Thanks, Jared, for bringing this video to my attention!
Here’s a Chinese public service poster that uses a pun to get its point across:
The big text reads:
> 你是要换， [Do you want to replace it,]
> 还是要患？ [or do you want a (safety) hazard?]
So the key here is that “huàn” can be both the verb 换, meaning “to replace,” as well as the noun 患, which means “hazard” (in the “safety hazard” sense). You often see it in the word 隐患, literally “hidden danger,” referring to potential safety hazards. (隐患 actually appears at the very bottom of the notice.)
The question uses the standard “A or B” 还是 question form.
(Sharp-eyed advanced students will notice another pun in the smaller print, involving the phrase 防患于未然 and the character 燃.)
The Chinese word for “ice cream” is 冰淇淋 (bingqilin). [Somewhat annoyingly, it also has an alternate form: 冰激凌 (bingjiling), but we’re ignoring that one for the purposes of this pun.]
So from “bīngqílín” (冰淇淋) we get this:
Honestly, though, they could really be trying a little harder on the bling.
Via friend and ex-co-worker Jason, who’s new doing cool things at FluentU from Taiwan.
Here’s another one for the Chinese pun file:
So the name of the sugar is 浓好, a play on the expression 侬好, the Shanghainese version of 你好, or “hello” in Mandarin. 浓好 (the name of the sugar) literally means “strong is good,” where “strong” is the “strong coffee” kind of “strong.”
The character-savvy among you (who understand the necessity of radicals) will also notice that 侬 and 浓 share the phonetic element 农, and that in this case the person radical in 侬 and the water radical in 浓 carry meaning.
On the sugar packet we can also see it is from the “Hello Milk Tea Series.” It does make me wonder what else is in the series…
My friend Andy (the guy who did the WordPress Sinosplice Tooltips plugin) wished me a happy New Year in the following way recently:
> Happy New 一二!
At the risk of spoiling the joke, allow me to explain…
1. Pinyin “yī èr” sounds remarkably like “year.”
2. This is 2012, so the characters for “1 2” are singularly appropriate.
Good job, Andy! You only get to use this pun once every 100 years, everybody, so get on it!
Last year, the punny wish was:
> Happy Chinese New Year 兔 you!
1. Pinyin “tù” sounds nearly identical to “to.”
2. 兔子, sometimes abbreviated to 兔, is the Chinese word for “rabbit.”
This year (year of the dragon), friend and ex-co-worker Jason made the following punny wish:
> Wishing you a 龍 and prosperous New Year!
1. Pinyin “lóng” sounds reasonably similar to the English word “long.”
2. 龍 (simplified: 龙) is the Chinese word for “dragon.”
Jason also added the following variation for Star Trek fans:
> Live 龍 and prosper this New Year!
Finally, I’d like to give props to my dad, who always liked the following pun. It wasn’t until recent years that I could actually verify that this pun really does work in Chinese:
> How Long is a Chinese name.
The pun doesn’t work so well when written. The joke is to say it in such a way that it’s perceived as a question, when in fact, it’s a statement:
> 郝龙 (Hao Long) is a Chinese name.
(This “joke” doesn’t work nearly as well in China, where everyone knows that Chinese names are typically 2-3 characters/syllables, and as many as 4 on rare occasion, and everyone would easily recognize 郝龙 as a Chinese name anyway.)
OK, I better shut up now before I lose all my readers.
Happy New Year!
I’m wondering if this ad would be as likely to be used in northern China:
The text of the ad is:
The pinyin for the ad is:
> Zhāozū! Zhǎo zhǔ!
If you ignore both tones and the z/zh distinction (which a lot of southerners–especially elder southerners–do frequently), you get this:
> Zao zu! Zao zu!
The meaning of the ad is something like, “For rent! Seeking the right person!” (“主,” often meaning “host” or “owner” is a bit tricky to translate, because normally someone in a position to rent is not a “主,” but in this case that’s who it refers to: the appropriate party to do the renting.)
Recently I just happened to catch this wordplay on the streets of Shanghai around me:
年轻就是不一YOUNG / 不一样. (After reading this pun, go here.)
最高G密 / 最高机密 (“top secret”); G = 鸡 = chicken. 鸡米 is a name for little chicken nuggets (often fried).
新视界 / 新世界
Not a pun; just illustrating that 新世界 is a common phrase too. This hotel is just around the corner from the eye hospital above.
碧云公寓 (traditional characters are used in the photo): not a pun either; this just amused me because we foreigners have a habit of mixing up our tones. This apartment complex could easily become “Contraception Apartment” (避孕公寓) pronounced by a careless foreigner.
You know the little 5-note musical tune that Intel uses everywhere their logo shows up? Yeah, you know the one. It’s very easy to remember. I just became aware recently that this little musical tune has a translation into Chinese. Here it is:
So the Chinese is:
The English translation of this would be:
> The light! Wait for the light, wait for the light!
This is amazingly appropriate, considering the “English version” of the “lyrics” would be something like:
> Dunnn…. Dun-dun dun-dun!
Not quite as articulate, I gotta say.
The whole idea of “translating a a musical tune into a spoken language” is bizaere, though.
While at the pharmacy the other day with my friend Chris, we came upon what seemed like a typical example of Engrish:
Funny, we thought… “the count” instead of “the counter.”
Only as we were leaving did we notice the guy behind the counter:
The Sesame Street character “the Count” is known for his rather clever name. Even a kid can get the pun. How does his Chinese name fare in terms of cleverness? Not too well, I’m afraid. According to this site, his Chinese name is simply 伯爵, a translation of only one of the meanings of the Count’s name, meaning “count” or “earl.”
What would a more clever translation of the Count’s name be? All I can think of is maybe something related to 叔叔 (“uncle”) and 数数 (“to count up”), but once you change the tones it doesn’t really work. (Not to mention that he very clearly looks like a count, not an “uncle.”)