How to Pronounce nciku

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 (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, you can also say n, 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 for ? Well, is the popular transliteration for “cool,” and the character , 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).


John Pasden

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


  1. in my household we say it as 牛词库 niuciku. i’m not sure how that started but there it is. i’ve been guilty of ‘n-see-koo as well.

    • Nice one! Finally I get to know the mysteries on the proper naming of “nciku”!

      In Malaysia, the letter “C” is pronounced as “ch” as in the English word for “cherry”. So, may Malaysians calls nciku as “en-chee-koo” or “uhn-chee-coo”.. hehe

  2. Cheers John – have been wondering about that since stumbling upon the site a couple years ago. I remember at one point there was debate about changing the name – but that appears to have never happened, and with the site’s success, isn’t likely to now.

  3. I don’t really care how you pronounce it, it’s a great learning/translation tool.

  4. I’ve installed their toolbar on Firefox at home and at work (and kept it installed, even though at home it squeezed my search box down to about 15 px wide). The character lookup-on-demand is a valuable feature to me; works better than having to parse the whole webpage or copy&paste individual characters.

  5. I’ve always liked the name — I don’t think it’s “horrible” for foreigners, at least no worse than any of the other silly Web 2.0 company names out there.

    I adore their mobile site, as its about the only thing that makes not having a decent Chinese dictionary on the iPhone bearable (though Pleco is in beta, from what I’ve heard).

  6. My brain parses it as a mis-spelling of “nicku”

  7. John B,

    Oh, it is a horrible name, no question. Talk to some more people that have just started learning Chinese and use nciku.

  8. Matthew,

    Hehe… it’s “the little typo that went all the way”!

  9. For Chinese to English, nciku is also much better than 金山词霸 (PowerWord), a ubiquitous tool which I unashamedly blame for just about everything that’s wrong with English in China.

  10. I’m always thinking they spelled my name dreadfully wrong! Thanks for explaining it, now I have at least a shot at attempting to pronounce it kinda sorta in the ballpark of how it is supposed to be pronounced… Great resource. I use it in tandem with MDBG and yellowbridge to round things out for me.

  11. Thanks for analyzing this for us. I was clueless and wondering as well.

  12. Nice post. I’ve had this conversation with several different people:
    ‘ Do you use an online Chinese-English dictionary?’
    ‘ Yeah, Nciku’
    ‘ What?’
    ‘Spell it’
    ‘What the hell does that mean?’

  13. I knew something was responsible for the terrible state of English in China. I’m all to happy to blame 金山词霸. I looked at it for about a minute before I decided never to open it again.

  14. nCIKU is one of the best thing that has been made for learner of the Chinese language. Unfortunately, it was not online 20 years ago when I started studying the language…

    And for those who wonder how they can deliver such a good service for free, have a look at this interesting article:

    Big Brother NHN is watching what your browse in the dictionary!

  15. Jesse Malone Says: June 22, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    John, is analyzing this stuff what you do with your time now? Is THIS what married life’s like??

  16. Erick Garia Says: June 22, 2009 at 10:56 pm

    As for the dictionary itself, it’s not bad. hough these days I use MDBG and a lot more.

  17. Thanks, John. My main dictionary is the Yahoo! dictionary, but still I’ve probably used nciku dozens of times, and I keep forgetting if it’s the C or the K that comes first. Your post has solved that particular nuisance for good!

  18. John,
    I’ve heard nearly every combination possible when people attempt to say our name. Without a doubt the most common is “n-see-koo” but my favorite bizarre pronunciation thus far has to be “n-sic-too.”

    I’m going to start pronouncing it Kellen’s way – it makes us seem much more awesome.

    PS. SWK is on the right track – N = NHN, the parent company

  19. How about one name in Chinese, and another in English? 国美 isn’t transliterated as Guomei, but rather as GOME. Nciku is another great service with a totally awful name. Did anyone even think of the target audience before coming up with it? I’ve been stuck a couple of times at other people’s offices – “Wait, I know how to translate this difficult technical word…now what the hell was that damn website name…”

  20. Funny, this might have been more of a problem earlier on, but when I started using it, I kind of figured how to pronounce it and what it meant. This gives me confirmation, though.

  21. Mike Fish Says: June 29, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    In English, don’t we say “to the n-th degree”? Same thing, right?

  22. In Singapore, it is read as n-chee-coo, which means teacher in Malay. Ciku is a special tropical fruit here. I am sure the founder does not know this.

  23. I actually say “ihn-shee-koo” for reasons I don’t understand. I rather like the name. It’s nonsensical enough to be easy to remember, if that makes any sense.

  24. Well…. I just thought it was NICK U

    It worked for me.

    But now you’ve spoiled it.

  25. Mike Campbell Says: May 26, 2012 at 6:45 am

    Since I already knew Chinese, it never occurred the name gave other people trouble. I never thought twice about it. I actually thought it was pretty cool.

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