Reclaiming the Word “VCR”

I’ve already admitted before that I watch the Chinese dating show 非诚勿扰. Well, I’m still watching it, and the cultural and linguistic observations are starting to pile up. Today, though, I just wanted to mention one of the ones that strikes me as particularly odd.


Photo by Matthew Mittelstadt

In the program, as each male contestant is introduced, several video clips are shown. These videos reveal more about the man’s career and outlook on life, about his attitudes toward love and marriage, etc. Pretty much without exception, each of these short videos is referred to as a “VCR.”

Yes, “VCR.” It’s not a word we use as much anymore, but we still know it to mean “video cassette recorder.” Then what’s going on here? Chinese has a perfectly serviceable word for video: 视频. “Video clip” is 视频片断. Not only that, but the English word “video” is not uncommon among the younger generation. So why add this extra word, VCR, into the mix? Could “VCR” stand for something else in this context?

A search turned up this question and answer:

> 非诚勿扰里面的VCR的全称是什么? [What is “VCR” on Fei Cheng Wu Rao short for?]

> 电视上经常说VCR,.但偶不知道全称是什么,有知道的告诉一声1 [On TV they frequently say “VCR,” but I don’t know what the full term is. Can someone tell me?1]

> VCR是Video Cassette Recorder的缩写 盒式磁带录像机 [VCR is an acronym for Video Cassette Recorder]

> 但是在电视上的总以节目里面 例如某主持人说:“让我们先看一段VCR”这里的VCR的意思是指一个视频片断 [But in the program on TV, like when the host says, “let’s watch a VCR,” the word “VCR” refers to a video clip.]

Anonymous Q&A on the internet doesn’t exactly amount to conclusive evidence, but I’m pretty sure this is what most Chinese watchers of the show will surmise.

Furthermore, when I do a Baidu Images search for VCR, I get more confirmation that the word seems to be used this way (and only one picture on the first page of results which is what I consider to be a “VCR”). Could “VCR” be the next word for “video” in Chinese?

Too weird.


John Pasden

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


  1. If people on the forums are responding as you’ve quoted, it makes me wonder what the producers had in mind when they chose to call it that. Was it an intentional thing in order to coin a new phrase, or did one guy just think thats what VCR meant? Guess we’ll never know.

  2. Is it any stranger than MTV meaning a video?

    “The medium is the message.” – Marshall McLuhan

  3. this probably started in Taiwan, where it is also prevalent.

    really bugs me. also:

    calling untoasted pre-cut loaves of bread “toast”

    tai “over” le

    feichang de “high”

    • Those are all “小case”…

      What really annoys me is when people say something is “有feel”. Sheesh. Especially when they can’t do the “l” right and it comes out sounding like “feeoo”.

    • re: toast

      I noticed the ‘toast’ thing in Taiwan as well. There were also European non-native English speakers that claimed they called it toast, possibly even in their own countries.

  4. And to gratuitously 跑 the 题…

    I was really surprised by the lack of VCRs in China. I guess that as TVs became common pretty late, the magic of VCDs was available relatively soon after and videos never got a look in. Of course, the fact that videos are a bugger to pirate may also be a factor…

  5. They do the exact same thing in Japanese, but with the acronym “VTR” (video Tape recorder). I suspect most people don’t know what the acronym “really” means, but I recall hearing on a radio show that at an industry-wide meeting of news announcers everyone decided to stop using the word in (TV) news broadcasts due to the disconnect between common usage and the “true” meaning. That hasn’t stopped comedy clip shows and other “variety” programmig from using it, however.

  6. This use of VCR as a word for “video” or “video clip” is quite widespread in Taiwan. Many news shows will say “Let’s watch this VCR” before showing a clip.

  7. Considering that there are a lot of examples from people working in television, maybe it started as TV production jargon. It could easily be that a video clip rolled into a live news broadcast became known as a “VCR” and it became generalized from there. I have no doubt that Chinese news services used the old magnetic tape at some point.

  8. 視頻 is a poor word to describe a video. An internet video doesn’t have anything to do with frequency (頻). Taiwan uses 影片, among other words. This isn’t a perfect word because it is so closely associated with film, but I prefer “shadow pieces” to “visual frequencies”.

  9. calling untoasted pre-cut loaves of bread “toast”

    I do that and I’m a native English speaker. What else is that flour-based foam good for? It’s sole redeeming factor is it’s the right size and shape for a toaster and you certainly wouldn’t want to eat it fresh!

  10. That’s the same with forums. Chinese people call forums, “BBS,” which is a really outdated way for saying forum…

  11. This reminds me of the German word for cellphone, “Handy”, which is derived from the English adjective with the same spelling. You can see how it has come to be, but you have to wonder why they can’t appropriate a grammatically/semantically correct phrase if they really have to borrow the word from a different language.

  12. Looks like enlightened fellows beat me to the punch with mentioning the prevalence of the terms MV and BBS, not to mention the Chinglish expressions.

    For what it’s worth, they’re initialisms, not acronyms.

  13. My wife’s uncle has a VCR that is about 20 years old. When I asked where he got it, he couldn’t remember, and was very surprised when I told him it was designed for taping TV shows, not singing karaoke. As it turns out he thought it was a “kala OK” machine when he bought it, and never actually used it! Then again, I guess he wouldn’t be able to, as he didnt have any tapes, and I’ve never seen any for sale here in the past 12 years.

  14. I remember about 15 years ago, a lot of so-called VCRs couldn’t record. VCP would have been more accurate. They were used as karaoke playback machines.

    I still have a Samsung VCR. The largest word on the fascia is “Karaoke”. The record button is hidden away behind a nearly invisible panel.

    But then again, who would ever want to record anything from Chinese television? – even more so 15 years ago!

  15. VTR gets used in Taiwan as well sometimes. The interesting question is where does it start? Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan? Older/different English usage?

    Laowai chinese had a post a while back about getting at the “velcro conundrum” which seems to be related to this issue in the sense that it deals with somewhat “troublesome” of new “technologies” into a culture/language.

    As for the “video” issue, you also see variations on 片 as stated above. Youtube on 簡體 uses 視頻, but I’m not sure it was always that way. In fact I’m nearly certain it wasn’t.

    In addition to the BBS issue, try dealings with podcasts and things related to “ipods”, but since we haven’t left the “VCR” era, I imagine that’s unlikely anytime soon.

    Given all this, I’d venture to say that most people don’t talk about blog entries/posts, but rather just sort of use the noun “blog” however they please. These are the same people google tried to showcase a while back with it’s difficult “can you tell me what a browser is?” test. Ie most people in the US.

    And on the things to watch 15 years ago watch, there certainly were things. Beijing man in new york was on chinese tv 15 years ago and certainly was worth watching.

  16. CrownOfShat Says: September 23, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    A handful of Taiwanese variety shows I watched sometimes have bloopers where they simply referred to as NG, meaning Not Good. I find that term to be really odd. But I dont see those NGs alot these days.

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