Did you know that pianos produce sounds with steel strings? Armed with that knowledge it’s not hard to see why the piano is written as 鋼琴, or steel instrument, in Chinese. While this name isn’t as epic compared to other things featured on this blog it is rather awesome relative to the English word piano, which is short for the Italian clavicembalo [or gravicembalo] col piano e forte, or “harpsichord that does soft and loud”. Those of you who read music will know that piano means soft. So basically, of all the words that we could have shortened the full name to we chose “soft”. Imagine a bunch of Italian dudes seeing a piano for the first time and going “oh man this thing can be not loud!” and a bunch of Chinese dudes seeing a piano for the first time and going “oh man this thing is made of steel!”. We can see where cultural priorities lie.

The word 琴 isn’t exactly Chinese for “musical instrument”. It’s more “musical instrument that are referred to as 琴”. I tried figuring out what musical instrument qualifies as a 琴 but I couldn’t so I gave up. The fun thing though is that, like pianos, many Occidental instruments have names that are practical descriptions followed by 琴 in Chinese. Some examples with direct translations follow. See if you can guess what they are without seeing the actual translation!

小提琴 (small carried instrument)
中提琴 (medium carried instrument)
大提琴 (large carried instrument)
手風琴 (hand wind instrument)
口琴 (mouth instrument)
豎琴 (vertical instrument)
大鍵琴 (instrument with large keys)
木琴 (wooden instrument)
低音提琴 (low sound carried instrument)
班卓琴 (class desk instrument)

The answers, from top to bottom: violin, viola, cello, accordion, harmonica, harp, harpsichord, xylophone, double bass, banjo. Everything makes sense! Except for the banjo. In reality it’s called a “class desk instrument” in Chinese not because every schoolchild in China is forced to play the banjo in school. It’s just because “class” and “desk” kind of sound like “ban” and “jo”. I mean, if you were tasked with translating “banjo” to Chinese, how exactly would you even begin to try and do that? I get the sense that they just gave up and called a banjo a banjo.

Thunder-Dodging Needle

February 27, 2010

Actually, this is in fact a magical device that helps you dodge lightning bolts. Assuming of course you place it somewhere high up away from where you are and properly ground it.

In Chinese the phenomena of lightning and thunder are usually referred to as 雷電, with 雷 meaning the thundering sound and 電 meaning electricity, or lightning. Strangely a lightning rod is called 避雷針 (dodge, thunder, needle, respectively) in Chinese. This could be because it’s unwieldy to use th whole of 雷電 and so only the first character was used. Or because people wanted to be confusing. You know, like how we call a lightning rod a lightning rod even though it does not in fact shoot lightning at things.

Flying Tiger Squadron

February 18, 2010

Flying Tiger Squadron (飛虎隊) usually refers to the Hong Kong Police’s Special Duties Unit (SDU), which is pretty much Hong Kong’s version of the American SWAT team or the British CO19. Except instead of names like SWAT or CO19 the one in Hong Kong is called Flying Tiger. Because their emblem is a tiger. And Flying Tigers are awesome.

As you’ll probably notice the picture I posted is neither a tiger with wings Photoshopped on to it or even a bunch of guys holding assault rifles ready to arrest some drug lords or the Triad or whatever.

The name 飛虎隊 actually originally came from the Republic of China Air Force American-National Volunteer Great Squadron (中華民國空軍美籍志願大隊), or American Volunteer Group in English, established during World War II (in 1940, actually, which basically means that American pilots were fighting the Japanese before Pearl Harbor). According to <a href=”http://www.flyingtigersavg.com/“>The Official AVG page</a> these guys were well paid (salaried plus a bonus that is worth $6,000 in 2008 money per confirmed destruction of a Japanese plane) and were pretty epic even without the nickname Flying Tigers. The name came, according to legends, because the AVG painted shark decals on their planes but Chinese peasants who have never seen sharks before (presumably because they live inland where tigers dwell) thought the planes had tigers painted on them.

And now you know.

Dragon Eye

February 17, 2010

More commonly known as the longan fruit, this fruit’s name actually translates directly to Dragon Eye. Because it looks like the eye of a dragon? There’s a whole tradition of Chinese names for things that take the form Dragon X (such as the previously mentioned Dragon Core processor) and this blog will attempt to bring them all to light with a series of scathing blog posts in the near future.