Thunder Fire

March 19, 2010

The term 激光 (stimulated light) was coined by scientist Qian Xuesen, who was one of the founders of the JPL. He was later accused by the US government as a communist, which basically ruined his career. Since he couldn’t really do anything in the US anymore he just went “oh screw you guys” and went to Red China where he was welcomed with open arms and helped China build its first aeronautics program and first ballistic missile. His research eventually enabled China to create its own spaceships and send people into space. Just imagine how many years China’s rocket/space technology would have been set back if only the US government did not stupidly accuse a brilliant MIT educated scientist who knows the secrets of sending explosives across the globe of being a communist.

Back to the linguistics: 激光 means “laser”, which is really “LASER”, which is short for Light Amplification of Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Since Chinese does not allow acronyms as English did trying to translate the full expansion of LASER in a reasonable manner was actually a really hard task. Without a commonly accepted name Chinese scientists had a lot of trouble communicating with each other. Eventually a journal’s editorial board asked Qian to give LASER a Chinese name. He called it 激光. The character 激 means “stimulate/irritate” and 光 means “light”, which in true Chinese name-shortening fashion captured the essence of what should be named. Also, it’s an exciting name and exciting names are exciting.

But wait, you say, the post’s title has nothing to do with stimulation or light! You are angry that you were promised thunder and fire and I did not deliver. Well, let’s talk about another name for the LASER: 雷射, which literally means “thunder” and “fire” (as in the verb, not the noun). So perhaps 雷射 could be taken to mean “shooting lightning” because we all know that Chinese has this problem with shortening “thunder and lightning” to just “thunder”. And when you think about it, it is kind of like shooting lightning when you point at things with a laser pointer, right? If someone who does not actually know anything about lasers or even physics in general saw you with a laser pointer they may say “this is a harbinger of God who shoots lightning!”. And so 雷射 is a very reasonable name for a laser; perhaps not as scientific as 激光, but certainly a good, poetic name, right?

Here’s the problem: none of that is why a laser is called a 雷射. The reason why we also call a laser 雷射 is because 雷射 sounds kinda like “laser” when you say it out loud.

That was anticlimactic, wasn’t it? This is one of those rare instances where transliterating English into Chinese gives something that not only sounds like a real term but kind of makes sense for what you’re transliterating. To make things even more interesting, sometimes 雷射 can be written as 鐳射, which sounds exactly the same except that 鐳 means “radium”. That sounds wonderfully scientific! Except that you don’t make a laser by shooting radium at anything so it really isn’t that scientific.


One Response to “Thunder Fire”

  1. nk Says:

    Shouldn’t 射 = shoot ?
    Hence 雷射 = thunder shoot.

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