Electric Brain

April 15, 2010

Computers are, in Chinese, commonly referred to as 電腦, which literally means “electric brain”. If you want to be boring or formal you can use 計算機 (“figure out” “counting” “machine”), which directly translates to “calculator” instead. When you think about it, the words “computer” and “calculator” both really mean “a thing that computes” anyway, but just as they refer to different things in English different Chinese words are used for them.

Bullet-Dodging Clothing

April 7, 2010

Like a “thunder-dodging needle” that does not help you dodge lightning “bullet-dodging clothing”, or 避彈衣, does not actually help you dodge bullets. In fact, it is better referred to as 防彈衣, or “clothing that protects from bullets”. In both terms 彈 means “bullet” and 衣 means “clothing”. The difference is that 避 means “dodge” while 防 means “defend/protect”. For former is used colloquially in Hong Kong and nowhere else. Clothing that heighten your speed and reflexes enough to dodge bullets do not actually exist in real life. Sorry.

In case you haven’t noticed, by the way, this post is about bullet-proof vests.

Photo from Flickr page of Haags Uitburo, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

While the term 爵士 is the formal Chinese title for a British knight—爵士 is placed after names of knighted individuals in Chinese just as Sir is placed before the same names in English, with the exception that 爵士 is used with full or surnames only while Sir is used with full and given names only; yay for grammar—the term 爵士樂 (樂 meaning “music”) actually refers to jazz music. The term doesn’t come from the “fact” that British knights are frequently into jazz music. It’s really only because 爵士 sounding a whole lot like “jazz” when it is pronounced by a Chinese tongue. The fact that 爵士 normally refers to a highly elevated and Western thing does not hurt either.

When I think jazz, I think of trumpets. As I promised in a previous post on diarrhea medicine, let’s talk about trumpets. In that post I mentioned that 喇叭 is Chinese for trumpet. Except that if you actually looked up “trumpet” in a dictionary—especially one that is in simplified Chinese—you would get 小號 instead. What’s the difference?

Let’s start with 喇叭. I do not believe that there is a simplified Chinese equivalent for this word since it is not used in mainland China. 喇叭 is really Cantonese slang pronounced “la ba”. Except it really sounds like “la” and “ba” are a major third apart; in standard solfege (or the more-familiar-to-me shape notes) “la” would be “fa” and “ba” would be “la”. The point is that 喇叭 sounds like a trumpet. Or something like that. So in Cantonese a trumpet is called a 喇叭. Actually, 喇叭 also is a common term for sound amplifiers, i.e., speakers.

The term 小號 can be most literally translated as “little number” as 小 means “small” and 號 usually means “number” when used by itself. However, here 號 refers to “signal”. Why would a trumpet be called a “small signal”? Well, when you want to signal the arrival of an important person or an invasion, what do you use? A bugle (號角, or “signal point/corner”) or a trumpet.

Many brass instruments’ Chinese names include the word 號 along with a somewhat descriptive prefix. Let’s see how many of these you can figure out:

小號 (small signal [wait didn’t we do this already?])
短號 (short signal)
柔音號 (soft note signal)
中音圓號 (mid-note member [as in marching band member] signal)
長號 (long signal)
粗管上低音號 (thick tube upper low note signal)
大號 (big signal)

And the real English names, in order from top to bottom: trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn, mellophone, trombone, euphonium and tuba.