Star of the Deep King

May 23, 2010

This is actually not an Epic Chinese Thing, but an Epic Roman Thing That Became More Epic in Chinese Because It Sounds So Exotic When You Say It. Also, there are some scientific errors involved.

The “Deep King” here refers to the god of the Underworld. In particular, the Roman one. Also, Chinese refers to every shiny heavenly body as a “star”, with a qualifier in front of it to distinguish between star-stars, planets, comets and such. So 冥王星, or “deep king star”, actually means “the heavenly body named after the Roman king of the Underworld”. We call it Pluto, which doesn’t sound nearly as convoluted or awesome but that is what Pluto actually is. It’s a planet named after the king of Hell because it’s really cold and dark.

The character 冥 means dark and/or deep. It is really only used to refer to supernatural deep/dark things so you won’t hear anyone using it to describe a closet. Unless the closet is a portal from which demons spawn. Or the person describing it is an obnoxious liberal arts school graduate.

Appropriately the other (dwarf) planets of the solar system (with the exception of Mercury to Saturn, which were discovered by Chinese astronomers and named after classical elements before they learned the Occidental names for them) as well as other heavenly bodies named after mythological figures have similar naming schemes:

  • Uranus is called 天王星, the star of the heavenly king.
  • Neptune is called 海王星, the star of the sea king.
  • Eris is called 鬩神星, the star of the goddess of discord.
  • Makemake is called 鳥神星, the star of the (Easter Island) bird god.
  • Haumea is called 妊神星, the star of the (Hawaiian) goddess of being pregnant.
  • Ceres is called 穀神星, the star of the goddess of grains.
  • Vesta is called 灶神星, the star of the goddess of kitchen stoves.

The list goes on, but here are some of them. The compact nature of the naming scheme means that the name needs to summarize the unique characteristic of the god or goddess in one character. Conveniently, Chinese has a character for everything. However, like 冥 some of these characters are not often used by themselves in these days. For example, 鬩 is rarely used to describe chaos and 妊 is only really used as parts of technical terms to describe pregnancy.

A note: the character 神 translates to “god” (or, more modernly, “God”) but is used to refer to any sort of god or goddess in general. When gender needs to be taken into account goddesses are referred to by 女神, literally “female god”.


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.

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.

天文台 is both a poetic and suitable name for an observatory. The term 天文 translates directly as “heaven/sky” and “language” while 台 is “stand”, “pedestal”, or in a more modern context, “station”; the word 台 is also used in the context of television or radio stations. Although the definition of 天文 is “astronomy” it actually refers to “general stuff you can see in the sky”; anything that the ancients could interpret as communication fromthe heavens (meteorology/weather as well as arrangements of heavenly bodies) could be considered as part of 天文. In fact, the term 天文台 usually refers to a meteorological observatory in common use. However, when referring to weather and meteorology Chinese speakers would use 天氣 (heavenly air, or perhaps heavenly currents) and 氣象 (air/current display) instead of 天文. Sometimes 天文氣象 would be used together as one phrase to refer to everything heavenly or just weather.

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.

Heaven Thread

January 29, 2010

It’s antenna, people!

This is what happens if you take the name of an object, translate each of the characters separately and pick the coolest sounding combination of translations you can find.

Dragon Core

January 19, 2010

So the name of this Chinese made computer processor sounds like the final form of the final boss in a video game after you’ve striped away its outer defenses of steel and chrome to find a digital dragon god sleeping in the scraps and then techno-classical music plays as the background fades into abstract fractal patterns and they you get to have a hardcore shootout with the dragon in a super-abstract hi-tech simulation or something.

And that’s exactly what will happen twenty years later when China’s Dragon Core technology gives its government full reign over Earth’s infoorbit. Only you, that’s right, you, who have spent all your live living in cyberspace and surfing stupid web pages can jack in and do battle with the technofirewalls the Dragon Cores erected around freedom and happiness. Only you can free America from the grips of the ancient dragon god manifested as a subpar processor created using stolen Western technology!

Bonus fact: Did you know that Pentium basically means “five”? What kind of lame name is that?