18 January 2016

France Soldiers

There has for many years been a contrast between using an adjective premodifier for nationalities ('Spanish troops', 'Chinese territory') and the bare name of the country ('Singapore transport', 'Brunei English'). It seems that, for small countries such as Singapore and Brunei, we prefer the name of the country instead of an adjective ('Singaporean', 'Bruneian'), while for larger countries, we use the adjective ('Spanish' rather than 'Spain').

However, that seems to be undergoing change. Look at this headline from the BBC World page of today:

Note the use of 'France soldiers' rather than 'French soldiers', as I would expect.

I have seen this for football teams in the past ('the France team' rather than 'the French team'); but this usage seems now to be extended to other domains. I have no idea why.

17 January 2016


An authoritative book on English spelling, Upward and Davidson (2011, p. 235) states that 'bamboo' comes from the Malay word bambu. It is a bit ironic, then, that the modern Malay for bamboo is buluh; and my Collins Malay dictionary does not even list bambu.

If Malay already had a perfectly good word for bamboo, why did it adopt a new one? And where did buluh come from?

The WordSense.eu Dictionary suggests that buluh is an indigenous word originating from Proto-Malayic, so I guess there must once have been two terms for bamboo in Malay, though buluh seems to be the most commonly used nowadays.


Upward, C., & Davidson, G. (2011). The History of English Spelling. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

11 January 2016

4th Floor

As is well known, Chinese people have an aversion for number 4, as 'four' in Chinese sounds like 'death'. So what do hotels do about the 4th floor?

The usual solution is just to omit it. Here are the buttons in the lift of a hotel in Tainan. It goes from the 3rd floor to the 5th floor, and nobody has to stay on the 4th floor.

However, there is another solution. Here are the buttons in the lift of a hotel in Kaohsiung, where the 4th floor is re-labelled as A Floor.

The trouble with this is that not everyone understands it. I saw one couple enter the lift, look at their key, and then go back to the registration desk to ask what was meant by A floor. But it does mean that nobody has to stay on the 4th floor, even if finding your room might be a bit confusing!

01 January 2016


In my previous post, I suggested that use of 'gravida' to refer to pregnant women in a sign in Taiwan arose out of over-enthusiastic use of a dictionary. Here is another similar example, this one from the Hakka Cultural Museum in Kaohsiung:

What on earth does 'caponizing' mean?

I have looked it up, and a 'capon' is a castrated rooster, so to 'caponize' is to castrate a rooster. (Apparently this makes the meat tastier.)

In this case (and unlike the 'gravida' example), you might say that the translation is accurate. But how many people know the word 'caponize'? The purpose of translation is to explain a text to people who cannot read the original, and it seems a pity to use obscure words that few people will understand, even if the usage might technically be regarded as accurate.

In this case, 'Rooster Castration Competition' might be better, though in fact it seems from the Chinese that the competition is about comparing castrated roosters, not competing to castrate them, so maybe 'Castrated Rooster Competition' would be more accurate.

Language in Taiwan

I just spent two weeks in the south of Taiwan, where there seems to be a genuine effort to encourage a range of languages. In the subway trains in Kaohsiung, station announcements are generally given in four languages: Mandarin, Taiwanese (Hokkien), Hakka, and English; and some announcements are also given in Japanese. Very impressive.

The English on signs is mostly intelligible, but it can sometimes be a bit unexpected. This is the sign on priority seats intended for the old and infirm:

Most of it is intelligible (though the grammar isn't too good). But 'gravida'? 孕婦 means 'pregnant woman'. So where does 'gravida' come from?. It is not a term I am familiar with, and it suggests a rather over-enthusiastic use of a dictionary.

In fact, I have just looked it up, and it is a medical term that refers to the number of pregnancies a woman has had; it does not mean 'pregnant woman' at all.

It is a bit surprising that the authorities can spend lots of money providing a translation for signs such as these and then printing them out for all the carriages in all their trains but not get someone to check the English.

Never mind. The attempt to make the subway system user-friendly for visitors is impressive.