Things that you don’t know what to call them

The title of this post is one of my favorite ungrammatical constructions.  That (un)grammatical construction doesn’t really have much to do with the post other than the fact that in college, when I first started thinking about that construction, I didn’t know what to call it (or even how to “fix” it).

There are some things that expats use or deal with every day in China, but in a Chinese language environment.  When asked how to say them in English, we spin our wheels because either there really are no suitable translations, or the suitable translations are something that we’re not familiar with.

A few examples off the top of my head, from my realm of experience, are:

  • turtle jello
  • fried sweet potato jello
  • candied haw kebob
  • enclosed three-wheeled motorcycle
  • motorized bicycle cart

I’ll let commenters add more and more to this list (that’s an open solicitation).  I’ve given English “names” to these things, but they are not really English names, they’re just descriptions that I made up.  If you know what these things are, you’ll recognize them.  Actually, I don’t really even have Chinese names for the last two, specifically; I know them both as 三轮车.  The first three are 龟苓膏, 煎粉, and 糖葫芦.

In the comments, please don’t limit yourself to food and vehicles.

18 responses to “Things that you don’t know what to call them”

  1. Aaron says:

    When I visited Xi’an I recall the “enclosed three-wheeled motorcycle” being referred to as a 蹦蹦 bèngbeng, which amused me to no end.

  2. Ed says:

    Pretty sure 三轮车 is called a pedicab in English, though that may only be for non motor powered ones

  3. Brendan says:

    I tend to go for “mototrike” and “cargo trike” for 三轮车. I guess a 摩的 is probably the same as the thing that gets called a tuk-tuk elsewhere. For 糖葫芦, I usually either just use the Chinese or describe them as “glazed haws” or “candied haws.” (I’m aware that there exist variants that feature kiwi, tangerine slices, bananas, etc. on sticks, but that is clearly a crime in the eyes of God.)

  4. Randy Alexander says:

    I thought of another important one (but it’s another food item), and I remember clearly the moment on an August day in 1993 that I first saw one (in Guangzhou or Chongqing): semi-transparent (when the shell is taken off) apparently hardboiled eggs. 松花蛋! I later found out they are duck eggs that have been buried in lime for a long time. I’ve also heard them called “thousand year eggs”. Now I eat them very often.

  5. Bilbo says:

    I’ve probably eaten 空心菜 over 100 times and still have no idea what it’s called in English.

  6. jdmartinsen says:

    In the city of Fuxin, Liaoning, pedicabs are known as “神牛,” which is either really badass or tremendously condescending.

    I think that when something is truly unknown, it’s actually easier to translate than, say, situations in which Chinese and English divide up a known thing in different ways, leading to overlapping terms. This often requires elaborate, unsatisfying explanations, but if something’s unknown, you can choose a name, tack on an brief description, and then run with it.

  7. Kellen Parker says:

    空心菜 is water spinach. Not much help, is it?

  8. Lina says:

    空心菜 == 通菜 or 蕹菜 in Hong Kong. We usually just call it “morning glory” in HK English. yumyum.

    龜苓膏 is usually called “tortoise/turtle jelly” in HK English.

  9. Chris Waugh says:

    “In the comments, please don’t limit yourself to food and vehicles.”

    Well, food gives me the most everyday trouble, generally when ordering food for my colleauges, as in,
    “What are we eating?”
    “A green, leafy thing. I don’t know what it’s called in English.”
    Or a variation,
    “What are we eating?”
    “Actually, the English name is rape, as in oilseed rape or the oil, rapeseed oil, but the oil is more commonly referred to as canola oil these days.”

    But if you want to move beyond food and vehicles, philosophy and traditional Chinese medicine would be the two obvious I would start.

  10. AcidFlask says:

    I know 三轮车 as a trishaw, but there are variants in English like pedicab.

    The only properly English name I know for 空心菜 is ‘water convolvulus’, a ridiculously formal name that no one uses. The Cantonese ‘ong choy’ (通菜) or Malay ‘kangkong’ are more widely used on labels in supermarkets.

  11. AcidFlask says:

    I have the opposite problem: trying to explain the difference between irony and sarcasm in Chinese.

  12. John B says:

    莴笋 tops my list. Apparently it’s called “celtuce” or something like that, but I’m pretty sure nobody I’ve ever met has ever uttered that word. I just call it “that vegetable that tastes kinda like Doritos”

  13. BTB says:

    婆婆丁. As far as I know never written down and seems to be generally something that is eaten by the poor. As far as I can tell, there is no *single* plant that this refers to, and although Google says it’s dandilions, what I ate certainly wasn’t that.

    天 In the native religious/philosophical sense I swear that the only way to actually explain this is to hyphenate a half dozen words together and it still doesn’t feel right. Prime Mover might work, but I don’t think that modern English speakers would readily get the nuances of that.

    Most mushrooms. English does not do well in names for edible mushrooms, and the horrible translations that always involves the word “fungus” are not appetizing.

    Things involving 家族, in the sense of clan rather than the sense of immediate family.

    And my personal favorite 青色. It’s been five years since I ran into this one and I *still* am not positive on what is and is not 青色. It does not help that the native speaker I usually ask about words has a language tick about distingushing blue and green in English!

  14. My wife and I argued for years about where to draw the line between blue and green. It was a while before I realized they had a separate word for the color in the middle.

  15. k says:

    I had a professor who cleverly explained 青色 as “nature-colored”–of course everything is fine when a lake or the sky is 青色, but all hell breaks loose when you start talking about the mud as being the same color…best to think of it as any color nature can be!

    This in opposition to Japanese, in which 青い is a real color that people use to describe things (at least, way more than in Chinese) in everyday life.

  16. HRB says:

    Every speaker of Korean knows the word 김 (”gim”), but I think not every speaker of English knows its translation “laver”, more precise than “seaweed”. When a parcel containing – among other things – dried “laver” (god forbid a Korean call it “nori”) entered Germany, customs assumed it contained liver, opened it and it had to be collected and its contents explained.
    But Konglish probably causes way more confusion than obscure English does.

  17. 김밥 is the bomb. This is the first time I’ve ever heard the word laver though. Good to know.

  18. I always wondered why it was called “laver” (and I guess whenever I saw it I wasn’t around a dictionary). Looking up 紫菜 (which is what I usually hear it called in Chinese) in CEDICT it’s given simply as “edible seaweed”. Anyway, it’s a great snack.

Leave a Reply