The Importance of Using the Right Key

The following is a guest post by Julen of ChinaYouRen

I saw this in Nanjing over the weekend and I thought it might be sinoglot worthy (since my own blog is mysteriously inaccessible these days).

It’s a remarkable double mistranslation effort in a tourist sign. The object are these balls that the Nanjing wall defenders employed to crunch the bones of the occasional visiting horde:


leishi 2

These stone balls are called in Chinese 礌石, (lei2shi2), an example of rare character that nobody knows nowadays, but that is easily pronounced and understood in the context. An interesting device this Radium, I thought, as I considered the factoid that Chinese were already using radioactive weapons long before the times of Marie Curie…

Hey, wait a second. Radium?

In a split second I reached for my cell phone and fired the Pleco engine. Indeed, there was some convoluted translation work in that sign. The author must have used 镭石 instead of 礌石 (presumably because 礌 doesn’t show in cheap electronic dictionaries), and from there he obtained the English “radium”, which is the correct meaning of  镭.

On the way back I checked the signs again and sure enough my suspicion was confirmed. Right next to the balls, and standing just one meter away from the first correct sign, I saw this smaller one with the key of the (radioactive) metal:


2 responses to “The Importance of Using the Right Key”

  1. I smell an eggcorn in the making, assuming enough people learn it from the second sign.

  2. Julen says:

    Kellen, it looks like it is not only in the making, it is a full blown eggcorn of astronomical proportions.

    I just checked google for 镭石 * 城墙, and there are over 20,000 results. Obviously I haven’t read all of them but browsing around for a while it is clear that most of them refer to 礌石.

    Searching the same phrase with 礌 I get results in the order of 200,000, so a fist estimate of this eggcorn would be in the order 10% incidence.

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