The original, the only: Catty word Contest

[No, not an invitation to be rude in the comments]

Out of the hot and heavy discussion of whether “catty” is a good translation of 斤 (jīn, which means half a kilogram), from the post a couple of days ago, talk in the Sinoglot lounge took a turn towards defining a whole category of catty words. To paraphrase Sima:

A “catty” word would be an English translation of a term that is in everyday use in China. In order to qualify as “catty”, though, the English word must be one so obscure that virtually no significantly-sized group of native speakers has heard of it.

The lounge consensus is that there has to be a lot of these words. An example that might qualify comes from a discussion long ago on Beijing Sounds: 莴笋 (wōsǔn). This is a common vegetable in China (Google images). It’s English name in the ABC Dictionary is “asparagus lettuce”, but it also appears to have been given a portmanteau of its own: “celtuce” from celery + lettuce.

Now it may be that there’s some large region of English speakers that does eat large quantities of celtuce and calls it such, which I guess would disqualify it as a catty word. But around the lounge, there’s no doubt that vegetables in general will be a productive category for catty words, along with fruits, various food products, and measurements.

Got a candidate for catty word of the year? Put it in the comments. (This is one of those moments it would be cool to have a Quora-like comment rating system…)

Winner of the contest is sure to receive free drinks of choice, served around the Sinoglot lounge pool table…

Honorable mention will go to the individual who can find the catty word for 白酒 that Sima is convinced he once saw but cannot now recollect.


PS: This contest leaves behind the very intense debate (still in progress on the original catty post) over whether catty terms should be used in translations or not. Personally, I lean to the “not” side most of the time but can see arguments for including them in some instances.


45 responses to “The original, the only: Catty word Contest”

  1. ideogram/ideograph, topolect.

  2. Peter Nelson says:


    Shanghainese term (长衫) for a 旗袍, pronounced in Cantonese, transliterated into English, and now wasting space in your dictionary.

  3. Carl says:

    There are a lot of these in Japan too. One that springs to mind is “Bonito flakes” for “katsuo bushi.”

    Another is “bonze” for Buddhist monk/priest, which looks like it should be a Japanese word but isn’t quite.

    Not quite in the category, but the spelling of typhoon (=taifuu in Japanese) is pleasantly misleading, since ph is almost always from Greek.

  4. Peter Nelson, you are my hero. Humor and the likely winner.


  5. Sima says:

    You’re a sly one. I fully agree with your appraisal of Peter’s Cheongsam, and then you go and slide that infernal moxibustion under the door. Good work!

    Actually, I think Cheongsam only just qualifies. It probably gets enough exposure in Sunday supplement/fashion magazines to approach the mainstream. I wonder whether it might mark the limit – any word more widely used in English than Cheongsam ought not be considered a catty word.

    A comment from Chris over at the original post, points out that HK, Macao and Taiwan expat communities ought to be an excellent source of these words.

  6. Julen says:


    Yes, it is not quite as rare as Moxibustion or the c word. But there is something fishy (catty?) wih the high frequency of this word in Chinese contexts, no doubt due to the Chinese penchant for the character 香. Anything can be fragrant in China prose, from a pavilion, to a poorly translated southern port, to chairman Mao’s farts.

    I know I am pushing the limits of the definition, fragrant is not exactly obscure. But how many times did you use this word before you came to China? A quick search on google shows the China sites coming up right after the dictionaries. Plus, you can be sure that thousands of ESL speakers have encountered this word for the first time when studying Chinese.

    On these grounds I propose “fragrant” for cattiness. Perhaps in a separate subcategory under “soft cattiness”, as opposed to the hard cattiness of Cheongsam.

    • Sima says:

      Good call.
      I have recently read or watched something in English in which the word ‘fragrant’ was used to describe food. I can’t for the life of me place it now but, at the time, it jumped out at me for exactly this connection back to 香 xiāng.

      I think it’s only usually used in modern British English to refer to smells – flowers, perfumes, etc. Even then, perhaps it carries a slightly ‘ye olde’ sort of feel. But I suspect it was used more widely – more like 香 – in times gone by.
      Can anyone either confirm or refute this? or offer other examples of soft cattines?

  7. Peter Nelson says:

    I should be able to come up with more of these. My (Chinese) coworkers would often want to know how to say something in English; they’d find a bizarre, though technically correct translation; and then they’d be frustrated when I told them that the word they found would in no way facilitate communication with any Americans who hadn’t majored in Chinese words and their poor English translations.

  8. Tezuk says:

    Julen: I agree entirely about fragrant. In the UK, it is pretty much only used to describe spices here these days.

    I have a problem with ‘scold’. It seems to be the standard translation for 罵(is there a better one?), but does anybody use it in spoken English anymore?

    As for a real Catty word… ‘glutinous rice dumplings’ for 粽子 always makes me laugh.

    • Chris Waugh says:

      I’m not sure there is a good translation for 骂. Scold is too much like telling a naughty toddler off, but 骂 runs the full length of the spectrum and also covers the 京骂 (heh, that’s the first suggestion Google’s IME gives – what does that tell us?) that opposing teams and their (few, brave) supporters are subject to at Beijing Guoan matches in Workers’ Stadium. Referring loudly and in unison to sensitive parts of your opponent’s mother’s anatomy isn’t exactly “scolding”, now, is it? On the other hand, ideally, telling off a naughty toddler probably shouldn’t involve swearing.

  9. Chris Waugh says:

    Well, if Julen gets to slip fragrant in under the soft cattiness sub-category, then may I propose limpid? I must’ve seen it somewhere outside China, because I recognised it as a valid word the first time I picked up some China-produced tourist literature. Experience suggests the waters described as limpid are generally choked with algae, but something tells me that “algae-choked” may not be the dictionary definition.

    Hows about tael in the hard cattiness category? Etymonline doesn’t have an entry for it. Wikipedia says it came to English via Portuguese from Malay “tahil” meaning weight. And check this out:
    “In Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia it is equivalent to 10 mace (qián 錢) or 1⁄16 catty,[2] [3]albeit with slightly different equivalents in metric in these two places. These Chinese units of measurement are usually used in the Chinese herbal medicine stores as well as gold and silver exchange.”
    So we have catty reappearing, and I finally find out that a tael is what the rest of us call a 两. Thanks Wikipedia.

    Wikipedia also says:
    “Some foodstuffs in China are sold in units also called “taels””
    Which I find odd. Lots of things are sold in 两, and it’s used for much more. I buy my tea in 两, I’ve seen and heard 斤 and 两 used for quantities of booze. When my daughter was born my brother in law had to quickly translate the metric weight I’d been told into 斤 and 两 so my mother in law knew how big she was.

    Now how do we categorise things like 胡同/hutong and 四合院/siheyuan/courtyard house? What’s the Shanghai equivalent? 石库门/shikumen? I’m leaving tones off because these words seem to pop up in China expat English fairly frequently, and almost always stripped of their tones. But unlike catty and tael, they’re borrowed directly from Chinese, not borrowed from Malay via Portuguese then applied to China.

    How about government department words like procuratorate? It looks to me like a word borrowed from a continental Europe Napoleonic code civil law type system, not something we’d have in the common law jurisdictions that seem to dominate the Anglosphere.

    And what do we do with words like gung ho? It’s fairly mainstream English, sure, but it stands out as having come from China expat Chinese. It’s from the 工合 of the Industrial Cooperatives founded by Rewi Alley and other expats during the anti-Japanese war, romanised at the time as gung ho, then picked up and spread by a US Marine Corps general who was impressed by Rewi Alley’s can do, “fear? what’s that?” spirit.

    ‘Scuse the rambling, I’m still in a state of pre-caffeination.

    • Katie says:

      A tael is the same as a 两?Who knew? Not me. Although 两 doesn’t seem to be in common usage where I live–or maybe I just don’t buy the right stuff. Was at a total loss when I was in Beijing and had to order dumplings by the 两 though.

      Speaking of which, we need yet another category for translations like dumplings, which are in standard English usage but are totally misleading.

  10. Chris Waugh says:

    As for veges: rape for 油菜. It’s a perfectly correct translation (remember when canola oil was called rapeseed oil and farmers danced around possible unfortunate confusion by calling their crop oilseed rape?), but it does cause more than a few giggles when it pops up on translated menus and some quite interesting expressions when newbie expats ask what 油菜 is called in English.

    Unfortunately, though, I don’t generally know the English names of fruits and veges I’m not familiar with from New Zealand. I suspect that the only people who would agree that sweet potato for 红薯 is a catty word would be other Kiwis. We use the Maori word kumara, which perhaps expats in New Zealand would call a catty word, but that’s way off topic.

    Sorry, I am caffeinating, but it’s taking a while to cut through the end of semester fug.

  11. Chris Waugh says:

    @luolimao: It seems to me that cheongsam is both the Korean word 靑衫 and the Cantonese transliteration of the Shanghainese word 长衫. It certainly wouldn’t be the only pair of distinct words from different, even unrelated, languages that just happened to look the same.

  12. M says:

    白酒 is easy: it’s called “nail-polish remover” in English 😉

  13. caitlin says:

    Wow, I’ve learnt so much!

    @ChrisWaugh I didn’t realise kumara was a Maori word. While I was living in Jinan, I saw an English translation of sweet potato as ‘dirt melon’, it took me a while to realise it was 地瓜 in Chinese!

    Catty came up in my class recently and it had me stumped! I’m all for using Chinese translation in English for these ‘catty words’.

    Hmm…I’ve definitely come across some catty words over the years…I will wrack my brains and see if I can remember any!

  14. Dan says:

    Cheongsam only looks like a Korean transliteration, it’s 100% Cantonese.

  15. Chad says:

    I’ll throw the word 匁 in, although it doesn’t qualify, as it’s one of those rare Japanese kokuji that is native Japanese script and not Chinese. A 匁 monme [see wiktionary] is a “Japanese unit of weight (1/1000 of a kan)” [kan=貫], or 3.75 grams. It was adopted in English as the word momme, and is used in the pearl industry as that weight. It has also been transformed in modern usage to refer to silk quality (the weight in pounds of 100 yards of silk cloth 45 inches wide). Interestingly, 匁 was removed from the Joyo Kanji list in 2010, so I assume it doesn’t pass the test for “a term that is in everyday use” either.

  16. pot says:

    “catty word for 白酒” Could it be sorghum wine, or kaoliang?

    • Sima says:

      Thanks for that, pot. Much appreciated.

      I’m glad someone came up with something here, but I fear it was neither of those.

      I’m fairly sure the word didn’t sound like a Chinese loan, but was a single word.

    • Chris Waugh says:

      But 白酒 can be made from a variety of grains. Though kaoliang is interesting, being a transliteration of 高粱 done the old fashioned way, and listed in the dictionary as a valid translation alongside Chinese sorghum. I’m not much of a botanist, but I’m guessing that kaoliang is a particular variety of sorghum not found elsewhere in the world.

  17. Peter Nelson says:

    While not a terribly common word, 五子棋 is, in my experience, a very common and widely known game in China. The children’s version of the game is just like tic-tac-toe, only on a larger board and requiring five in a row to win. My students seemed to see it the other way round though, one of them coining the rather brilliant 三子棋 to describe the 3×3 variant with which we are familiar.

    In any event, there’s a rather useless translation of it as “Gomoku” or “Gobang” if you look it up.

  18. SeekTruthFromFacts says:


    • Sima says:

      Good effort!
      A model worker, if ever I saw one.

    • Chris Waugh says:

      Why cadre? It’s a perfectly standard, mainstream word. It may not be common in every dialect, but I don’t think it’s uncommon or East Asia/China-specific enough to qualify. It’s borrowed from French, in which language it’s even more mainstream.

  19. Peter Nelson says:

    I think cadre works well. I had never heard it before studying Chinese, I had no idea how to pronounce it, and I feel awkward using it.

    • Chris Waugh says:

      I’m still disagreeing with cadre, as I’d heard it plenty of times in both English and French before coming to China. I seem to particularly, although by no means exclusively, associate its English usage with officials of “communist” regimes. But that may be due to differences in either dialect or experience.

    • Peter Nelson says:

      Well, it did come from French, so I imagine it’s more prevalent in French. Also, I was born after much of the English discussion of communist regimes was over, so it’s totally possible that it has just declined in usage. Or I’m just stupid or something.

  20. Chris Waugh says:

    @Peter Nelson: Let’s call it a difference in experience, then. I’m old enough that a hefty portion of my childhood happened during the closing stages of the Cold War.

    And yes, cadre is much more prevalent in French, which is a language I studied for many years and still read fairly regularly, which helps explain my reaction to cadre’s inclusion.

  21. Carl says:

    I was talking to my wife tonight and she didn’t know what a “joss stick” was.

    • Chris Waugh says:

      Ooh, yeah, joss stick is a good one. I’ve only ever heard – well, no, I’ve never heard it at only. I’ve only read it in a China context. Everywhere else it seems a stick of incense is perfectly adequate.

    • HRB says:

      Add to that “ghost money” / “joss paper”.
      (I’m not a native speaker of English but I suspect “auspicious” might qualify as a catty orientalism. Never seen it used in non-Sinosphere context.)

  22. SeekTruthFromFacts says:


    A group of businesses in Asia linked by the historic development owner’s guanxi, rather than a focus on a specific industry

  23. SeekTruthFromFacts says:

    Sorry, typo in the link above:

    Wikipedia entry on hong

  24. SeekTruthFromFacts says:


    A Chinese person who has lived abroad and returned. Translates 海归.

    Wikipedia: Hong Kong returnee

    “Sea turtles”, same meaning as a pun on 海龟, has now been used in an English newspaper.

  25. SeekTruthFromFacts says:

    netizen (for 网民 and sometimes 网友)
    old China hand* (中国通)
    queue (for 辫子)

    *This is a unique formulation as a fixed phrasal noun, distinct from “an old hand at X”.

  26. nmurphy says:

    I just came across “squama” for fish scales (鳞) in the instructions of a packet of Sichuan pickled cabbage fish seasoning.

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