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Oh, Shanghai There

Tales of an Englishman living in Shanghai

Dave On August 31 2011

Well, that’s one of the weirdest titles I’ve ever written.

The Chinese language has a few awesome quirks, probably acquired through thousands of years of use. One of my favourite things is the way they combine or compound words to make a whole new word, often with a different meaning.

Sometimes, the words are opposites. For example, the word zuǒyòu (左右), literally means “left right”, but put together the word comes to mean “approximately” or “about”. The word dōngxi (东西) is a combination of “east” and “west”, but is often used as a general term for “things” or “stuff”.

Sometimes the word combinations are literal and practical – for example, traffic lights are hónglǜdēng (红绿灯), literally “red green light”. Sometimes they’re a little more metaphorical or poetic, like the word mǎshàng (马上). The word means “immediately” or “very soon”, but the literal meaning is “on a horse”. I assume this is because in feudal China, if you said you were coming on a horse, that meant you’d be arriving very soon.

Often words are combined because no word yet exists for the term they’re trying to coin. For example, a computer in Chinese is diànnǎo (电脑), or literally an “electric brain”, and a phone is diànhuà (电话), “electric words”. A mobile phone is a shǒujī (手机), a “hand machine”, and an aeroplane is a fēijī (飞机), a “flying machine”. A train is huǒchē (火车), or a “fire car”. A university is a dàxué (大学), or “big learning”.

This often makes it easier to learn vocabulary, but sometimes confuses things even more.

Categories: Chinglish, Oddities


  1. Andrew says:

    I always found those little quirks to be quite interesting, as well. 打火机 “hit fire machine” is a lighter. Also, they do not eat soup, they drink it “喝汤“。 Also, the concept of measure words is quite cool, too. ”一条路“, ”一条鱼“,and ”一条蛇“。The first is a road, the second is a fish and the third is a snake. What do these have in common? They are all long and straight, necessitating the use of the “条” measure word.

    • Dave says:

      Thanks for your comment, Andrew!

      Measure words were always a problem for me when I studied Japanese, and I wasn’t exactly thrilled when I found out that Chinese uses a similar system. It’s certainly cool the way they have different measure words for things/people/actions with different properties, but for me it’s pretty annoying to have to learn all these little words.

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