You did *what* to the fruit?

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Language Log: The Etiology and Elaboration of a Flagrant Mistranslation

A series of earlier Language Log posts have discussed the curious phenomenon seen in the grocery-store sign on the right: absurdly crude English mistranslations in bizarrely inappropriate contexts.

In "Gan: whodunnit, and how, and why?" (5/31/2006), I explained one of the sources of this phenomenon: several Chinese characters pronounced GAN1 or GAN4 -- and meaning such widely disparate things as "dry," "calendrical sign," "to do," and much else beside -- all got collapsed into one simplified character: 干. This has led to enormous confusion, especially when people who know next to no English rely on machine translation software to convert Chinese into English. The chaos caused by this combination of circumstances is vastly exacerbated by the fact that this little, three-stroke symbol also has a vulgar meaning when pronounced in the fourth tone, GAN4, namely "fuck," which is probably an extension of the regular sense of "do." Because GAN4 ("do") and GAN1 ("dry") are now both written with that little, three-stroke character, the damage is compounded by the enormous range of intended senses of GAN1/4 ("dry," "do," "act," "work," "undertake," "shield," "have to do with; be concerned with," "edge of a body of water," "be rude, impolite, blunt," "embarrass or annoy," "give the cold-shoulder to," "empty, hollow," measure word for a group of people, "trunk, stem, main part," "cadre," "competent, capable, able, talented," "go bad," "be a disaster," etc.), all of which are capable of coming out of the translation software as "fuck."


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