China, a place where names take on a whole new meaning

When people want the Real Thing in downtown Beijing they ask for a can of Kekoukele.

Close your eyes and listen hard and yes, it sounds somewhat like Coca-cola, but it conveys its essence of taste and fun in a way that the original name could not hope to match. It means, literally, “tasty fun”.

According to the New York Times, China is a place where names are imbued with deep significance. The art of picking a brand name that resonates with Chinese consumers is no longer an art. It has become, says the Times, a sort of science, with consultants, computer programs and linguistic analyses to ensure that what tickles a Mandarin ear does not grate on a Cantonese one.

Consider Tide detergent, Taizi, whose Chinese characters literally mean “gets rid of dirt.” (Characters are important: the same sound written differently could mean “too purple.”)

There is also Reebok, or Rui bu, which means “quick steps.” And Colgate — Gao lu jie — which translates into “revealing superior cleanliness.” And Lay’s snack foods — Le shi — whose name means “happy things.” Nike (Nai ke) and BMW (Bao Ma, echoing the first two sounds of its English and German names) also have worn well on Chinese ears.

Taking care of his Precious Horse

Having a foreign-sounding name can lend a cachet that a true Chinese name would lack. Many upscale brands like Cadillac (Ka di la ke), or Hilton (Xi er dun), employ phonetic translations that mean nothing in Chinese. Rolls-Royce (Laosi-Laisi) includes two Chinese characters for “labor” and “plants” that more or less have become standard usage in foreign names — all to achieve a distinct foreign look and sound.

On the other hand, a genuine Chinese name can say things about a product that a mere collection of homonyms never could.

Citibank is known as Hua qi yinhang, which literally means “star-spangled banner bank,” not bad if you still have faith in American banks. If you are looking for the local Marriott, you’ll have to ask for Wan hao, or “10,000 wealthy elites.”

That’s not quite the mood whenever I check in to the Marriott. One of 10,000 maybe, but wealthy and elite is a stretch, even with my gold card.

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