From the February Harper’s

Two items from the current issue of Harper’s Magazine, one on the translation of names, the other on taboo avoidance.

Item 1 is in “POTUS Blossom” (p. 23), on a selection of

questions submitted last fall by readers of the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua for President Barack in advance of his Number 16 town-hall meeting in Shanghai [as translated from Chinese by Colin Jones].

Some of the questions are pointedly political, some are personal-interest questions (among them the silly “Tell me, how do you like Eastern beauties?”), and then there’s one of linguistic interest:

The U.S. Embassy in China is about to change your Chinese name from Ao-ba-ma to Ou-ba-ma. Do you think this is necessary? The Chinese media and people have always called you Aobama. Now 1.3 billion Chinese have to change how they say it. It’s a real pain.

It wouldn’t have occurred to me that Chinese speakers would be obliged to follow the U.S. Embassy’s practice in pronouncing Obama’s name in Chinese, but then such matters often arouse strong emotions, as you can see by looking at the comments on a recent Language Log posting on Haiti.

Item 2 is “69 Across” (p. 24), on selections from

a “blacklist” file included with the latest edition of Crossword Compiler, a British computer program for designing various word puzzles.

As is usual with such lists, some of the items are obvious (diddlyshit, gobshite, pissoir) and some are puzzling (clitoridectomyhermaphroditismpsychosexual, sexy); the words in the second set aren’t racy in themselves but presumably get on the list because of sexual content in their referents. Slang in the sexual and excretory domains similarly makes the list: nooky, rogering, shtup, smoochstiffy, wee-wee. (Note that roger and wee can’t be banned, without sacrificing some innocent uses.) And of course the avoidance word effing is there.

All of this is intended to keep word puzzles as modest as possible. Keeping the world safe for puzzlers.

2 Responses to “From the February Harper’s”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    cf. your LL post on NYT’s “douchebag” crossword disaster

    It makes sense if the blacklist is graded and configurable, since many compilers submit for multiple publications whose editorial sensibilities may be more or less dainty. A one-size-fits-all list is a lazy effort.

  2. Xin Says:

    I’m a native Chinese speaker and many times I’m confused as to why some proper nouns are pronounced so differently from the English counterparts. The one I’ve always wondered is why the Chinese say “California” as “Jia-zhou.” The “zhou” part means “state” but where did the “Jia” part come from? It’s neither phonologically nor semantically transliterated.

    On this case I rather side with the U.S. Embassy to change the transliteration so that it is closer to the English pronunciation. That way bilinguals won’t get too confused as to what a word refers to. It’s a more structured system than just transliterating words arbitrarily (or seemingly so).

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