Say Whaa…?!?

I’ve talked before about the oddness of English personal names in Taiwan (here). Honestly, that’s natural. Usually it is people with very limited English trying to come up with an English name—totally forgivable. What is less excusable is when large companies come up with screwed up English names for their products or services.

Kymco, a Taiwanese scooter manufacturer, makes the Dink 125 scooter.  I can’t help marveling at the possible permutations of mistranslation between Chinese and common English usage that led them to the erroneous conclusion that this would be a good name for a scooter.  I can imagine groups of marketing people and upper-level management huddled together in brainstorming sessions, when suddenly someone declares, “Zoinks, I’ve got it!  We will call the new scooter ‘Dink’.”  Bizarrely no one thought to check a Chinese-English dictionary to see how appropriate this might be.  So it is now possible to see many Dinks riding around the streets of Taipei.

Dink has a few definitions, none of them very good. I suppose the most commonly known meaning is idiot or dumbass. It also has a verbal association with dinky, meaning tiny. But, where I come from dink was children’s speak for penis. That is still the association that I make with the word.

Kymco makes a 150cc version of the same scooter that I think is extraordinarily well named—the Grand Dink 150.  The best way I can think of to describe it is if you took a Honda Gold Wing and shrunk it for midgets.  Taiwanese law and tariffs make ownership of motorcycles larger than 150cc difficult.  Men who are trying to look cool, tough or macho have certain credibility problems when they climb aboard their scooters. After all, the scooter’s primary use in other parts of the world is to allow drunken Shriners to ride around in circles without killing themselves.  What is an aspiring tuff to do?  Especially when so many of the scooters are so obviously marketed to young—one might even think pre-adolescent—women, with such blood-stirring names as the Hello Kitty 90, an all pink bike featuring the popular Asian teddy bear/cartoon character of the same name.  Pretty hard to be macho bestriding that.

Into this void steps the Grand Dink 150.  It has a plethora of do-dads including a large fairing, stepped seat, backrest, etc. that make the Grand Dink a phallic symbol in the greatest automotive tradition.  Just don’t mention that the engine is the same size as your vacuum cleaner back home.  Now Taiwanese men with inadequacy issues can ride a giant, well, relatively speaking, phallic symbol like their American and Western European counterparts.  For this purpose I think that the bike’s name is unusually candid.  I mean none of this talk about wild horses or mythical creatures.  It just gets straight to the crux of the matter.  I personally ride one, and let me tell you the girls just “ooh” and “ahh” when you pull up straddling your Grand Penis.

If these types of mistakes can be made by large corporations, like Kymco, with researchers and market analysts whose only job is to come up with names and advertisements, you can imagine the mistakes made by smaller companies with fewer resources.  One extremely visible area where English mistakes can really make you stop and take notice is shop signs.   I’m sympathetic to shop-owners, who may have little formal academic education, but find themselves having to design a shop sign and wanting to add English for a bit of savoir-faire.  English use on sign frontage is common throughout much of Asia.  Nonetheless, I do feel compelled to lampoon some of the English signs I’ve noticed around Taiwan. (I wish I’d kept a record of the funnier signs from the last couple decades. There have been some doozies, most of them now forgotten). Still…

I used to work in TaoYuan, about an hour drive outside Taipei, and I often puzzled over a fairly enigmatic sign on the way there that simply said, “ASS”.  I’m not sure if it was an advertisement or an indictment.  If it was an advertisement—what were they selling?  If it was an indictment—was it aimed at me personally?  After passing this same sign for about a half year I finally went into the shop and inquired as to its exact meaning.  An exchange that mostly involved me pointing at the shop, the sign, and my own posterior and making shrugging gestures while repeating the Chinese word for the old vertical smile, pigu (屁股).  The proprietor not liking the quality of his shop impugned by an ignorant foreigner engaged me in a loud tirade of Taiwanese that clarified nothing.  If my Chinese is abysmal, my Taiwanese is nonexistent, with the exception of a few nasty words that I did recognize sprinkled into the conversation.  Finally after much gesticulating I was able to make him understand that I wanted to know the meaning of the sign in front of his shop.    The sign turns out to have a wholly benign meaning—Authorized Service Shop—a bit of a let-down really.

Another sign that gave me pause when I first arrived was the “Come in Back of the Bus” sign. It was one of those signs where a light behind the message turned on when it was the correct time to deliver the command—Come Now. Very intimidating. I spent a good number of years contemplating that sign, and considering giving it a go. For those not fluent in Chinglish, of course the meaning is that you should board the bus at the rear.  I don’t ride the bus much anymore and haven’t noticed this sign in a long time. Maybe the bus companies have fixed them, or I’ve become desensitized.

I used to work as an English teacher at the downtown Taipei YMCA.  In the wake of the devastating earthquake of Sept. 21, 1999, that YMCA established a daycare to take care of children while their parents were involved in the various tasks associated with rebuilding.  The downtown Taipei YMCA is the national headquarters of the YMCA and as such proudly hung a banner on the front of their building announcing that they were running the “Establishing Destruction Daycare.”  A sign that amused us English teachers to no end.  Knowing the basic nature of Taiwanese children the sign was oddly fitting.

Most of the previous examples were brought to you by large corporations, government offices, or in the case of the YMCA, an English language center. You would expect them to get it at least close to right. When it comes to small shopkeepers it is perfectly logical that things can get funky.