Daily Archives: May 26, 2009

Peking, Beijing, whazzup?

Pity the capital city of China. No matter what, its name gets mispronounced. It used to be written Peking, but that led to millions of people saying it like an act of voyeurism. Now it’s written Beijing, and anglophones all over the world can’t believe that a j could represent anything like how we say it in English, so in the spirit of foreignness they blubber the b and say the j as though it were French.

In fact, the phonemes involved in the name of China’s capital are such that Peking (the Yale transliteration), Pei-ching (Wade-Giles style, but never commonly used) and Beijing (Pinyin style) are all arguably viable, but all misleading in one way or another for the simple reason that the sounds used are not all sounds we make in English. Continue reading


Arg, it’s ugly. Could it be the love child of Anu Garg and Olive Oyl? Perhaps not, but it certainly gurgles in your gorge grotesquely. But it will not gorgonize you: it is the gargoyle itself that has turned to stone – or always was! We all know what this word’s ugly referents are: those stone heads on Gothic buildings, representing demons, goblins, gremlins, and assorted other gnarly lugs. Does the name come from the ugliness of the g sounds? From the throatiness, rather. The Germanic and Romance languages have a variety of words in the garg, gurg, and gorg line that relate to the throat – unsurprisingly! The word gargoyle came from was Old French gargouille, “throat.” So, OK, throat? Yes, because gargoyles are water spouts. You have a roof. It gets rained on. You need to drain water off it, and you don’t want it just hitting the ground all around, so you drain it into gutters and they drain into spouts that pour the water out and away from the building. And before the advent of modernism, the idea was that things should be, you know, ornamented. Public fountains were built with water coming out of mouths and assorted other physiognomic orifices; why shouldn’t great public buildings also drain water through amusing or shocking heads? Well, at least until the early 18th century, when cities started requiring buildings to have downspouts that carried the water all the way to the ground rather than just gargling it down from great heights.