So in this dream, Kato Kaelin is a Shaolin master who mixes it up with Nikola Mirotic and Nikola Vucevic, but the hoops they’re playing are on a clay court on a high hill, and Kaelin is hurling teacups and toothpaste and glossy paper. And he has pica, so he’s eating the court, and when he expectorates it’s Kaopectate. He’s advanced in years, but he totally KO’s them!

Oh my, musta eaten too much kaolin before bedtime. Wait – eat kaolin? The stuff is clay, right? Indeed: a silicate (and alkaline? sometimes, it seems). But geophagy is more common than you might think, and not just among people with pica. But never mind that – you’ve probably had some in your mouth sometime; they use it in toothpaste, for one thing. If in your childhood you ever chewed on a bit of glossy paper (to make a spitball, say), that would be another occasion. Of course, you (probably) don’t swallow your porcelain, but you may put it in your mouth, and that’s mainly kaolin too. And if you’ve ever taken Kaopectate… well, actually, they don’t make that with kaolin and pectin anymore. In the US it’s bismuth subsalicylate now, though in Canada they still use attapulgite, another kind of clay.

Kaolin, pronounced “KAY-a-lin” as it is in our English spelling pronunciation, seems like a very American word to me just because of associations with K-Tel, Kato Kaelin, Kmart, and such like. But my eyes look at it and think “Chinese” too. Now, admittedly, I’m the sort of guy who sees “STOP PEDESTRIAN XING” and thinks it looks like a title of a Mao-era play about an evil capitalist who walks everywhere. But kaolin really does come from Chinese, and even (unlike many Chinese borrowings) from Mandarin.

So if you pull out your Chinese-English dictionary (you do have one, right? I have something like five and I keep wanting another), you may see kao meaning “give or take a test”, “bake, roast”, “flog, beat, torture”, “handcuffs”, “lean against”, “knock”, and “reward with food and drink”, and lin “carry”, “choose”, “phosphorus”, “woods”, “drench”, and “face, overlook”. Clear as mud, eh? The trick is that kaolin comes to us through French, and Mandarin now uses Pinyin transliteration. What you should be looking for in the dictionary is actually gao “tall, high” and ling “hill”, the name of a hill outside Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, where kaolin was first found. The gao is pronounced like a cross between cow and gow (closer to gow). Incidentally, this gaoling is homophonous (down to the tones) with a term meaning “advanced in years”. But Kato Kaelin is actually only 52 now.

3 responses to “kaolin

  1. Chinese dictionaries are looking a bit 20th century now. Visit the elaborate and fascinating Computational Chinese page
    and type ‘kao’, and you will get 28 characters with these meanings given:
    bottle, earthenware; fly; to reward or cheer troops with food, money, gifts, etc.; meat broth; thick blood of cattle and goat; big head; obstruction of breath (qi) as it seeks release; end of spine; buttocks, sacrum; torture and interrogate; hit; examine, test; investigate; mangrove; draft, manuscript; wither; withered, rotten, dead; bake, roast, toast, cook; dry at the fire to roast; entertain victorious soldiers; dried food; shackles, manacles; lean on, trust, depend on; near; basket.

    • And then there’s gao… Mind you, this gao, 高, is one of the most common words and characters in Chinese and one of the first ones you learn, since “high” and “tall” get used in a lot of expressions.

  2. Now, admittedly, I’m the sort of guy who sees “STOP PEDESTRIAN XING” and thinks it looks like a title of a Mao-era play about an evil capitalist who walks everywhere.

    There’s a new (? I think) restaurant near us called “Duck Xing”. It’s pronounced “Dukh KSing” (I asked), but their logo is one of those yellow diamond traffic signs, with a mother duck and some ducklings on it. Makes me smile every time I think of it.

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