Saturday, November 03, 2007

Important announcement - safety regulations for Chinese air travel

I mentioned this over on Moonrat's blog a while back, but somehow I keep forgetting to post it on here.

When I was visiting Szechuan province a couple of months back, I noticed in Chengdu airport a digital screen next to the queue for the security check, displaying a series of cartoons and captions reminding us of the items we weren't allowed to take on to the plane.

I wish I'd noted them all down, because there were several pretty funny ones (and the illustrations were a hoot - if you didn't realise why keeping fireworks or jars of hydrochloric acid in your carry-on luggage might be a bad idea, they'll show you!). However, the absolute pick of the crop was definitely this:

No prohibited dirks.

I don't think any Chinese person I've ever met - even those with really good English - has any idea what a dirk is. I have quizzed several people on this since, and none of them has known. In fact, a lot of my native English speaker friends seem not to know! It is an archaic Scottish word for a type of small, stabbing knife.

This notice actually seems to be ushering in a free-for-all for blade-wielding hi-jackers. Only dirks are not allowed. Cutlass, kukri, katana, machete?? They're all fine. Only dirks are a problem. In fact, even some dirks would be OK. It's only the prohibited ones that will get you into trouble.

I have since spotted a similar sign elsewhere (can't quite remember where). I think they might possibly have it at Beijing airport too. Maybe it's a standard set of notices developed by the national airports authority for countrywide use. It is astounding that such a wacko piece of Chinglish can be put on display in such a high-profile - and important - setting. But that's China for you.

This is a pretty common type of problem. Almost all Chinese attempting to speak English rely heavily on electronic dictionaries to support their acquisition of vocabulary. The vocabulary databases for these devices are almost invariably cobbled together on the cheap from various Chinese-made book dictionaries (and, frankly, I don't think I'd trust any Chinese/English dictionary compiled in this country, even from one of the supposedly prestigious University publishing houses - all the ones I've seen have been just dreadful), without any involvement from native English speakers. Quite often they will include words that simply don't exist (although sometimes these are plausible, and potentially even useful inventions: the adjective 'foresighted' is one of my favourites of these). More often, however, the problems arise because they do not include any explanation of the proper context or register for using a word. They are stuffed full of rare or archaic words - which unwitting Chinese students assume are standard, everyday expressions, and adopt into their active vocabularies accordingly. Really: you find people bandying around terms from heraldry, and so on - quite oblivious of the fact that their "English" is incomprehensible and ludicrous to anyone else.

Chinese electronic dictionaries are one of my leading pet hates out here; they are the bane of every English teacher's life. Quick and convenient they may be, but that just adds to the insidious harm they do; as a learning aid, they are worse than useless.


Anonymous said...


yah, in that context I was totally clueless on what "dirk" meant. but after you define it, I'm sure I've come across it before and should have known what it meant.

Anonymous said...

Your post has been cited in my blog. You can take a look at

Anyway my blog talking about Chinglish is in Chinese. Do you speak any Chinese?


Froog said...

No, sorry, Jack; I speak very little Chinese, and read none at all. But thanks for mentioning me on your blog.