The stroke-count-based sort isn’t random, although it looks that way if you only see it in translation


During the NBC coverage of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, the announcers more than once said that the teams will not be entering in the normal order, but rather in a random order based on the number of strokes in the team's name as translated into Chinese.

This is an odd use of the word random. You might say that at the Athens Olympics, the teams did not enter in the normal order, but rather in a random order based on the collation of the characters in the team's name as translated into Greek.

Teams enter the stadium in the collation order customary for the host nation, with the exception that Greece always goes first and the host nation always goes last. (Which created an interesting puzzle for the Athens Olympics: How do you go both first and last?) For Chinese, there are a variety of collations, which fall into two broad categories: pronunciation-based and stroke-count-based, and the organizers chose one of the stroke-count-based sorts. Fair enough.

Of course, it seems random if you don't get to see the original Chinese names. And for some reason, NBC didn't show the Chinese names for the countries, so the opportunity to see the sort order in action was lost on the viewing audience. Viewers in the United States who saw the Ghanaian, Canadian, and Gabonese teams enter one after the other would just say "Yeah, that's the stupid random order again," because they didn't see that it was , 拿大, and .

(Conspiracy theorists would say that NBC didn't show the Chinese names to allow them to manipulate the order of the teams and place the United States closer to the end of the list than it normally would appear.)

Freaky Raymond-trivia that will probably show up on Wikipedia within 30 minutes: The first character of my given Chinese name is 瑞, which happens also to be the first character for the Chinese names of the countries 瑞士 (Switzerland) and 瑞典 (Sweden), so it's only fitting that the first two languages I learned in a classroom setting were Swiss German and Swedish. Alas, life is not as poetic as it should be, for the second character of my given Chinese name sorts after , so I would actually have marched between Sweden and Nauru (瑙魯). Of course, another impediment to my marching between Switzerland and Sweden is the more significant fact that I am not personally an Olympic team.

Bonus griping about language reporting: The official Chinese-language cheer has been reported by the English-language press as China, add oil! While literally true, it's also a misleading translation. The phrase 加油 does mean, if you take it apart word by word, to add oil, but as a phrase, it means to refuel or, when used metaphorically, to cheer on. Chinese speakers don't think about oil when they say 加油 any more than English-speakers think of objects hurtling through the air when they say throw a party. In both cases, you only think about the phrase literally when you're making a pun or are otherwise playing around with the language.

Comments (13)
  1. thatkindofoil says:

    Incidentally, about 加油, the reason that makes sense for "refuel" is because in Chinese, the same character for "oil", 油, is also used for the "oil" that means "petroleum" (ie. crude oil), as well as various fuels (gasoline, diesel, etc.) derived from crude oil.  So the literal meaning in this case is more accurately "to add gasoline/fuel"–aka refuel.  And then of course metaphorically, the idea of refueling your car so it can keep_going, that’s how the phrase comes about as a cheer to athletes, especially in the context of a race.  It’s more or less a "go go go!" kind of cheer.

  2. steveshe says:

    Since this post is all about Raymond I’ll ask. It appears that you speak and read Chinese, is that correct? Also, what is the full list of langiages you speak, read, understand a little of? Just curious…

  3. Leo Davidson says:

    Both of today’s posts made me laugh out loud unexpectedly. Thanks :)

    (The "puppies" comment in the other one and the "olympic team" line in this one. Both hit me out of the blue.)

  4. Erisian23 says:

    Raymond Chen is Chinese?!  Nobody notified this office of anything.  Have you been Chinese for long, Raymond?

    I’ll update your Wikipedia entry shortly.  ;)

  5. James says:

    The problem for any prudent wiki editor is determining the veracity of the name claim, since biography subjects who don’t want to be in the encyclopedia may sometimes be less than accurate. It’d be a shame if the name actually meant "suckers!".

  6. Chinese/Japanese characters says:

    "Chinese don’t think about oil when they say 加油"

    The same is true of Japanese. (Well not in this case, but in many other examples).

    My wife and I are currently choosing baby names.  Non-japanese often ask what the name means.

    Its just a name.  There is no meaning, it’s like Philip or Tracy or Peter.

    Words in east asian languages are not necessarily the the sum of the characters/ parts.

    If it were true, my baby would be named "Shining Tree".

  7. Larry Lard says:

    There is no meaning, it’s like Philip or Tracy or Peter.

    Philip – from Greek, meaning ‘friend of horses’

    Tracy – indirectly from Thrace, in Greece

    Peter – from Greek, meaning ‘rock’

    Or, on the flip side:

    "I’m American, honey. Our names don’t mean sh*t."

  8. Cheong says:

    Actually, my mental image for "加油" is to "step on the gas pedal of a car"(In Cantonese this action is called "俾油" which can be literally translated to "to give oil") to speed up.

    And also, "add oil"/"addoil"/"+oil" or other variants are common and valid to use in Hong Kong like "Long time no see".

  9. Gabest says:

    I wonder how country names are translated to chinese and then to chinese characters, do they just come up with something phonetically similar?

  10. Csaboka says:

    As far as I know, the Chinese term has to be something phonetically similar, but it also has to make some sense. For example, Coca Cola is marketed as ko-ka-ko-le in China, because they could not come up with anything good that has the pronounciation ko-ka-ko-la. ( The whole story is described at http://www.snopes.com/cokelore/tadpole.asp )

  11. thatkindofoil says:

    Hmm, the gas pedal explanation does sound more familiar to me.  I know the whole thing is a car analogy but couldn’t quite remember the exact details, and I think I was misled by Raymond referring to “refuel”.

    As for how country names are translated, they are basically just phonetic transliterations, but of course many Chinese characters have the same sound. In some cases whoever first transliterated it might have make an effort to pick characters so the result means something nice, but I don’t know if that’s the case for all countries.  In the case of Coca Cola, it is a marketing incentive for the transliterated name to mean something good.  There are definitely some transliterations in Chinese that are pure phonetic and cannot really be interpreted meaning-wise, like 巧克力 (“chocolate”).

    [True, the phrase also means “to accelerate a vehicle by pushing on the gas pedal”. I guess I grew up in a family of pokey drivers, since the first thing that come to my mind is refueling and not accelerating. -Raymond]
  12. Gabe says:

    The "step on the gas" translation actually makes a good bit of sense when you think about it.

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