more Chinese-to-English translation fail(ure)

Randy Alexander strangeguitars at GMAIL.COM
Sun Aug 16 06:29:41 UTC 2009

On Sun, Aug 16, 2009 at 1:26 PM, Douglas G. Wilson<douglas at> wrote:
>>>> The photo at
>>>> part of what seems to be a switch panel mounted on a wall, possibly in
>>>> a hospital. There are two switches, each with an engraved label in English
>>>> and Chinese, and what seem to be cable or hose connections underneath.
>> I think those are dimmer switches. Â These kinds of control panels are
>> very common in hotels in China. Â Built into the nightstand between the
>> beds.
>>>> I don't read Chinese and I don't know what the hanzi mean, and I won't try
>>>> to put them in this message. But the English labels are SMALLPOX and NIGHT
>>>> LIGHT.
>>> tianhuadeng = ceiling light
>>> tian = sky, hua = surface (or flower), deng = light
>>> But tianhua, the exact same characters (so skyflower or whatever),
>>> also means smallpox!
>>> Ceiling is tianhuaban -- the ban (board) is dropped in this compound. ....
> --
> But can someone satisfy my idle curiosity ....
> (1) Why is smallpox called "sky-flower" or so?

I don't have any Chinese word-level etymological sources, so I'm
flying blind here.

While "pox" --> "flower" makes some sense, the tian1 part is less so.
Tian1 has another meaning: "day".  It could be in reference to the
fact that the rash takes 24-36 hours to spread.

> (2) Why is the ceiling called "sky-flower" or so?

Here tian1 is obvious ("heaven").  The hua1 (flowered) part refers to
the fact that ceilings in China traditionally featured designs.

This is from the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary: "ceiling (of a
room), which is carved or colourfully painted in certain posh houses".


> Are these virtually-opaque compounds like, say, "under" + "stand" =
> "understand" in English?
> Are there interesting and true/plausible Chinese-etymology-stories?
> I guess maybe I can imagine why the "flower" in "smallpox" and why the
> "sky" in "ceiling" but ....
> (Apologies for being a little OT)
> -- Doug Wilson
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

Randy Alexander
Jilin City, China
My Manchu studies blog:

The American Dialect Society -

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