more Chinese-to-English translation fail(ure)

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Mon Aug 17 05:10:01 UTC 2009

Randy Alexander wrote:
> ....
>> --
>> 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". ....

Thanks. That seems about right for the "ceiling". I guess it's
(independently?) parallel to the derivation of English "ceiling" from
French "ciel" = "sky" (but is that English etymology accurate?).

As for smallpox, I found this --

-- apparently an excerpt  from an early-modern-Chinese-medicine text
from 1830 with commentary (text on p. 177, footnotes on p. 181). The
name "tian-hua" for smallpox is said to refer to the lesions like "red
flowers" as one might expect. As for the "tian", note "tian-xing", here
glossed "heaven current" and equated to "epidemic", I guess based on a
belief that such diseases appear secondary to some disturbance in the
sky or heaven (or maybe depending on the season, i.e. the positions of
the stars?). Conceivably this is the source of the "tian"? [Quick
Web-Google shows this "tian-xing" today mostly in the name of contagious

-- Doug Wilson


The American Dialect Society -

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