In my own language (Dutch) I can (jokingly) point at something that is decaying (or perhaps my tea getting cold, or my desk being disorderly) and utter the single word: ‘entropy’. Or I can, out of the blue, say (again, jokingly): ‘I hate entropy’.

Considering that ‘entropy’ is simply shāng in Chinese, which, apart from 熵, can also be 商, 傷 or 墒, is either of these statements that I can make in Dutch, also possible in the Chinese spoken language (without being unintelligible)? (Pointing and saying shāng, or perhaps wǒ tǎoyàn shāng.) If not, would there be a work-around that still involves the concept of entropy, or is 熵 restricted to a physics class and/or the written language?

  • 1
    You would need a context to make yourself understood with just a single morpheme word. Since most people don't even know what entropy is, it is also understood that whoever you communicate with is a colleague. Most likely, you would have to expand and clarify, like 热力学的熵.
    – user4452
    Jan 10, 2016 at 10:38
  • I seems that you are saying that the concept of entropy is unknown in China, except to those who have studied physics. If that is the case, then the scope of the question would be confined to the latter. How well known is the concept to start with?
    – hurdsean
    Jan 10, 2016 at 10:55
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    also see jukuu's 100 examples (the maximum number)for 熵
    – user6065
    Jan 10, 2016 at 11:00
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    @Stan I think you made a typo, but I think you wanted to confirm that in a highly relevant context the word can be used on its own. However, I'm especially curious about how well shāng does outside of such a context. But you're probably right to point out that even in English the word would be geeky. My question should be limited to groups of Chinese speaking people that know the word, and what happens when one person wants to use it outside an obviously related context.
    – hurdsean
    Jan 10, 2016 at 12:28
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    @hurdsean My impression is concepts and terminologies from natural science (especially maths and physics) are much less used in normal Chinese compared to that in normal English, both in literal sense and in rhetorical sense. Some examples besides 'entropy' include 'projection', 'differential', 'catalyst', etc.
    – NS.X.
    Jan 11, 2016 at 0:06

5 Answers 5


From my experience, yes, humorously, among more scientifically sophisticated people. However, as you pointed out, since 熵 is a one-syllable word, so used by itself it can be unintelligible. Usually people make a sentence out of it to indicate which shang character they are referring to. For example, 人走不关灯,得多产生多少熵呀!

  • Would you agree (as other people on this page have suggested) that saying 热力学的熵 would be a quick way to avoid ambiguity?
    – hurdsean
    Jan 11, 2016 at 11:45
  • No. Those who understand you know what you are saying, those who don't will not do however you clarify it. Just as you won't say "I hate entropy defined in second law of thermodynamics"
    – jf328
    Jan 11, 2016 at 14:18
  • @jf328 Yes, with regard to people that don't know about entropy, that's what I thought as well. However, isn't Fang Jing suggesting that even among those in the know, a hint might be preferable? If so, then to state my question more clearly, would 热力学的熵 be a (short) way to avoid ambiguity among those who could recognize shāng as 熵?
    – hurdsean
    Jan 11, 2016 at 14:45
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    @hurdsean, with context, it's usually not needed (as shown in Fang Jing's answer, mentioning wasted lighting is enough). Without context, you are right. For example: 今天我们学习了熵 (We studied entropy today) can be ambiguous in speaking (unambiguous in writing), and can be clarified by 今天我们学习了热力学的熵
    – jf328
    Jan 11, 2016 at 16:48
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    hurdsean- I don't think I've heard anyone saying 热力学的熵 all together in spoken Chinese, when used in the ways we have been discussing in this question. It sounds a little bit redundant, and given the context, usually unnecessary. I agree with @jf328's comments.
    – tvk
    Jan 11, 2016 at 18:01

As a Chinese, I saw 熵 only in my Chemistry class. Don't use that in your daily life, or people get confused by what you say. If you are talking with a people with low education, he or she won't even know this word.


Your question really has two parts:

  1. Would people generally understand the word 熵 shang in spoken language?

I don't know about this word in particular, but generally the only one-character words that are commonly spoken tend to be very common, familiar words on the level of 看, 貓, 走 and the like. More unusual words tend to be introduced in a multi-syllable form, unless the word is expected in the context. Which brings us to the second part of your question:

  1. Will an uncommon Chinese word be understood when spoken out of context?

Generally, no. Especially when people know you're not a native speaker, they're more likely to assume you mean one of the more common variants of shāng. You could explain that you mean the 熵 you talk about in your physics work (“熵!就是热力学的熵!”, assuming you and the Chinese people you're talking to work in science). Or you could use one of the numerous Chinese expressions that mean something like "things fall apart". But your intention of jokingly using the scientific term "entropy" on its own is unlikely to work in Chinese.


This is a very recent word in Chinese. One claim I've seen is 1923, but I seriously doubt that it was used in any real publications prior to WWII, and it is still not listed in a number of major dictionaries.

In the spoken language, at best it might be understood as 'quotient' 商. This is of course the origin of the word, with the 火 added to indicate it is the thermodynamic kind of quotient (!). This bizarre approach to translation renders it pretty much useless in the spoken language, since the 火 is not pronounced, and I am willing to bet that even the written form will be unrecognizable to a majority of China's educated population.

If one really wants to talk about it, perhaps one might speak of 熱力(學的)熵. Although it certainly could be used in conversation without this circumlocution, it would have to be introduced in a rational way. The jokey use of 熵 is simply not a part of modern spoken Chinese, at least not yet.

  • I think it really depends on the circle of people. My close Chinese friends are typically well-educated yet non-physicists. When I jokingly refer to 熵 they usually understand it, given that I provide the context (as in the example in my answer.)
    – tvk
    Jan 11, 2016 at 18:06
  • From my point of view, any word that can trace back to the World Wars period is old enough. I'm not sure which Chinese dictionary you're referring to, but I'd be a bit surprised if 熵 is not in any of the major dictionaries intended for the educated public in 2016.
    – tvk
    Jan 11, 2016 at 18:11
  • It is not in the on-line version of the 中華民國教育部《重編國語辭典修訂本》. In terms of use of the character in everyday life, it certainly is not commonly used. For instance, although it is included in the big5 character set, it is not available in the Microsoft 注音 IME for traditional Chinese. You have to use the 倉頡 IME to type it (FYCB).
    – wpt
    Jan 11, 2016 at 23:33
  • 熵 is listed in John DeFrancis' ABC Dictionary. 熵 is the counterpart of entropy on Wikipedia. 熵 is also listed in my Chinese-Japanese dictionary of 1994.
    – hurdsean
    Jan 12, 2016 at 11:27
  • @wpt OK I'm not quite familiar with the status quo in the Taiwanese community. At least in mainland China where simplified Chinese characters are used, I bet one would be hard-pressed to find a major modern IME that does not has 熵. I just checked a 2004 edition of 新华字典, the single most popular pocket-sized dictionary in China, and 熵 is in there. There could be a difference across the Taiwan Strait though, from what you described.
    – tvk
    Jan 13, 2016 at 1:12

Could you possibly be talking about the English word "atrophy" which in Dutch might be "entropy"? Atrophy is a medical term to describe a muscle losing its bulk, and therefore its functionality, through prolonged lack of use.

  • No, not at all.
    – hurdsean
    Feb 15, 2016 at 6:09

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