Most chinese words about the name of foreign places are mapped phonetically, such as 华沙, 纽约 or 首尔, I believe. But in some cases it is from the historical incident, such as 旧金山 (I don't know how many are from this rule). Also, Japanese places are directly from the equivalent Japanese characters, such as 东京 or 北海道.

But why is Oxford called 牛津?

Also, in general is there any rule regarding that the word should be mapped phonetically or not?

The related question focuses on who decides the names but I would like to ask how they are decided.

  • see examples for "new" (or other Indo-european versions) rendered phonetically or by meaning (新),chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/22551/… esp。comment#5, also note Cambridge (剑桥, 剑 "phonetic" for "Cam" (etymology in doubt) New York suburbs e.g. Long Island 长岛, 牛ox 津a ford (river crossing)
    – user6065
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 13:44
  • Baidu answer: ( zhidao.baidu.com/question/15440245.html )
    – dan
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 14:02
  • regarding 剑 for Cam in Cambridge (see comment #1) Celtic river name, of obscure origin (etymology online) 2 more NY City Borroughs: 皇后区 Queens, 史泰登岛 Staten Island, translation from Arabic: Ba'ath Party 阿拉伯复兴社会党, Hezbollah 真主党 (Party of God) ,伊朗人民党 Tudeh (Persian) Party (Party of the Masses)
    – user6065
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 21:14
  • reason for mentioning correspondence Cam-剑:剑 seems to be an unusual character for phonetic transcription (cf. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transcription_into_Chinese_characters) (more examples?), therefore it might give some the impression that "Cambridge" really means 剑桥。 提到Cam-剑这样对应的原因就是"剑"字好象在中文译名上甚为罕见(再举几个例子吗)。因此很可能令人以为剑桥,这座英国城市的名字实际上起源于"剑"这样战争武器。
    – user6065
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 12:15

3 Answers 3


This is a rare example of Chinese translation for foreign cities or the similar, there's no rule to govern this type. In short it translates literally the meaning of Oxford: Ox: 公牛, 牛 Ford: ferry, 津,水渡也。——《说文》 Hence, Oxford == 牛津

The meaning of ferry in 津 is not seen often in modern Chinese, here are a few examples: 天津, 天子之津渡。 城阙辅三秦 风烟望五津 ----送杜少府之任蜀川 王勃 无人问津 ---成语

Also two examples of naming: Little Rock, 小石城 Springfield, 春田市, 斯普林菲尔德 also work.

  • Thanks but why is Oxford an exception here? It is near impossible to understand what it means when I encounter the word, without the prior knowledge.
    – Blaszard
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 12:30
  • @user6065 not sure if I understand your question correctly, but in Chinese language (probably like any other languages), a place is often named by its prominence in geography or topography, for example, , wide and flat, , throughway, thus 太原,开原, 张家口,营口 etc. To name a place with 津 follow this suit, for example 孟津, 津市,江津,新津, 延津, when you see the word 牛津, given context, you should know it's referring a place.
    – eN_Joy
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 16:00
  • Yes but it is very difficult to come up with it as Oxford, since it doesn't follow the vast majority of other places which are mapped phonetically I believe.
    – Blaszard
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 21:21
  • While it's less common, I wouldn't consider it rare. For example, Little Rock = 小岩城, Phoenix = 鳳凰城, Silver Spring, MD = 銀泉, Virginia Beach = 維吉尼亞海灘, Buffalo, NY = 水牛城, Atlantic City = 大西洋城, Ocean City = 海洋城, Salt Lake City = 鹽湖城 Commented Feb 27 at 19:38

There is a paper on the history of both the Chinese translations of Oxford and Cambridge.


In short,

‘牛津’ was an invention by James Legge, a sinologist who was appointed the first professor of Chinese at the University of Oxford in 1876.

By the way 牛津 wasn't a freshly made up word. It had other meanings in the past.


牛 - is a cow or ox. Now look at the 津 closely. It has water on the left and hand holding a stick on the right + two horizontal lines belowe the hand, indicating water level. It means poking water with a stick to measure it's depth.

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