I was thinking about 氡, radon recently. The pronunciation: dōng (dong1) seems to suggest that sound was borrowed from the ending of the English word. Wiktionary corroborates this theory:


Borrowed from English radon.

This is quite interesting because most loanwords seem to come from the beginning of words, if anything, and especially not the middle or the end of a word. You might expect some form of: rui, for instance, for radon.

What other loan words exist where the sound was borrowed from the middle/end of the original word?

  • For modern word, it is quite often borrow the sound from the original, but I don't think it is always the case. For instance, "钾" - potassium, any connection?
    – r13
    Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 0:52
  • Well, I've always wondered about 加拿大, definitely missing a K sound!!
    – Pedroski
    Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 1:39
  • 2
    鉀 originates from the neo-Latin for potassium, kalium. The resemblance of 鉀 to kalium in Cantonese is stronger. The same goes for 加拿大.
    – L Parker
    Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 2:11
  • @L Parker Unfortunately, the Cantonese, while is one of the very important speaking language in China, has never been in the mainstream of the Chinese language, nor been the official language. Please let me know, if I am wrong.
    – r13
    Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 17:35
  • 1
    Virtually all attested southern Chinese varieties [non-Mandarin, starting from the south of Zhejiang 浙江] start with /k/ (corresponding to the sound of Pinyin/Jyutping/Foochow Romanized g-) for both 加 and 鉀 (甲).
    – Michaelyus
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 21:50

2 Answers 2

  1. This article (p. 60-61) provided the reason 氡 (radon) is based on the latter syllable. In summary, this was the result of an argument between Chinese chemists appointed to element naming in the early 20th century. Those that argued radon should not be given a pronunciation similar to 鐳 (radium) so as to avoid confusion won. The lost faction argued enter image description here reflects the origin of radon from the alpha decay of radium better.

  2. Wikipedia argues 砷 (arsenic) and 鋁 (aluminium) came from the second syllable of the English equivalent. 碘 (iodine) came from the third.

  3. Another example I can think of is the Taiwanese translation of Al-Qaeda, 蓋達組織 (not a character per se). That is so because 'al-' is an Arabic definite article ('the') and Chinese does not have a grammatical equivalent, therefore omitted. However, the translation 阿爾蓋達組織 is still perfectly valid.

  • 1
    Very interesting! I wish such decisions had been made for English as well. :)
    – Olle Linge
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 12:20

The most famous example, I believe, is 美利堅。America used to be transliterated to 亞美利堅。Pretty soon, it is shortened to 美利堅。亞 was dropped. It is further shortened to just 美, 美洲、美國。

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