Chinese compound nouns are one of the interesting parts of the language, which sometimes can be confusing for beginners. One good example is compound nouns, in which the first part is an adjective.


lǎo​hǔ=tiger, which literally means "old tiger"

xiāng​jiāo=banana, which literally means "fragrant banana"

dà​suàn=garlic, which literally means "big garlic"

My question is, how should one say "an old tiger, a fragrant banana, a big garlic", while these words have adjectives built into them?


  • "a big garlic" isn't really idiomatic English, as garlic usually comes in cloves, but can also refer to the plant. Do you mean a big clove of garlic, or a big garlic plant? Or, both? I think the translation in Chinese would be different for these two cases. Jun 24, 2021 at 22:56

3 Answers 3


lǎo​hǔ=tiger (虎), which literally means "old tiger (老虎)".

xiāng​jiāo=banana (蕉), which literally means "fragrant banana (香蕉)".

dà​suàn=garlic (蒜), which literally means "big garlic (大蒜)".

I consider 老虎, 香蕉 and 大蒜 should be categorized as the "descriptive noun", that is a name (noun) assigned to serve a purpose.

老虎 = 虎 Both are noun means "tiger". In it, "老" is not describing the age of the tiger, thus it shouldn't be considered an adjective. For example, a puppy/young tiger is called "小老虎" (in here 小 is an adjective), and an aged tiger is described as "上了年紀的老虎" (in here "上了年紀的" is the adjective).

I am not aware of the exact reason the name was given, but I think "老虎" was referred to the mutually grown tiger that was considered as "猛獸", which was an animal to be afraid of. Thus, it started by the elders using the phrase "老虎來了" to scare the little kids into behaving. Similar to the use of the term "巫婆 (an old female witch)" rather than "巫女 (a female witch)", "老虎" is a much scarier name than "虎", which sometimes depicted as a beautiful, cute animal on paintings and, on decorations such as on child dresses (虎頭鞋, 虎頭帽), symbolized health and strength.

"香蕉" is a type of "蕉" that has many varieties, such as "芭蕉" or "美人蕉". It is correct that it was named due to its fragrant smell. In here, "香" seems an adjective, but I would say it is the necessary addition to distinguish "香蕉" from other varieties of the same biological family (type). So, I consider "香蕉" as a noun.

I don't consider "大" in "大蒜" is an adjective, as it is not concerning the size (big), but, similar to "香蕉", was added to "蒜" to distinguish itself from the varieties of the garlic family, such as "蒜頭", "蒜苗"...etc. So I would consider "大蒜" as a noun.

There are English examples of the descriptive nouns, such as "green bean", "roast coffee" and "Franch fry"...

Edit On "how to say,

an old tiger: 一頭(隻)"上了年紀的"老虎.

a fragrant banana 一根(隻)"很香的"香蕉.

a big garlic 一顆(粒)"相當大的"大蒜.

Note, words in quotes are adjectives.



how should one say "an old tiger, a fragrant banana, a big garlic",

an old tiger - 一頭年邁的老虎/ 一頭年老的老虎

a fragrant banana - 一根芬芳的香蕉

a big garlic - 一大棵大蒜

for compound word nouns, it sounds more natural to use compound word adjectives instead of single-character adjectives, 一頭老的老虎,一根香的香蕉,一棵大的大蒜 are all grammatical but sounds strange,

老(old)老虎(tiger), 香(fragrant)香蕉(banana), 大(big)大蒜(garlic) are theoretically grammatical, but using the same adjective in the adjective part of a compound word is just confusing, people might mistake it as a reduplicated adjective (e.g. 大大的 蒜; 香香的 蕉)


From my answer to this question How would you say "X, the Y" in Chinese?

Domestic animals like dog, cat, horse, cow, pig, goat, chicken, and duck are often described with a single syllable word in Chinese:


There are few exceptions, For example, a snake is not a domestic animal, but it is still being called with the single syllable word 蛇

For other animals, it is customary to use two syllables words to refer to them.

For example:

Tiger (虎), is always called 老虎

Elephant (象) is always called 大象

Frog (蛙) is always called 青蛙

As for banana and garlic, we call them 香蕉 (banana) and 大蒜(garlic) basically for the same reason

When an adjective and a noun form a compound word, the adjective is still functioning as an adjective, but the compound word itself is a noun

  • I downvoted as this is not really related to the question. Jun 24, 2021 at 18:12
  • @goPlayerJuggler Edited my answer. Didn't read the question clearly.
    – Tang Ho
    Jun 24, 2021 at 20:05
  • Now I'm upvoting it as it gives useful info. Also, I hadn't seen 年迈 before. Cheers Jun 24, 2021 at 22:47

how should one say "an old tiger, a fragrant banana, a big garlic",

an old tiger:一头年老的老虎
a fragrant banana:一根香香的香蕉
a big garlic:一头大大的大蒜

  • Thanks for your answer. But why are 香 and 大 doubled? Is "一头大大蒜" or "一根香香蕉" incorrect? Jun 24, 2021 at 8:12
  • I think many languages, if not all languages, probably your own language too, double adjectives like this. "a big big dog, a tiny tiny kitten". It's a way of saying "very big, very tiny"
    – Pedroski
    Jun 24, 2021 at 22:42

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