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Li (2001) claims that:

Motorola, for example, is pronounced as “me de lou la” in Cantonese, which means “nothing to take”.

Not very good branding, if you're trying to sell phones.


CantoDict, though, gives the jyutping of 摩托羅拉 as:

mo1 tok3 lo4 laai1

The Yale spelling would seem to be something like:

mō tok lòh lāai

While, Sidney Lau would be:

moh1 tok3 loh4 laai1

I'm struggling to match Li's written pronunciation with the "prestigious" "standard" Cantonese variant. Although, it could have very well originated from any topolectical flavor of Cantonese, albeit unspecified - but that would make it much harder for any layman to piece together.


I would like his story to be true, as that would make for a quite humorous mishap.

Li has even been referenced multiple times repeating the same message. The book The Economic Relations Between Asia and Europe: Organisation, Trade and Investment quotes Li as saying:

Motorola is pronounced 'mi de lou la', which in Cantonese means 'nothing to take'.

Here 摩 has now changed from "me," in Li's paper, to "mi."


I can't seem to be able to add the pieces together to come to the same answer. How does Motorola sound like "nothing to take" in Cantonese?

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  • I want to add on a comparison of a similar thing that happened with car brand nova in spanish speaking places, as the brand name is very similar to "doesn't go". they indeed did not do well there.
    – zagrycha
    Commented Apr 11 at 3:15

1 Answer 1

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From Original to transliteration:

Motorola --> 摩托羅拉 /mo1 tok3 lo4 laai1/

From transliteration to sound-alike phrase:

mo1 tok3 lo4 laai1 --> 冇得攞啦 /mou5 dak1 lo2 laa1/

  • 冇得 = can't (as in 冇得揮)

  • = take

  • - final particle that emphasizes a current situation

Similar example:

From original to translation:

荷蘭銀行支票 --> Holland Bank check

From translation to sound-alike phrase:

Holland Bank check --> 好撚笨柒 /hou2 nan2 ban6 cat6/ (damn dumb prick)

Edit:

A more funny and closer sound-alike of 摩托羅拉 would be 冇得撈啦 /mou5 dak1 ou1 laa1/ (lost a job/ lost a way to earn a living)

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  • Is this a well-known thing, i.e.: the play on words of Cantonese Motorola?
    – Mou某
    Commented Apr 10 at 11:28
  • word plays are all unofficial slang. Only a few can make it to the dictionary, the Motorola one is not a commonly known word-play. I just heard it for the first time, but I can still easily match the twisted meaning to the sound-alike words.
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Apr 10 at 11:35
  • Because Cantonese have so many Tones, it is possible to transliterate everything from every language and make it "sound" like something else, in most cases in a humorous or insulting way. Take a legitimate name "Michael See" In Cantonese it could be transliterated to sound like 賣雞屎, (maai6 gai1 si2), meaning "to sell chicken shit" Commented Apr 10 at 11:37
  • @Wayne Cheah Michael See's transliteration is closer to 賣尻屎 than 賣雞屎
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Apr 10 at 11:40
  • I think 賣尻屎 is maai6 haau1 si2? My view is the "Ke" in Michael is closer to 雞? Anyway it still sounds funny either way as 尻 means "buttocks" Commented Apr 10 at 11:46

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