Archive for the ‘Monday Mandarin Meanings’ Category

To resume the Monday Manadarin Meanings series, I present:


This is zhīyè yǐ, the Mandarin Chinese word for the weaver ant. “Weaver ant” is the common name for the ant genus Oecophylla, so called because of the magnificent nests they construct in the trees by binding together leaves using silk produced from their own larvae:

"Oecophylla smaragdina"

(Image from Alex Wild)

The Chinese word for this interesting ant is rather straightforward, with 织叶 (zhīyè) meaning “weaver” and 蚁 () meaning “ant” (of course). However, breaking down “织叶” further, we see that “weaver” here is specifically referring to “weaving leaves”: “织” means “to weave” and “叶” means “leaf”. So, yet again, we see that the Chinese common name for an ant is more biologically informative than its English counterpart.

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Here in China, the Jewish holiday of Passover has arrived. So today’s entry for Monday Mandarin Meanings has nothing to do with insects, but instead relates to bread:


This is wújiàobǐng, the Mandarin word for matzo (generally pronounced “maht-suh”, for all you Gentiles out there). Matzo is unleavened bread, or bread that has not risen, typically meaning that it has no yeast. This is the cracker-looking bread eaten on Passover to commemorate the Jewish people’s flight from bondage in Egypt, during which there was not enough time for the bread to rise. Reasonably, the Chinese word translates into something like “unleavened flatbread” (“无” is “no” or “not”, “酵” is “leaven”, and “饼” is the word often used for flat breads, pancakes, etc.).

I purchased three boxes of matzo from Taobao, the Chinese version of, and, remarkably, they arrived from Hong Kong in three days. It is a non-kosher, Kupiec brand matzo with “provence herbs”, but it does the trick.

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For today’s Monday Mandarin Meanings, I asked my school liaison (in China), Tan Lingzhao, to tell me an idiom with “蚂蚁” (ants) in it. She gave me:

Reguo shang de mayi

This is “rè guō shàng de mǎyǐ“, or “ants on a hot pan”. Quite reasonably, this phrase is used for somebody who is very anxious. I normally break down the meaning of the characters, often with lighthearted interpretations, but here they are mostly straightforward. “热锅” is “pan”, “上” is “on”, and “蚂蚁”, as already mentioned, is “ant” or “ants”. But 的 is really exciting! It’s a grammar particle.


Reguo shang de mayi art


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I will mark the return of the Monday Mandarin Meanings series with a fun bug:

Yang chunke

This is yǎngchūnkē, the Mandarin word for a backswimmer (family Notonectidae). The English name of this bug gives you some indication of its natural behavior – it swims backwards, i.e. upside down:

(Image from here)

As you can see, its hind legs are modified into paddle-like tools very useful for its swimming technique. I collected some of these a few years ago as part of the Biology of Insects class at the UM Biological Station.

Anyways, the first character in the Chinese word for the insect is 仰 (yǎng), which means “to face upward”. The Chinese word for something is often more descriptive than the corresponding English one, and this is no exception. “Facing upward” is more precise, in my opinion, than “backswimmer”. The second two characters, 蝽科 (chūnkē), actually mean Pentatomidae, which is a different taxonomic family in the same order, Hemiptera – the “true bugs”. So the full name, 仰蝽科 (yǎngchūnkē), is essentially “Facing upward Pentatomidae-like bug”.

UPDATE: In the comments, “biozcw” pointed out that “仰蝽” is actually an abbreviation of “仰泳蝽”, which is literally “backwimming”, or “backstroke”. My interpretations for Monday Mandarin Meanings are usually intended to be just for fun, but it’s always nice having a more accurate interpretation!

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Like last week, today’s Monday Mandarin Meanings will be for a particular ant genus:


This is dàchǐměngyǐ, the name for Odontomachus, the most well-known genus of trap-jaw ants. Měngyǐ (猛蚁) is, I believe, the general word for any ponerine species (i.e. a species in the subfamily Ponerinae), but also means “firece ant”. “Dàchǐ” (大齿) means “big tooth”, making this genus the “big-toothed fierce ants”. Why does this name apply? Well, let me show you:

Azteca alfari Cecropia ants guard their tree zealously against intruders. Working together, they surround and immobilize their opponents such as this trap-jaw ant by pinning down their appendages.   Gamboa, Panama
(Image from Alex Wild)

The ant on the left is the big-toothed fierce ant, in case you couldn’t tell. Besides its predatory behavior, Odontamachus is also known for a rather interesting acrobatic ability: they smash their mandibles (mouth parts) against a surface to go flying backwards up to 50 times their own body length. Here is a wonderful video depicting the behavior:

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This is a previously scheduled post, as I am currently in transit to China for a collections trip, and I do not know what internet and/or WordPress access I will have. As part of the preparations for the trip, I translated several Mandarin taxonomic keys for species known from the region, using my knowledge of Chinese, my experience with ant taxonomy, and, of course, Google Translate. During this process, I’ve become acquainted with the Chinese names for various genera. So, for today’s Mandarin Monday Meanings, I will discuss xiǎojiāyǐ:


This is the word for the cosmopolitan genus Monomorium. Here’s a picture of the ants carrying grains of sand, taken, as usual, by Alex Wild:

Monomorium sp. workers carrying sand grains from an excavation deep in their nest.  Archbold Biological Station, Florida, USA

Obviously, these ants are quite small. They can also be house pests, most infamously Monomorium pharaonis, the pharaoh ant. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that the Mandarin word for the genus is, literally, “little house ant” (xiǎo = small, jiā = house, = ant). The name makes the species sound rather endearing – who wouldn’t want a little house ant to visit their home every once in a while? One species’s name , “Monomorium minimum“, is also pretty fun to type, as it only requires a single use of the left hand!

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Last week, I discussed insect poop tea. This week we have something more disgusting:


This is huángfěn chóng, the Mandarin word for the mealworm (the larval stage of the beetle Tenebrio molitor). The last character, chóngis the basic character for “insect”, as we’ve seen before (e.g. here and here). It is therefore the first two characters which carry the interesting meaning. Huáng is “yellow”, and fěn is “powder” or “noodles made from flour”. I prefer the latter definition, as “yellow noodle insect” make sense. I’ll spare y’all the pictures, but let’s just say it could be hard to distinguish huángfěn chóng from the rest of the pasta on your plate. However, they are apparently high in protein, so accidentally consuming a mealworm or two may simply confer nice health benefits.

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