Word Stories: Mandarin

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast on the origin of the word “mandarin”.

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Hello and welcome to the English with Stephen podcast. My name’s Stephen Greene and I am your host.

In the past, we have talked about how English is the most popular second language in the world, but not the most common first language. The most widely spoken language is in fact Mandarin Chinese with over 750 million speakers.

But why is it called Mandarin? Where did the word “mandarin” come from? Spoiler alert: “mandarin” is not actually a Chinese word. How else is the word “mandarin” be used? And how on earth did a small orange come to be called a “mandarin”?

Answers to all those questions, and maybe some others, after this short break.

Regular listeners will know that this is where I ask you to do something for me. Sometimes, I ask you to go to my site EnglishwithStephen.com to find past episodes and transcripts. At other times I tell you about my social media and invite you to find me on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Other times I ask you to give me a 5-star rating or write a review on your podcast platform to help spread the word about this podcast. Today, I have just done all three. So you choose, do one, do two or do all three of them.

And now, back to Mandarin.

The word “mandarin” comes to English from Portuguese. In the 15 and 1600s, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to regularly travel all over the world, from Brazil to China. They were masters at navigating the seas and were able to use this expertise to trade with different people and countries.

In China, they set up a colony in Macau, in the south of China. They used this port as an entrance point to the whole of China. They needed to negotiate trade pacts and treaties with the Chinese Emperor, but of course the Emperor himself was too busy and important to actually do any of the negotiations.

Instead, the Portuguese spoke to the officers of the Chinese bureaucracy. These civil servants were the people who really ran the vast empire of China.

As well as a Chinese colony, the Portuguese had also set up shop in modern day Malaysia. The Malaysian language had the word “menteri”, which means “minister” or “counsellor”. The Portuguese added the suffix “im” at the end and started to use the word “menterim” to describe any high-level civil servant that they needed to negotiate with all over southeast Asia.

Over time, the word “menterim” changed to its modern “mandarim”.

You also need to remember that China is a huge empire, with many different nationalities and languages. The civil servants resembled this variety and also came from all over the empire with many different languages and dialects. However, once they arrived in Beijing, they needed to all speak the same language. It would be totally inefficient if they were speaking their native language and had to translate everything all the time. But which Chinese language should they choose?

There was no official decision, but basically, the dialect of Chinese around Beijing became the basis for a new language spoken just by the important bureaucrats of the Chinese civil service. They added new words and some regional variations to the basic Beijing dialect. Anyone who wished to do business with the government needed to do business with the bureaucrats. This meant you had to learn the language of the mandarins.

For many years, most European travellers to China had to use the Portuguese port of Macau to gain entry. While they were in Macau they learned that the word for the top civil servants was “mandarin” and they also learned that these mandarins had their own language, which was unimaginatively called “Mandarin”. This word then spread from Portuguese to English, German, Italian and many other languages besides.

Just as European travellers needed to learn the language of the civil servants if they wanted to do get anything done, over time the Chinese people realised that they also needed to speak the official language. Over many generations this Mandarin became the most commonly used language in China. In fact, one of the places that doesn’t call the official language of China “Mandarin” is China. There, it is called “common language”, but I will not embarrass myself by trying to give the Chinese pronunciation of the word.

In British culture, we can still talk about the top civil servants of the UK government as mandarins. It often has a slightly negative connotation, creating the idea of a club of men who are running the country to their own desires and not those of the elected politicians.

It wasn’t just the Chinese civil servants and their language that were called mandarin. It seems to have been used in much the same was as “Chinese” might be used today to describe lots of different things that come from China. There is a mandarin duck, a mandarin fish and even a mandarin snake. I will post some pictures of these animals on my site, and believe me they are worth looking at. All of them are very colourful and beautiful animals.

A Mandarin Duck

Portrait of Mandarin Fish Synchiropus splendidus, Banda Neira Island, Indonesia

Mandarin snake

My favourite mandarin is the mandarin fruit. It is a small, orange citrus fruit that I just love as a juice for my breakfast. It resembles an orange, but is smaller. The mandarin fruit originated in China and Japan and is still an important cultural symbol in some areas. It got its English name because the bright orange colour of the fruit was supposed to be similar to the bright orange colour of the clothes the Chinese civil servants used to wear.

That’s all from me for today. I hope you have found the story of the word “mandarin” interesting. If you have, remember you can find all the past episodes on my site EnglishwithStephen.com, or on any podcast platform. And please, give the podcast a 5-star rating as it really helps other people to find the podcast. It only takes a second and it makes the world of difference.

Thanks so much and I hope to speak to you again next week.

2 comments

  1. What a helpful podcast! I have never heard of the word “Mandarin”, but today I really understood this story through your “word story”, thank you very much for that, hope to see you soon to read more about similar word stories.

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