Night owls, code monkeys, and siege lions. 代码猴子和攻城狮。

Today I want to talk about a few words that are curiously similar between English and Chinese, and one word that is just curious.

In English, we tend to call people who are active late into the night, night owls. In parts of China, (small) owls are called 夜猫子 yèmaōzi, literally “night catty”. (I don’t know which parts of China would that be, but I guess it’s northern China.) More often, it’s figuratively used to refer to people who stay up late – the same as English night owls. The Contemporary Chinese Dictionary also offers another word for late sleepers: 夜游神, literally “nigh-roaming god”, refers people who wander at night.

英语中对晚上还在活动的人叫做 night owls 夜猫头鹰。中国某地的方言 (北方吧?) 管猫头鹰叫做 “夜猫子”,也用来指晚上很晚睡觉的人——和英文night owls 一样。对这种人,现代汉语词典记载了另外一个可以用的词:夜游神,比喻晚上游荡的人。

Also in English, you might know people who program as “code monkeys”, invoking the image of a million monkeys banging on the keyboard. (Wiktionary editor Equinox notes this word is “slang, sometimes derogatory”. Of course, it can also be used self-deprecatingly.) Chinese has the perfect translation for this phrase: 程序猿 chéngxùyúan, pronounced exactly the same as 程序员 chéngxùyúan “programmer”. However, instead of using the character 员, that marks a person’s occupation or membership, as in 驾驶员 driver, 服务员 server or 演员 actor, instead the character for apes, 猿, is used, making it “programmape”. (Well, humans are apes…)

英语里,有时也称写程序的人为 code monkeys “代码猴子”,不由得让人想起百万猴子敲打键盘的形象。(维○词典编辑 Equinox 对此词的注释是 “俚语,有时贬义”。当然也可以用来自嘲。) 中文对这一词有一个绝妙的翻译:“程序猿”,发音与“程序员”完全相同;但是将驾驶员、服务员、演员中表示职位或团体的“员”一字,换成了“猿”。

Sometimes typos also make new words: one jocular name for engineers is 攻城狮 gōngchéngshī “fortress-attacking lion” or “siege lion”, again having the exact pronunciation as 工程师 gōngchéngshī “engineer”. The story is like this: Tencent is the company that developed the hugely popular IM program QQ (800 million users) and WeChat (300 million users – about the total population of United States) among other services. One of its microblog accounts posted that one of its security guards managed to go through rounds of interviews, and became an engineer at its research institute. A rare event in itself, and a notable accomplishment indeed. But instead of 工程师, the post coined the word 攻城狮, or siege lion. And the rest is Internet history.