Monthly Archives: December 2015

Chinese: the meaning of some place names


Author: Laitr Keiows via Wikipedia Commons Osmanthus fragrans tree, also called sweet or fragrant olive

Today’s blog post is taking us to China (中国  Zhōngguó, land of the middle), and to the meaning of some place names when their characters are translated literally.

北京 Beijing = northern capital

南京 Nánjīng = southern capital, having served as capital in the Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as of the Republic of China founded in 1912

上海 Shànghǎi = (city) at the sea

重庆 Chóngqìng = double celebration

福建 Fújiàn = the blessed establishment, the foundation of good fortune

青海 Qīnghǎi = the blue-green sea, named for Lake Qinghai 

河北 Héběi = north of the river, referring to its location north of the Yellow River or 黄河 Huáng Hé

湖南 Húnán = south of the lake, referring to its location south of Lake Dongting or 洞庭湖 Dòngtíng Hú

湖北 Húběi = north of the lake, referring to Lake Dongting or 洞庭湖 Dòngtíng Hú

河南 Hénán = south of the river, referring to its location south of the Yellow River or 黄河 Huáng Hé

桂林 Guìlín = forest of fragrant olive (Osmanthus fragrans)

杭州 Hángzhōu = capital of the Hang province

苏州 Sūzhōu = “the province that is awake”; the character for Su in its name is a contraction that actually refers to nearby Mount Gusu 姑蘇山 Gūsūshān; the su refers to the mint Perilla frutescens, also known as shiso

四川 Sichuan = four rivers; the name of the province is an abbreviation of Sì Chuānlù (四川路), or “Four circuits of rivers”, which is itself abbreviated from Chuānxiá Sìlù (川峡四路), or “Four circuits of rivers and gorges”

贵州 Guìzhōu = the precious or noble province

山西 Shānxī = west of the mountains, refering to its location west of the Taihang Mountains or 太行山 Tàiháng Shān

安徽 Ānhuī = the quiet or safe emblem, actually named for two cities in southern Anhui, Anqing and Huizhou

云南 Yúnnán = “the region south of the clouds”, is actually named for the 云岭  Yúnlǐng or “Cloudy Peaks” mountains, which run north and south of Yunnan

香港 Xiānggǎng or Hong Kong = Fragrant Harbour

九龍 Kowloon/Gau2 Lung 4 in Cantonese= Nine dragons

澳门 Àomén, better known as Macao = the Bay Gate

广东 Guǎngdōng / Gwong2 Dung1 in Cantonese; Canton province = the wide East

台北 Táiběi = North of Taiwan


Focus on culture: Jól in Iceland


800px-GrassodenhäuserToday’s blog post will take us to Iceland and to some special Icelandic Jól (or Christmas) customs. Jól is based on the Old Norse religious festival called Yule.

Jól is celebrated on 24 December, but the Jól season includes events over several weeks: Aðventa (advent, the four Sundays preceding jól), aðfangadagskvöld (Yule eve), jóladagur (Yule day), annar í jólum (Boxing day), gamlársdagur (old years day), nýársdagur (New Year’s Day) and þrettándinn (the thirteenth, and final day of the season).

The main event is Aðfangadagskvöld or Christmas Eve, when people meet for a Yule meal and exchange gifts. However, on the 13 days before December 24 the Yule lads or jólasveinar come into the towns from the mountains to give children that have behaved well small gifts. These they leave in shoes that have been placed near the window or on the window sill during the thirteen nights before Christmas Eve. Every night, a different Yule lad comes to visit, leaving either small gifts for well-behaved children, or a rotten potato if the child was naughty.

The Yule Lads, jólasveinarnir or jólasveinar, are figures from Icelandic folkore who in modern times have taken on the role of an Icelandic version of Santa Claus. There are thirteen jólasveinar. Originally, they were portrayed as mischievous pranksters who would steal from or harass the rural population, but in modern times they have been taking on a more benevolent role comparable to that of Santa Claus. They either wear late medieval Icelandic clothing or Santa Claus costumes. The jólasveinar are traditionally said to be the sons of the mountain-dwelling trolls Grýla and Leppalúði, and are often depicted with the Jólakötturinn or Yule cat.

The jólasveinar have descriptive names conveying their mode of operation and each day, a new lad arrives:

December 12  Stekkjarstaur (‘Sheep-Cote Clod’), harasses sheep but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs; leaves Dec.25

December 13 Giljagaur (‘Gully Gawk’), hides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal some milk; leaves Dec. 26

December 14 Stúfur (‘Stubby’), unusually short, steals pans to eat the crust left on them; leaves Dec. 27

December 15 Þvörusleikir (‘Spoon-licker’), steals Þvörur (a type of wooden spoon – þvara- with a long handle) to lick them, is extremely thin due to malnutrition; leaves Dec. 28

December 16 Pottaskefill (‘Pot-scraper’), steals leftovers from pots; leaves Dec. 29

December 17 Askasleikir (‘Bowl-licker’), hides under beds waiting for someone to put down their ‘askur‘ (a wooden bowl with a lid), which he then steals; leaves Dec. 30

December 18 Hurðaskellir (‘door-slammer’), likes to slam doors, especially at night; leaves Dec. 31

December 19 Skyrgámur (‘Skyr-gobbler’), loves skyr (an Icelandic cultured dairy product which has the consistency of strained yoghurt, but a much milder taste); leaves Jan. 1

December 20 Bjúgnakrækir (‘sausage-swiper’), hides in the rafters and snatches sausages that were being smoked; leaves Jan. 2

December 21 Gluggagægir (‘window-peeper’), a voyeur who would look through windows in search of things to steal; leaves Jan. 3

December 22 Gáttaþefur (‘doorway-sniffer’), has an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate laufabrauð (leaf-bread, an Icelandic specialty); leaves Jan. 4

December 23 Ketkrókur (‘meat-hook’), uses a meat hook to steal meat; leaves Jan. 5

December 24 Kertasníkir (‘candle-stealer’), follows children in order to steal their candles (which in olden days were made of tallow and thus edible); leaves Jan. 6

The Yule lads are often associated with the  Jólakötturinn or Jólaköttur, or Yule Cat, a monster from Icelandic folklore, which is a huge and vicious cat said to lurk about the snowy countryside during Christmas time and eat people who have not received any new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve.  The Yule Cat is the pet of the giantess Grýla and her sons, the Yule Lads. In former times, the threat of being eaten by the Yule Cat was used by farmers as an incentive for their workers to finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas. Those who participated in the work would get new clothes as a reward, but those who did not would get nothing and would therefore be preyed upon by the cat. The cat has alternatively been interpreted as merely eating away the food of those without new clothes during Christmas feasts. The tradition has its origin in the 19th century.

On January 6, Icelanders celebrate Þrettándinn (the thirteenth of jól), the last day of Christmas. It is celebrated with elf bonfires and elf dances. Families come together to have dinner and light fireworks. People also go into a corner of their houses and shout out the following folklore poem to drive out evil spirits and invite good spirits and elves:

Komi þeir sem koma vilja (those come who want)
Fari þeir sem fara vilja (those go who want)
Mér og mínum að meinalausu (neither hurting myself nor my family)

Another Icelandic jól custom is the preparation of laufabrauð or ‘Leaf-bread’, which a kind of very thin pancake with a diameter of about 15 to 20 cm (6 to 8 inches), which is decorated with leaf-like, geometric patterns and fried briefly in hot fat or oil. Here is a  video showing how it is made:

Here is a recipe for Laufabrauð (‘leaf bread’):

Vocabulary: some fruits in Persian and Tajiki

Today’s blog post will take us to Central Asia, namely to Iran and Tajikistan. Both Persian (or Farsi) and Tajiki are closely related, and can be considered dialects of the same language. Persian is written with the Arabic script from right to left, while Tajiki uses the Cyrillic alphabet and is written from left to right.

Here is the vocabulary for some fruits in both Persian and Tajiki:

farsi fruits


Icelandic: Different words for snow


Author: Andreas Tille via Wikipedia Commons Eyjafjallajökull

Since it is now winter in the Northern hemisphere, today’s blogpost will take us to the very North of Europe, namely to Iceland (or Ísland), and  I will share some Icelandic words for different types of snow. 🙂

snjór or snær = snow

hjarn = crust of snow, or snow that does not melt in summer

lausamjöll = powder snow

mjöll and ný snævi = new-fallen snow

krap = slush

fönn = drifted heap of snow, snow-wreath, or snow that does not melt in summer


Author: Sb2s3 via Wikipedia Commons

There are also different words for different types of snowfall in Icelandic:

snjókoma or fannkoma = snowfall

snjómugga = a small snowfall

hundslappadrífa = very heavy snowfall with large snowflakes in calm weather

kafald or kóf = thick fall of snow

ofanbylar = snowfall in a wind

skafrenningur = drifting snow

hraglandi = sleet, or cold drizzling shower

bylur or hríð = snowstorm

drífa = snow-drift

él = a sudden fall of snow or hail, or hailstorm

fjúk = drift, drifting snow-storm