From: VACSC00C@VAX.CSUN.EDU (snopes)
Subject: Female horse fastened with wax
Date: 15 Jun 1993 18:28:54 -0500
The Coca-Cola Company was kind enough to send me material from their archives
concerning their attempts to translate the Coca-Cola name into Chinese. A few
things to bear in mind concerning this UL:
1) The story concerning the alleged mistransliteration of "Coca-Cola"
into Chinese is not, as many people believe, of recent origin.
Coca-Cola first started marketing their product in (mainland) China in
2) Coca-Cola never actually marketed their product in China using a
trademark that translated into some bizarre expression in Chinese.
Such translations were suggested by others, but were not used.
3) It is the meaning of the Chinese characters being used to spell out
a phonetic phrase that is of importance to this topic, not the meaning
of the spoken phrase "ko-ka-ko-la"
The article below is from the June 1957 issue of "Coca-Cola Overseas", a
Coca-Cola Company in-house publication. I obviously can't reproduce the
Chinese characters that illustrate the article here, so I've done the best
I can otherwise:
Transliteration of Coca-Cola Trademark to Chinese Characters
by H.F. Allman, formerly Legal Counsel in China for
The Coca-Cola Company
The introduction of Coca-Cola in China back in 1928 presented some unusual
problems to the late P.S. ("Red") Lewis and associates. The potential market
was the 500 million Chinese, or a reasonable number thereof, and the large
foreign community in China. For ages the Chinese had been accustomed to
drinking their own delightful green tea -- hot and straight. The social
customs of the foreign communities had long been set by the British -- and who
had ever heard of any Colonial Britisher drinking anything but Scotch, gin, or
"Red" had no delusions that all of these people would suddenly become
customers for Coca-Cola. Nevertheless, he firmly believed that an
ever-increasing number of Chinese would come to like Coca-Cola and -- he was
right. Before long, Coca-Cola appeared at the Shanghai Club and the Country
Club, both utter British strongholds but frequented by Americans in the
community. They convinced the British that Coca-Cola was indeed delicious and
It was obvious that the Coca-Cola trademark had to be transliterated into
Chinese characters in order to reach the millions in the market. Chinese, both
written and spoken, is so completely alien to any European language that the
simplest foreign word or term is a tongue twister to the Chinese.
To find the nearest phonetic equivalent to Coca-Cola required a separate
Chinese character for each of the four syllables. Out of the 40,000 or so
characters there are only about 200 that are pronounced with the sounds we
needed and many of these had to be avoided because of their meaning.
While doing the research for four suitable characters we found that a
number of shopkeepers had also been looking for Chinese equivalents for
"Coca-Cola" but with weird results. Some had made crude signs that were absurd
in the extreme, adopting any old group of characters that sounded remotely like
"Coca-Cola" without giving a thought as to the meaning of the characters used.
One of these homemade signs sounded like "Coca-Cola" when pronounced but the
meaning of the characters came out something like "female horse fastened with
wax" and another "bite the wax tadpole". The character for wax, pronounced La,
appeared in both signs because that was the sound these untutored sign makers
were looking for. Any Chinese reading the signs would recognize them as a
crude attempt to make up an arbitrary phonetic combination.
Although we were primarily concerned with the phonetic equivalent of
"Coca-Cola", we could not ignore the meaning of the characters, individually
and collectively, as the free-wheeling sign makers had done. The closet
Mandarin equivalent to "Coca-Cola" we could find was K'o K'ou K'o Le^. The
aspirates (designated by ') are necessary to approximate the English sounds.
There is no suitable character pronounced La in Chinese so we compromised on
Le^ (joy) which is approximately pronounced ler. We chose the Mandarin because
this dialect is spoken by the great majority of Chinese.
Incidentally, Chinese has to be interpreted into English rather than
translated, and vice versa. All Chinese characters have more than one meaning
but the [four chosen] (depending on context) commonly mean:
K'o = To permit, be able, may, can
K'ou = Mouth, hole, pass, harbor
K'o = as above
Le^ = Joy, to rejoice, to laugh, to be happy
It would seem that the Chinese trademark means to permit mouth to be able
to rejoice -- or something palatable from which one derives pleasure. Not once
in ten million times could a company literally pronounce their trademark in
English and have the sounds mean something desirable in the Chinese language.
The mainland of China is out of the market indefinitely but fortunately
most of the 2,000,000 Chinese in Hong Kong and the 9,000,000 in Taiwan under-
stand Mandarin. Even the 10,000,000 overseas Chinese, who mostly speak
Cantonese or Fukienese, realize that K'o K'ou K'o Le^ is the Mandarin Chinese
trademark for "Coca-Cola".
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