a number of shopkeepers had also been looking for Chinese equivalents for Coca-Cola,
but with strange results. Some had made signs that were absurd, adopting any group of
characters that sounded remotely like "Coca-Cola" -- without giving a thought 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 meant “bite the wax tadpole.” That’s
where the myth comes in! So the strange translation was in China, but not because of
The Coca-Cola Company!
The character for “wax,” pronounced “La,” appeared in both signs because that was
the sound the sign makers were looking for. Anyone who knew Chinese would
recognize the signs as a crude attempt to make up an arbitrary phonetic combination –
and get a laugh from the meaning!
Although the Company was primarily concerned with the phonetic equivalent of Coca-
Cola, the employees could not ignore the meaning of the characters, individually and
collectively – even if the shopkeepers had done so. They chose Mandarin because this
dialect was spoken by the great majority of Chinese. The closest Mandarin equivalent to
Coca-Cola was “K'o K'ou K'o Lê.” The aspirates (designated by ‘) were necessary to
approximate the English sounds. There was no suitable character pronounced “La” in
Chinese, so they compromised on Lê (joy), which was approximately pronounced “ler.”
All Chinese characters had more than one meaning, but K'o K'ou K'o Lê (depending on
context) commonly meant what is seen here:
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|What is the Name of This Product in English?
June 5, 2011
You may have heard the story that Coca-Cola translated into Chinese
meant “bite the wax tadpole.” (Some think it’s an urban legend.) In fact,
it’s true, but the translation didn’t happen in the way you might think.
When Coca-Cola was first sold in China in 1927, it was obvious to the
Coke employees in China that the Coca-Cola trademark must be
transliterated into Chinese characters. 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 were only
about 200 that were pronounced with the sounds the Company needed,
and many of these had to be avoided because of their meaning While
doing the research for four suitable characters, the employees found that
This combination for the Chinese trademark meant “to permit mouth to be able to
rejoice” – showing the pleasure that could come from drinking Coke. That definition
was a stroke of luck!
When this trademark was registered in 1928, most Chinese writing was vertical and was
read down from right to left. The two characters at the right
mean drink, then the Chinese trademark, and then Delicious
And just for some background: Coca-Cola was originally
sold in China in 1927. Our sales on the mainland ceased in
1949, but in January 1979 the first shipment of Coke
returned to China.
If any of you have photos showing Coca-Cola in China, I
would love to see them.
The Quizmaster General's Personal
Experience with Coca Cola Written in
In the 1980s, when I worked for a high
tech company in Costa Mesa, CA, we
were visited by several Chinese
businessmen interested in having us
design and build a laser system for their
company in China. During the business
meeting, they occasionally spoke to each
other on the side in Chinese. I did not
reveal that I spoke enough Chinese to
derive information from what they were
We were running late, but decided to take
time to go out for lunch before the delegation had to leave. At the restaurant, one of the
visitors received an important phone call. The delegation was somewhat embarrassed
at the additional snag in the schedule, so to distract them while we were waiting for the
visitor to finish his call, I pulled out my pen and wrote Coca Cola in Chinese on a
napkin. The delegation was shocked and probably wondering what I had understood
about their private comments to each other during our meeting. Nevertheless, I was
very popular among the group from that point on.
Some weeks later, there was a chance we would be hired to install a laser system for a
different group who owned a factory in China. I was the prime candidate for the job.
Fortunately, it never materialized. Sounded good on paper, and maybe it would have
been fun, but at that time I was so busy it would have been very difficult for me to be
away from home for several weeks.
All that happened because I wrote Coca Cola in Chinese on a napkin!