Sunday, 29 March 2009


In the front quad at UCL there are two ginkgo trees, which every autumn shed their distinctive leaves on the ground.
According to a Wikipedia article (which I have no reason to doubt), the Latin (and hence the English) specific name of the tree, Ginkgo, results from a combination of folk etymology and misreading.
All the OED can tell us about the etymology of ginkgo is
[Jap., f. Chinese yinhsing silver apricot.]
In Chinese characters and Hanyu pinyin this Chinese etymon would be written 銀杏 yínxìng. When the tree was introduced into Japan from China the Chinese name was borrowed into Japanese with the pronunciation ぎんなん ginnan. (The Japanese pronunciation of Chinese words and “readings” of the kanji in which they are written is a topic way beyond my knowledɡe.)
But the same Chinese characters can also be read in Japanese as ginkyō, which is where the folk etymology comes in. Apparently Engelbert Kaempfer, the first Westerner to see the species in 1690, wrote down this form, with its pronunciation, in his Amoenitates Exoticae (1712). But his y was misread as a g, and the misspelling stuck.
Our pronunciation follows the spelling, so that we call this tree ˈɡɪŋkəʊ. If it had not been for Kaempfer’s bad handwriting, we’d presumably be calling it ˈɡɪŋkiəʊ.
Because of the pronunciation, people also often misspell it as gingko.
Confusingly, there is also a Japanese word ginkō, pronounced with -ŋ-. But it means ‘bank’.

The specific part of the scientific name Ginkgo biloba transparently means ‘having two lobes’, a reference to the shape of the leaves. You’d think that it would be pronounced in English as ˌbaɪˈləʊbə, since this is what we get for the Latin prefix bi- in bisexual, bifurcation, bipolar and other words. But in practice people who talk about the supposed medical benefits of Ginkgo biloba extract generally seem to say bɪˈləʊbə.


  1. The Korean words for gingko and bank, ŭnhaeng (은행), are exact homophones. They are written 銀杏 and 銀行 respectively in Chinese characters; 杏 and 行 happen to have identical readings in Korean.

    Korean is a lot simpler when it comes to dealing with Chinese characters than Japanese because the vast majority of characters have only one canonical reading. Furthermore, Chinese characters are hardly ever used in writing Korean anyway these days. In Japanese, a given Chinese character may have different readings corresponding to the sound values they had in different periods and regions in China. More confusingly, Chinese characters are frequently used for their meanings rather than their readings, so you have to learn separately how to read these words. There are two words for ginkgo in Japanese (both apparently loanwords from Chinese): ichō for the tree and ginnan for the seeds. Both can be written 銀杏, and you would have to guess from context whether to read it as ichō or ginnan. Japanese Wikipedia's article on ginkgo is under the title イチョウ (ichō).

  2. Shade and Ornamental Trees by Hui-Lin Li has a detailed section on "The Name Ginkgo", which disputes the theory that ginkgo is a misreading of ginkyo. Here is an excerpt:

    The most disputed fact is the seemingly quaint spelling "Ginkgo" of Kaempfer. Moule (1944) quotes Arthur Waley that "Ginkgo is a distortion of Ginkyo, which is the logical and regular reading of the Chinese name (Yin Hsing), but has no existence in the real language," adding the remark that this "is the true account of the word."

    These authors, however, are considering the modern pronunciation and romanization of the word while Kaempfer was writing about his observations made over 250 years ago. The pronunciation of these at that time might be slightly different. Fortune (1863), for instance, observing this plant in Japan about a hundred years ago, says that the nut is called ging ko in Japanese shops.

    In the work of Kaempfer, the individual Chinese character hsing is romanized elsewhere as kjoo or koo. In the preface he says that some of the sounds, like k and g, especially in composite names, are not readily distinguished, and he gives examples as Koquan or Goquan and Kinari gaki or Kinari kaki. Thus in the case of ginkgo, he might be rendering a sound which he thinks is closest to the one then prevalent.

    Kaempfer's romanization of this word may be a vagary, according to modern pronunciation, but the difficulty of explaining this, as Barclay (1944) says, "to any one conversant with the vagaries of the many systems used for 'romanizing' the Japanese sounds, . . . will certainly not seem insuperable." The fact to be noted is that Kaempfer was romanizing sounds of over 250 years ago and at a time when even the many different systems of romanizing Japanese sounds were not in existence. Thus the modern rendering kyo is to him kjoo or koo or kgo, the first two as individual sounds, and the last in combination with other sounds. Also the name icho was to him itsjo. The word "Ginkgo" is apparently not a misprint as suggested by Moule, as it is correctly listed also in the index of Kaempfer's work together with the other words discussed here. To reject his spelling because it does not conform with modern pronunciation seems most illogical.

  3. If the Spelling Society decided to finally give up its efforts to tame those impossible spelling-to-sound rules, and adopted the elegant solution of writing English with Chinese characters, many of them would end up having more than one reading. For example, in Japanese, 人 has the native reading hito and the Sino-Japanese readings jin and nin. In English it would have the native reading man and the Anglo-Classical readings anthropo and homi (to write the first part of homicide). 形 would have the English reading shape as well as the Anglo-Classical reading morpho. If Latin letters were used for affixes and inflection, as hiragana is used under the Rising Sun, 人形IC would be read anthropomorphic, 人形ED would be man-shaped, and I leave 人NID as an exercise. 人学Y? Anthropo-logy. 人狩? man-hunt. See? You know when to use native or Anglo-Classical readings in English. Now the next step is to learn when to use kun and on in Japanese... It's one of my regrets that I've never taken it...

    PS, for East Asian readers: I know that most hanzi/hanja/kanji in this comment make no sense, but remember, I'm writing English with them, not your languages...

  4. Rhaeticus, that sums up how kanji is read in Japanese for English speakers as brilliantly as I've seen it done. I keep reading 人形 as 'doll', though! Because Chinese characters mostly have just one reading in Korean, I've seen examples of a Chinese characters strung together to form humorous rebuses like this:

    多不有時 = 다불유시(da-bul-yu-si) = W.C.

    So when I see a string like 人形IC, I am tempted to read it as a Korean rebus!

  5. Rhaeticus: see Mark Rosenfelder's brilliant tour de force Yingzi for a detailed view of how it might be done by reinventing Chinese-style writing from scratch rather than using existing hanzi.