John Larrysson's Column: Where Are We?

What is the name of this place that we are living in? China? One of the first things that we notice about the name China, is that it is not Chinese, but from the Indian language Sanskrit1. So why is the name China used? What about the other names, Cathay and Sino?

This is actually a common problem in English. The English names for countries are often not the names that the country gives itself. There is no Germany; it is called Deutschland by its people. Hungary does not actually exist, it is called Magyarország2, by the people who live there. Also the country of Greece is not Greece, it is Ελλάδα (Hellada). This problem is so common that we have special words for it. The local name of a place is called an endonym and the name outsiders used is called an exonym. So Deutschland is the endonym and Germany is the exonym3.

[audio 1]

The name China went on to become china. The highest quality of pottery is called porcelain. The finest porcelain in the world was called China-porcelain or China-ware. At first no one knew how to make it, except the Chinese potters and they were not sharing their secrets. Eventually their methods were discovered separately, but by then the name had stuck. The secret was that they used kaolin clay, which was found in the northeast of Jiangxi province. Kaolin clay or kaolinite is not unique to Gaolin Shan and is mined in many other countries around the world. That is why strange foreign places, such as England, can be famous for making good china. 

[audio 2]

There are more exonyms for this country we live in. One we often see is Cathay, as in Cathay Pacific. The name Cathay is from the medieval Latin Cataya, which came from the Turkic name Khitāy. Sino comes from the Arabic word for the country Sin, which became the Greek word for the country Σίναι, which became the Latin Sinae, and so Sino in English. Sino is seldom used as a proper noun like China, it's generally only used in adjectival phrases such as The Sino-Japanese War. The name closest to China (中國) is the Middle Kingdom. In ancient times, as with most places, the people who lived there thought that they were the centre of the world. 

The English names for many places are not always the same as the local names. We must be aware that these differences exist.

[audio 3]


1. Perhaps it was the Sanskrit name for the Qin dynasty, which ruled in the third century B.C.

2. Please pardon any mistakes in my accent and pronunciation of all these different languages.

3. The prefixes endo- and exo- are from Greek. They are often used with technical and scientific words. Endo- means internal or inside of. Exo- means outer or outside of.

by John Larrysson [email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


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