What’s up with Spoons?

For some reason, one of the most common words ever is a huge communication problem.

Spoon (sháozi 勺子).

Why? I don’t know.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked for a spoon, or another spoon, or a clean spoon in a restaurant, and the fúwùyuán 服务员 didn’t understand me. I say it slower, making sure to get the tone right, add a measure word for clarification (bǎ ), but finally have to resort to plain old charades.

I also can’t tell you how many times a CHINESE PERSON has asked for a spoon, in my presence, and either gotten a blank look or a ladle in return.

Besides the divergent concept issue, what’s going on with spoons?! Is that a word that’s been specially selected for fāngyán 方言 diversity? (“Ok, now there are lots of words that are bound to sound almost the same from dialect to dialect, but some words need to be unique. Ok, everyone has to come up with their own word for spoon? Agreed? Good. Dismissed.”) Do restaurantes pay a tax for every additional spoon they hand out? Anyone?

20 Replies to “What’s up with Spoons?”

  1. Well, CEDICT gives “ladle, scoop” for 勺子. In Japanese as well, 杓子 refers to a scoop used to serve rice, not a spoon. Again taking a cue from Japanese, I find that CEDICT gives the meaning “spoon” for .

    I am fluent in Japanese, but my Chinese is very poor, so YMMV.

  2. The locals where I am (Guangxi Liuzhou) use 瓢根 for “spoon”. It’s not in the standard Mandarin dictionary and I get those blank stares when I use it in other parts of the country, including cities as close as 30 miles to my location. 瓢子 is listed in dictionaries as meaning either “ladle” or “spoon”, but I’ve never noticed anyone actually using the term.

    I was taught that 勺儿 meant “spoon” and 勺子 meant “ladle.” The 现代汉语词典 seems to agree, listing 勺子as “较大的勺儿”, but I don’t recall anyone making that distinction outside the classroom. (The locals where I am do use 勺子 for “ladle”, though.)

    According to the dictionary and my classroom teachers, is second tone, but I’ve heard many people pronounce it in the third tone. Or at least I think I have – it’s at least equally possible that my old ears deceived me.

    The dictionary also lists 匙子 (chi2-zi) for “spoon”, but again, I’ve never heard it used.

    I usually use the old stand-by — I point to the thing on the next table and say I want one.

  3. My wife (Shanghainese) uses 调羹. I was unaware of the name you mentioned.

    She just told me that 勺子 might make people feel a little strange. She thinks it is a word that has fallen out of common use, like 足(脚画蛇添足). Some people laugh when I call my feet , others give me blank stares. My wife also said that maybe people living way out in the mountains would use 勺子, but in cities they use 调羹.

    From now on I’ll be using 勺子.

  4. Since nobody’s ventured a theory yet, let me try this one. It’s admittedly a WAG (a wild guess).

    Most Chinese (i.e., the country folk) don’t use spoons very much. They drink soup and zhou from a bowl, and use chopsticks for any solid ingredients. Thus, while they certainly know their local word for spoon, they don’t use it very often, and even if they recognize the standard Mandarin term when they hear it on TV, they never use it at all.

    Then they move to the city and get a job on the wait staff in a restaurant. A week or so later a foreigner walks in. They’re a bit startled because they’ve never seen one before, so when he asks for a “liddle”, it takes them a while to realize that he’s saying “ladle” with a foreign accent; and a bit longer to figure out that what he really wants is a spoon. What on earth would he want a spoon for?

    This accounts for the fact that the waiter people often don’t understand 勺子 even when a native speaker asks for one, so it’s a reasonable theory, but I don’t know if it has anything to do with reality.

    Incidently, Albert, I don’t think you’ve been using the wrong word. I’ve heard lots of Chinese use 勺子 for spoon, despite what the dictionaries say.

  5. It’s really just a matter of the word usage in different regions of China. “勺子” is more often used in the northeastern part of China, from Beijing and up to Harbin. “调羹” is more of a southern thing, as you can tell that Shanghainese and Cantonese use it or something similar.

    It’s sort of the same situation in the US, maybe subtler. I remember in Utah where I used to live we use the word “sluff” for skipping school. None of the other US states had that word and thus it’s only understood in Utah and you’ll receive a blank stare if you use it in Ohio. Same thing with “勺子”.

    I would suggest that you know all of the substitution words, but it can be very exhausting to do as well.

  6. Yeah, what Hongmei said. You’d have absolutely no problem asking for a 勺子 in Beijing; I haven’t tried yet in Guilin, but I’m sure the response would be different.

    (Down here, something as simple as 卫生纸 gets you blank stares! It’s 口纸 to them.)

  7. My parents are from Taiwan- I grew up saying spoon as “ton (on in ton as in the word ‘on’)-tsi (just put teeth together and sound it)” …i dont know how to write in pinying, but that’s what it sounds like phonetically

  8. 汤匙is usually how I and my friends say it (we are from southern China), and my classmates from other parts of the country generally understood it too, so I have always assumed that 汤匙 is a safe bet everywhere.

  9. Though Pekingnese is the std from which Mandarin is based but shao2 zhi for spoon has very limited usage out side of the north east. Better use Tang zhi or zhi geng evry more common. For laddle better add those words.

  10. All of these comments are very interesting. I am compiling a list of Taishan (Hoisan) words that I can remember. My grandfather came to the United States in the railroad-building era. My father was born in China and came to the U.S. in 1923. My mother was Irish American and grew up next door to a Cantonese family with seven children. Just being friends with two of the girls, she learned Cantonese. At college age, she learned Mandarin with a tutor at Georgetown U. Wanting to learn the old dialect, Hoisan, she had a tutor also … my father. I grew up hearing mostly Hoisan but also some of our relatives spoke Cantonese. I cannot find the word for the enamel soup spoons we called “ngah gang”. I’ve always thought the “ngah” was for “teeth” like porcelain or enamel. But I cannot find a character. The Hoisan pronunciation of Chinese characters is next to impossible to find. Any suggestions? 謝謝 謝美秀

  11. just accidentally saw this post, found it’s quite interesting, I am a Chinese, “勺子” is ladle, but if you say “小勺子” little ladle, people will understand what you are trying to say. People from different area call spoon in different ways, 匙羹(north), 调羹(south), 汤匙(can be used everywhere), so in my mind, just say “小勺子”, I guarantee you can get what you want

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