The interface between Chinese and Japanese vocabulary is a zone of endless fascination. Today’s topic is suppositories, which I decided to cover after I recently discovered that I didn’t really know either the Chinese or Japanese words for this humble vector for delivering medication.
Japanese: The most usual Japanese word for suppository is 座薬 zayaku. The meaning is ‘sitting medicine’ or ‘seat medicine’. The name is of Chinese origin. Japanese also has the term 座剤 zazai, with a similar meaning.
Chinese: The Chinese word for ‘suppository’ is less easy to determine. First, I tried Shogakukan’s Japanese-Chinese dictionary, 日中辞典 (Ch. rìzhōng cídiǎn, J. nitchū jiten). This gave 坐药 zuòyào (literally ‘sitting medicine’), which is obviously the origin of the Japanese term. The difference in character usage, 座 vs 坐, is systematic. Whereas modern Chinese differentiates between 坐 zuò ‘to sit’ and 座 zuò ‘seat’, Japanese now generally uses 座 za for both.
However, since the Shogakukan dictionary is notorious for simply listing the identical term in Chinese rather than giving a true translation equivalent, I decided to cross-check with Google Translate. Sure enough, Google Translate gave a totally different term, 塞剂 sāijì (literally ‘blocking medicine’ or ‘plugging medicine’). Other sources also carry the related term 塞药 sāiyào.
While Google Translate is a great tool, not all of its translations are reliable. So checking with a further source was in order. Luckily I had The World Contemporary English-Chinese Core Words of Medicine (世界最新英汉医学精选词汇 shìjiè zuìxīn yīng-hàn yīxué jīngxuǎn cíhuì, published by 世界图书出版公司 shìjiè túshū chūbǎn shè), where I found yet another rendition: 栓剂 shuānjì (literally ‘plug medicine’). Which of these was to be believed? I will spare the reader a blow-by-blow account of my attempts to figure out the situation. To sum up, what I found was:
- Most dictionaries confirm that 栓剂 shuānjì is the officially preferred term. This is found both in online sources and in large dictionaries.
- The term 坐药 zuòyào appears to be found mainly in traditional medicinal contexts. The Japanese adoption of the traditional term for medical usage vs the Chinese decision to come up with a new term specially for Western medicine is one of those quirks thrown up by ‘modernisation’ and ‘Westernisation’.
- Google’s 塞剂 sāijì, as well as 塞药 sāiyào, are more problematic. The terms are mostly missing in paper dictionaries and not often found in online dictionaries. But a web search reveals that they are indeed used, particularly at Taiwanese websites. They are thus possibly old terms, local terms, colloquial terms, or informal terms that have largely been superseded on the Mainland — at least in official or written usage – and are more likely to turn up in written form in Taiwan. (In general, Mainland China seems to have made more conscious attempts at moulding or standardising language than Taiwan.) I think the main problem with 塞剂 sāijì and 塞药 sāiyào is probably their colloquial ‘earthiness’, being graphic and straightforward (‘blocking medicine’ or ‘plugging medicine’). The officially-approved 栓剂 shuānjì ‘plug medicine’ is more dignified because of its use of the less colloquial term 栓 shuān ‘plug’, which is also a noun, not a verb.
Others: Just for interest, according to online sources, the Korean name for a suppository is 좌약 jwayag (坐藥). Korean essentially uses the same term as Japanese, but follows the correct Chinese character usage when writing it in characters.
The Vietnamese name for a suppository is thuốc đạn (‘ball or cartridge or marble medicine’), although some sources indicate that this refers to tablets, not suppositories.
Mongolian takes a totally different tack, calling them эмчилгээний лаа emchilgeeni laa ‘therapeutic wax’. In fact, Mongolian has a range of closely related terms, all based on the term лаа laa ‘wax’:
- Эмчилгээний лаа emchilgeeni laa ‘therapeutic wax’.
- Эмчилгээний зориулалтын лаа emchilgeeni zoriulaltin laa ‘therapeutic purpose wax’.
- Үтрээний лаа ütreeni laa ‘vaginal wax’ – for vaginal suppositories.
- Цагаан махны лаа tsagaan makhni laa ‘white meat wax=rectal wax’ – for rectal suppositories.
The use of лаа laa ‘wax’ is quite probably under the influence of Russian свечи svyechi ‘wax’, which is used for suppositories in that language.
For the Mongolian of Inner Mongolia, on the other hand, the terminology is mostly a translation of Chinese:
- Шургуулах эм shurguulakh em ‘pushed in/inserted medicine’ (equivalent of 栓剂 shuānjì).
- Чихэх эм chikhekh em ‘stuffed in medicine’ (equivalent of 塞剂 sāijì).
- Лаа эм laa em ‘wax medicine’ (equivalent of 坐药 zuòyào).
However, the fact that each Chinese term is translated differently suggests that the dictionary translators made up the Mongolian terms on the fly.