Why Mandarin Doesn’t Come From Chinese

The name of the world’s most spoken language has a surprising origin story.

A Mandarin duck in Central Park
Mandarin duck showing off in Central Park (Seth Wenig / AP)

Since the mandarin duck appeared in Central Park last fall, his unexpected presence has stirred up many questions: Where did he come from? Why is he so hot? Can such beauty survive in our garbage world? And, for the linguistics nerds out there, where do mandarin ducks get their name?

Yes, true, mandarin ducks are native to China, where Mandarin is the official language. But the word mandarin has a more roundabout origin. It does not come from Mandarin Chinese, which refers to itself as putonghua (or “common speech”) and China, the country, as zhongguo (or “Middle Kingdom”). It doesn’t come from any other variant of Chinese, either. Its origins are Portuguese.

This one word encapsulates an entire colonial history. In the 16th century, Portuguese explorers were among the first Europeans to reach China. Traders and missionaries followed, settling into Macau on land leased from China’s Ming dynasty rulers. The Portuguese called the Ming officials they met mandarim, which comes from menteri in Malay and, before that, mantrī in Sanskrit, both of which mean “minister” or “counselor.” It makes sense that Portuguese would borrow from Malay; they were simultaneously colonizing Malacca on the Malay peninsula.

For centuries, Europeans’ impressions of China filtered largely through the Portuguese. The 16th-century Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci, for instance, was Italian, but he arrived in China through Portuguese Macau. Following the twisty logic of colonialism, when he attempted to transpose Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet, he made use of both Italian and Portuguese, comparing the sounds of individual characters to the sounds of Portuguese and Italian words. Even today, “linguists go to town and try to figure [out] what Chinese would have sounded like at the time,” says David Moser, author of A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language. “They could use as a clue the way Matteo Ricci wrote the Portuguese.”

Over time, the Portuguese coinage of “mandarin” took on other meanings. The Ming dynasty officials wore yellow robes, which may be why “mandarin” came to mean a type of citrus. “Mandarin” also lent its names to colorful animals native to Asia but new to Europeans, like wasps and snakes and, of course, ducks. And the language the Chinese officials spoke became “Mandarin,” which is how the English name for the language more than 1 billion people in China speak still comes from Portuguese.

But words have a way of collecting just-so origin stories, and Chinese speakers have sometimes retroactively given a Chinese origin to “mandarin,” says Moser. It sounds similar enough to mandaren, a phrase that could mean “important Manchurian.” The rulers of China’s last dynasty, the Qing, were from Manchuria, so it make sense if you squint at it. “But it’s not true,” says Moser. “Mandarin” has a distinctly non-Mandarin origin.

“Mandarin” is what linguists call an exonym, an external name for a place, people, or language. And exonyms often tell a history of how cultures met, fought, and interacted. Many English names for continental European cities derive not from the local language but from French—probably a legacy of the Norman conquest of England. For example, English and French both use Cologne for Köln, Florence for Firenze, Prague for Praha, and Belgrade for Beograd.

In other cases, says the lexicographer Grant Barrett, exonyms arise because two places have a relationship that pre-dates current national boundaries. For example, adds the linguist Anatoly Liberman, we use “Germany” from the Latin Germania. In French, the name is Allemagne from a group of tribes called the Alemanni; in Finnish, Saksa from the Saxons. Germany (Deutschland in German) only became a unified country in 1871, long after other Europeans had adopted their own names for the place, based on different peoples who once lived there.

From the vantage point of English speakers, many of the exonyms for non-European places and languages come filtered through the languages of former colonial powers. Bombay and Ceylon, for example, also come from the Portuguese, whose empire once sprawled through Asia. The names imposed by colonial powers can be controversial, of course; Bombay and Ceylon have since officially changed their names to Mumbai and Sri Lanka. The name “Mandarin” still endures, perhaps because its origin is more obscure or because China has enjoyed warmer relations with Portugal than with other European countries. As for the mandarin ducks, they also live in Portugal now.