No, the Chinese word for "penguin" does not really mean "business goose"

There are a lot of memes around the idea that the Chinese word for “penguin” can literally be translated as “business goose”.

Whilst this is quite attractive as penguins do look like they're waddling around in little business suits, unfortunately this etymology is not actually accurate.

The Chinese word for penguin is 企鹅 (qǐ​'é). The second character 鹅 does indeed mean “goose”. The first character 企 is also the first character of the word for “business”, 企业 (qǐyè), in the sense of “business enterprise”. This combined with the appearance of penguins as cute little business people has led some people to assume that the literal translation of 企鹅 into English would be “business goose”. Maybe the fact that “qǐ​'é” sounds a bit like “qǐyè” has added to this as well.

The truth is that both these words are based on meanings of the first character 企.


会意。从人,从止。甲骨文字形,上面是一个人,下面是“止”(脚),表示这个人在踮起后脚跟 有企立、企足的意思。本义:踮起脚跟

Roughly translated: “Associative compound, from 人 and 止. In the oracle bone form of this character, the upper part is a person, and the lower part is a foot, expressing that this person is lifting up the heels of their feet, meaning ‘tip-toe’. The original meaning is ‘to raise up the heels’.”

会意 is a character form that might be translated as “associative compound”. It means this character is based on the meanings of its component parts (rather than having a component primarily hinting at pronunciation, although maybe that does also come from 止 zhǐ here, at a guess).

From this “tip-toe” meaning we get varied derived meanings, including “to stand” and “to look for hopefully”, in the sense of standing on tip-toes to look hopefully into the distance, or just “to look forward to”.

The zdic entry also has this quote from 老子 (Lǎo​zǐ):


Qǐ zhě bù lì, kuà zhě bù xíng.

The one who tip-toes does not stand; the one who strides widely does not walk.

This is in the usual 老子 cosmic comedy theme of “trying to improve things makes them worse”. Trying to stand on tip-toes to be higher up makes you more likely to fall over instead. Taking wide strides to try and walk faster makes you less likely to cover much distance in the end, and also look a bit silly, like goose-stepping soldiers. Did we just tie this whole thing round in a big loop?

Anyway, it seems that 企 primarily meant “to stand on tip-toe”, and has acquired various derived meanings from there.

This is how we get the word 企业 for “business”, “enterprise”, “company” and so on. It could be literally translated into English as “stand-up business”, and is not entirely dissimilar to the word “start up” in English.

So finally we can reach the conclusion that 企鹅 “penguin” and 企业 “business” mean “standing goose” / “tip-toeing goose” and “stand-up enterprise” respectively. They share a common root, rather than one being based on the other.

Here's a random Baidu Zhidao post that has the same conclusion:

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