Today’s New York Times exhibits one of my pet peeves. (Yes, I do seem to have a lot of those.)
This particular one is the practice of declaring that some Mandarin word or expression has “the same sound” as something else — even though it doesn’t. Claiming that the Mandarin words for death and four sound identical is a frequent example of this.
So today we have this:
Consider Tide detergent, Taizi, whose Chinese characters literally mean “gets rid of dirt.” (Characters are important: the same sound written differently could mean “too purple.”)
Nope. The Mandarin name for Tide detergent is Tàizì. On the other hand, “too purple” would be “tài zǐ,” which is close but not the same.
So, the answer to the question “When is a homophone not a homophone?” is “When it’s not a @#$%! homophone.”
But I will give the Times points for not mentioning wax tadpoles.
source: Picking Brand Names in China Is a Business Itself, New York Times, November 11, 2011