Aiyo! OED fails to use Pinyin for some new entries

The Oxford English Dictionary has just added some new entries, including several from Sinitic languages.

A lot of these come by way of Singapore and so reflect the Hokkien language. For example, among the new entries is “ang pow,” which is Hokkien’s equivalent of Mandarin’s “hongbao,” which also made the list.

A few of the entries, however, come from Mandarin, for example two common interjections for surprise. Oddly, though, the OED uses “aiyoh” and “aiyah” instead of their proper Pinyin spellings of “aiyo” and “aiya.”

“Ah,” you say, “but maybe the aiyoh and aiyah spellings are more common in English.”


Even in Singapore domains (.sg), the Pinyin spellings are more common than those the OED calls for. As the tables below show, in every instance the Pinyin spellings are also more common in Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan. Throughout the world, the Pinyin spellings are more common — the vast majority of the time by a factor of at least two.

Google search results for “aiyo” (Pinyin) and “aiyoh” (spelling used in the OED)

  aiyo aiyoh
.sg 12,200 5,680
.hk 2,570 187
.cn 6,040 984
.tw 4,690 196
all domains 1,250,000 137,000
all domains  + “chinese” 97,700 77,100
all domains  + “mandarin” 51,800 14,100

Google search results for “aiya” (Pinyin) and “aiyah” (spelling used in the OED)

  aiya aiyah
.sg 17,600 8,310
.hk 6,400 2,360
.cn 13,200 1,860
.tw 5,910 1,710
all domains 3,370,000 332,000
all domains  + “chinese” 238,000 63,200
all domains  + “mandarin” 36,500 22,800

Searching Google Books also reveals that the Pinyin forms are more common.

In short, I do not see any good reason for the OED to have adopted ad hoc spellings rather than the Pinyin standard. They must have their reasons, but it looks like they botched this.

2 thoughts on “Aiyo! OED fails to use Pinyin for some new entries

  1. I have access to the full OED via a library membership, so I have checked the entries.

    “aiyoh” is indeed the headword, but immediately underneath it gives both spellings, as well as the correct pinyin with tone marks. (Interestingly, if you search the dictionary for “aiyo”, it gives an entry for a similar Sinhala/Tamil exclamation.)

    The entry gives four quotations:

    1937 Singapore Free Press 17 Sept. 3/3 A cry of ‘Aiyoh’ and also the breaking of a rice bowl were heard.
    1982 Straits Times (Singapore) 21 Jan. 3/3 Ai yoh, I’d better be going.
    1996 A. F. Jones tr. H. Yeu Past & Punishments 220 Wang Xianghuo saw her body convulse as she howled in pain, ‘Aiyo! Aiyo!’
    2015 K. Kwan China Rich Girlfriend 9 Aiyoh aiyoh aiyoh I’ve been caught!
    [“aiyoh, int.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 13 September 2016.]

    Three of their four sources use the “incorrect” spelling, hence probably the reason they chose that spelling.

    As for “aiyah”, for etymology it suggests first it’s from Cantonese. This time the quotes are 50-50:

    1920 N.Y. Times Bk. Rev. 26 Dec. 7/1 Ai yah!.. Oh, you cat-headed, monkey-tailed offspring of a bald-headed hedgehog, you must not stop the gentleman!
    1997 South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) (Nexis) 26 Apr. Aiya!.. It is an expression apt for all occasions: when the Hang Seng Index soars and when it slides.
    2008 R. Morris & P. Casey tr. X. Guo 20 Fragm. Ravenous Youth (2009) xviii. 178 Aiya, what is she called, that girl? Really I can’t remember.
    2015 Today (Singapore) (Nexis) 30 Oct. 69 Aiyah, we are behind time.
    [“aiyah, int.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 13 September 2016.]

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