Breaking down DNA in Chinese

As a brief interlude between posts about evolution and genetics algorithms, I thought I’d write something a bit different (and a bit related). I was a bit lax in my Chinese-studying while writing my thesis, so now that my thesis is submitted, I’m trying to get back to studying. While not particularly useful vocabulary, I thought I’d look up the word for DNA in Chinese.

脱氧核糖核酸 - tuō yǎng hé táng hé suān

That’s quite a mouthful (though not as much as deoxyribonucleic acid, I suppose). Like deoxyribonucleic acid, 脱氧核糖核酸 is a lot simpler if you break it down into its component parts:

  • 脱: to take off (i.e. de-)
  • 氧: oxygen (i.e. oxy-; 脱氧: deoxidation)
  • 核: nucleus (i.e. nucleic)
  • 糖: sugar (i.e. ribo-; 核糖: ribose)
  • 核: nucleus (again)
  • 酸: acid (核酸: nucleic acid)

As you can see, it’s very logical and follows the English (or Latin and Greek that make up the English word) very closely. It is also possible to predict (correctly) that RNA is 核糖核酸.

If we break down DNA in a biological sense, we get sugar, phosphate and four bases. The bases are the purines, adenine and guanine, and the pyrimidines, cytosine and thymine. In Chinese, purine is 嘌呤 (piàolìng), and pyrimidine is 嘧啶 (mìdìng), which are both phonetic. Studying the Chinese words for the bases made me realise where their English names originate, which (with the exception of guanine), I’d never before given much thought to.

腺嘌呤 xiàn piào lìng
adenosine (lit. ‘gland purine’; in English ‘adeno-’ refers to the glands, as in adenovirus)
鸟嘌呤 niǎo piào lìng
guanine (lit. ‘bird purine’; in English ‘gua-’ refers to guano, bird poo, where guanine was first isolated (I think))
胸腺嘧啶 xiōng xiàn mì dìng
thymine (lit. ‘thymus pyrimidine’; in English ‘thy-’ refers to the thymus)
胞嘧啶 bāo mì dìng
cytosine (lit. ‘womb pyrimidine’; in English ‘cyto-’ refers to the cell)

For completeness, uracil, which takes thymine’s place in RNA, is 尿嘧啶 (niào mì dìng), literally: urine pyrimidine. Presumably, uracil was first isolated from urine.



Thanks, I was looking for this exact thing.  I'm taking a course in physical anthropology and was curious what the scientic terms for DNA look like in other languages.

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