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New Words and Novel Usages: an Analysis of Marketing Vocabulary used by Chinese Online Shopping Websites

Post Series: 2012: Volume 11, Number 1
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Introduction

In recent years online shopping has grown rapidly in China. According to Sina, online commerce has become an important sector in China’s economy, accounting for 3% of total retail volume in 2010 (Sina).

Among the many factors that contributed to this success: innovative language used by online shopping websites, particularly new vocabulary and novel usage of words. This paper presents an analytical study – from marketing and linguistic perspectives – of language that has played a pivotal role in attracting customers and promoting products.

Research on the language of advertising in English that examines vocabulary used in television and commercial publishing, has effectively related the use of words with functional factors of advertising such as capturing attention, listenability, readability, memorability and selling power. Geis (1982) made an attempt to describe how language is used in American advertising, particularly in television advertising. He concluded that advertisers in general tend to prefer vague language to language with explicit empirical consequences, and they opt for subjective claims rather than objective claims. Mencher (1990) looked into the aspect of vocabulary in advertising and identified key personal and persuasive words.

There have also been many articles scrutinizing Chinese advertising language from various perspectives, such as studies on advertising discourse (Guowen Huang, 2001) and pragmatics of advertising language (Junyuan Wang, 2005). Wang (2005) studied the marketing effects of novel usage of fixed expressions, such as four-character proverbs, folk sayings and idioms. He pointed out fixed expressions are used creatively in commercials by either changing their linguistic form or meaning. He argued that this type of novel usage of common expressions is effective in advertising because it grabs people’s attention with its freshness and familiarity and leaves a deep impression.

Since the popularity of online shopping is relatively recent in China, research on advertising language used by online stores is lacking. This paper aims to fill this gap by focusing linguistically on new vocabulary and novel uses of words on online shopping websites. The authors have collected data from China’s most popular business-to-customer and customer-to-customer websites from January 2008 to March 2012. It is hoped that this study can shed light on the language features of online marketing.

Linguistic Features of New Words and Collocations

Internet advertising shares few qualities with its equivalents in newspapers, magazines and on television. It is an electronic, global and, most importantly, interactive format. Both sellers and consumers control the effectiveness of Internet advertising. Since “behavioral response and branding are two major objectives of Internet advertising,” (Li & Leckenby 2004: 25) it must meet customers’ needs for information, entertainment and value, by using a variety of elements including innovative use of language, multiple forms of media and interactivity. In China, more than “90% of netizens are below the age of 35. In other words, Chinese netizens can be roughly categorized as young people.” (Gao 2008: 362) The interactive nature of Internet advertising and its target population determine that the language used must be engaging and innovative.

In China, new online shopping websites open on a daily basis. Competition among them is becoming fiercer. To stay competitive and generate more traffic, these websites must aggressively advertise their products and special deals, particularly before important holidays such as National Day, Christmas and Chinese New Year. New words and expressions and novel usages of existing words are used to catch potential customers’ attention and provoke action.

New Words

Vocabulary is probably the most versatile component of language. New words are consistently created to meet the needs of communication. In China, according to Gao (2008: 373), some of the Chinese Internet Lexicon (CIL) usages “have already been used by the general public and beyond the modality of CMC (computer mediated communication).” Among Chinese Internet Lexicon, many of the words originated from online shopping websites.

New Words Originated from Names of Websites

Some words originating from online shopping websites are becoming new words in the Chinese language and are used in daily communication.
Take Táobăo 淘宝 (“to pan for treasure”) as an example. It is the name of the largest online shopping website in Asia with more than 370 million registered users as of the end of 2010 (China Daily). As an indisputable leader in e-commerce, the word táobăo has become a household expression, referring to a shopping strategy in which one goes through numerous stores online or off-line to find the best deals. Below are two examples:

1) 有市民向记者传授淘宝经验,虽然商家都说不能还价,但大多还是有讲价余地的。

(Citizens tell reporters about their experiences of panning for treasures. Although some businesses say that the prices are non-negotiable, in fact in most cases it is possible to negotiate the price.) (07SShz)

2) 山东商报社区淘宝节将再次来到天桥区。

(The Taobao Community Festival, hosted by Shandong Business Newspaper, will come to Tianqiao District again.) (WTOOW)

The word táobăotĭ 淘宝体 (“taobao style”) is another new word related to the online shopping website. It originated from the writing style of describing products or special deals on its website. Such descriptions usually begin with qīn 亲 (“dear”) and then adopt an informal, personalized, intimate tone. The popularity of this style of writing has caused some traditionally formal or official communications to adopt taobao style. The following examples illustrate this fact:

3) 亲们,淘宝社正式招新啦!

(Dear All, the Taobao community is recruiting!) (Nanjing College of Information Technology)

4) 南京理工大学录取通知使用淘宝体。

(Acceptance notices to incoming freshmen from Nanjing University of Sciences and Technology adopt the Taobao style.) (ifeng.com)

New Words Originated from New Marketing Strategies

In November 2010 wánpāi wăng 玩拍网 (www.wanpai.com) was launched. As its name suggests – wán 玩 (“to play”) and pāi 拍 (“to auction”) – this website is a unique platform combining social networking with online auctioning. Different from traditional auction websites on which shopping for deals is the only goal, users of this website can make and connect with friends, and play games while participating in online auctions. In addition, this website uses a variety of innovative auctioning methods, offering either zero-dollar or extremely low starting bids and allowing customers to decide how much they are willing to pay. This website quickly grew to be China’s leading auction website. As a result, more competitive bidding websites have established. The new word jìngpāi 竞拍 (“competitive bidding”) has also become widely used.

1) 百元竞拍一触即发,长城平板,笔记本抱回家.

(Competitive bidding at 100 RMB quickly became viral. People brought home flat screen desk tops and laptop computers.) (yesky.com)

2) 当晚的拍卖现场颇为热闹,许多图书出版公司的出版人赶来竞拍。

(The auction scene this evening was quite lively. Many publishers came to participate in the bidding.) (Chinanews.com)

The term miăoshā 秒杀 (“sec kill”) denotes another popular sales strategy. According to baidu.com, miăoshādiàn 秒杀店 (“sec kill store”) on www.taobao.com is the website’s most popular feature (Baidu).
The word miăoshā 秒杀 was officially included in the Ministry of Education’s 2007 new word list (Baidu). At the time, however, the word was used in the context of computer games, referring to a strategy of attacking opponents. It wasn’t until around 2010 that the word became a popular term for online shopping. It refers to a promotion in which potential buyers go to a website at the same time and hit the “order” or “buy” button in quick succession. Deep discounts are awarded first come, first served and the process takes mere seconds, hence the “sec(ond) kill” reference.
Many other related words have been invented highlighting its popularity.

3) miăopiào 秒票 (“to buy tickets using the sec kill strategy”)

4 ) miăoshāqì 秒杀器 (“sec kill device”)

New Collocations

In terms of linguistic codes, some of the new words used on online shopping websites are mixtures of either Chinese characters and English letters or words or mixtures of purely Chinese characters. This type of lexicon is not restricted to the context of online shopping. It is in fact one important feature of Chinese Internet Lexicon (CIL). (Gao, 2008)

Hold zhù hold住 (“to maintain, to hold on to”)

Hold住 was originally a Cantonese word. It became a popular online word in Mandarin Chinese in the summer of 2011 after a participant on a Taiwanese reality TV show used it repeatedly in her comedy performance (Sina). As an online shopping term, it can be used by both sellers and buyers. When used by sellers, it is either for the purpose of influencing and tempting buyers into taking action or for highlighting the advantages of the promotion. Below are some examples.

良无限,hold住全场的性比价
(We have an unlimited number of excellent products! These goods provide more bang for your buck than you will find anywhere else.) (Taobao.com)

Hold住夏季体重,中药减肥正当时
(Take charge of your weight this summer! Now is the time to lose weight with the help of Traditional Chinese medicine!) (Rayli)

JM们 (“sisters”)

“JM” represents the Pinyin initials for jiějie姐姐 (“older sister”) and mèimei妹妹 (“younger sister”). Combining the English letters JM with the character for plural form men们, the term JM们 is commonly used in online posts by and for females. The term adds a layer of intimacy and creates a sense of community. One example is listed below:

护肤精华露那些事,JM们快来看!
(Sisters, come and take a look at these skin care products!) (Onlylady)

In addition to shopping websites, consumers – particularly young female shoppers – often use the word to post product information for other female friends, as shown in the example below:

最新消息,国内唯一的OTC减肥药—奥利司他胶囊,品牌名好像叫做“雅塑”,已经在在国内上市了! 这下JM们有福啦,我们再也不用费尽周折从国外代购奥利司他了!
(This is the latest news. The only OTC weight loss drug, Orlistat Capsules, are
now available in China. This is indeed a blessing for sisters! We won’t have to go
through the trouble of buying from abroad.) (ifeng.com)

In addition to these English-Chinese hybrids, online media has also created some purely Chinese collocations. Below are a few examples.

jìnbào zhíjiàng 劲爆直降 (powerful and explosive price cut)
gěilì jùxiàn 给力巨献 (awesome and gigantic promotion)
gěilì fàngsòng 给力放送 (awesome giveaway)

Innovative and Unusual Usages of Existing Words

Idiomatic Expressions

Online shopping websites often use Chinese idiomatic expressions in unexpected, creative and sometimes proactive ways. Because idioms are highly compact and rich in meaning, using them in advertising achieves the purpose of conveying more information in limited words. Additionally, using them in creative ways adds another layer of meaning, thus attracting people’s attention.
Chīhēwánrlè吃喝玩乐 (“eat, drink and be merry”) is an idiom describing indulgence in eating, drinking and having fun. During the holiday shopping season of 2011, however, online shopping websites used this expression to promote their holiday sales. Using yìyuán miăoshā一元秒杀 (“one Yuan sec kill”) as a marketing strategy, the promotion called chīhēwánrlè吃喝玩乐 included deep discounts and coupons for beauty salons, restaurants, theaters, gyms and travel. In this holiday shopping season, chīhēwánrlè 吃喝玩乐, an idiom with negative connotations, was transformed by being given an atmosphere of merriment and celebration. To enhance the call for action, the website Taobao created a sales area titled ChīhēwánrlèGO吃喝玩乐GO. The word “go” referred to travel packages, as in going somewhere, in addition to images of energy, vigor and liveliness.

Yìwăngdăjìn一网打尽 (“to catch all in one net”) is another idiom used in shopping websites. In this proverb, wăng 网originally refers to a fishing net. However, when used by online shopping websites, it gains another layer of meaning, referring to wăngluò网络, the Internet. The proverb thus shows that this website has everything one needs. It is used either to highlight the comprehensiveness of information and goods or to lure customers into buying large quantities or varieties of goods. Below are some examples:

1) 南京新闻,本地报纸,广播,电视,新闻一网打尽。

(Get news about Nanjing from local newspapers, TV and radio on one website.) (Longhoo.net)

2) 合肥购物网,打折、服饰、家电、美容信息一网打尽。

(Hefei online shopping website where you can find everything you need, such as discount clothes, household appliances, electronics and beauty products.) (gouwu.hefei.cc)

Another sales promotion around the 2011 Chinese New Year was xīnnián dàsăochú新年大扫除 (“the New Year clean-up”). One of the great traditions of Chinese New Year is to clean house and put things in order as a way to sweep out the old to usher in the new. On shopping websites such as Taobao, this term was used as a banner for cleaning and personal hygiene products right before the Chinese New Year.

Dúyīwú’èr 独一无二 is a proverb meaning “unique.” The advertisement changes the second character yī 一 (“one”) into yī 衣 (“clothing”). Since the two characters have the same pronunciation, the proverb’s sound is unchanged, so it retains its original meaning when spoken. However, as a clothing advertisement, this change highlights the sales items in the proverb, signifying that the products and the sales are unique and hard to come by.

New Meanings of Existing Words

Some words gain new meanings on shopping websites.

Shài晒 (“to share”)

In A Modern Chinese-English Dictionary, the verb shài晒is described as “to shine upon” and “to dry in the sun, to bask.” Its meaning strictly indicates actions related to the sun. In the Internet era, the semantic scope of this verb is greatly expanded to refer to a wide range of activities online. Basking in the sun, the root meaning of shài晒, implies the absorbance of sunshine and heat, practices considered beneficial and enjoyable. Similarly, when used online, shài晒metaphorically refers to information sharing among Internet users, ranging from shài gōngzī 晒工资 (“sharing salary”), shài qínggăn 晒情感 (“sharing feelings”), shài gōngzuò 晒工作 (“sharing work experiences”), shài yù’ér jīng晒育儿经 (“sharing chid bearing experiences”) and shài gòuwù jīng 晒购物经 (“sharing shopping experiences”). The purpose of information sharing online is to focus on the interaction and community-building among Internet users.

Shài晒 is also frequently used as a verb on online shopping websites. Some websites generate shopping lists, (i.e., gòuwù shàidān购物晒单) “to promote clearance or sales items” on míngpĭn dăogòu wăng名品导购网 (mplife.com).

Bài 败 (“to buy”)

Bài 败 (“to fail”) is used in place of the verb măi买 (“to buy”), because it is similar in pronunciation to the English word “buy.” Some websites’ names use Bài败, such as bàiwùnǚ xiăo wěiwěi 败物女小炜炜 (Taobao.com), a flagship store on Taobao’s website. Below are some examples:

帅爸甜妈必败夏装情侣装纯棉挂脖连衣裙男背心-相亲相爱
(Lover’s outfit! Skirt and shirt for sweet parents! A must-buy for the summer!) (PaiPai)

内地游客香港必败化妆品推荐
(We have recommendations for cosmetics for Mainland tourists to Hong Kong.) (zhuguo.com)

Linguistic and Rhetorical Features

Word Choices

One common feature in word choices is the use of emotive and strong adjectives that can stimulate extreme emotions and desires.

Fēng 疯 (“crazy”)

One of the most common words used by online shopping websites is fēngqiăng 疯抢 (“to snatch crazily”). Examples include táobăo quánmín fēngqiăng 淘宝全民疯抢 (“everyone shop madly on Taobao”) and tuángòu fēngqiăng 团购疯抢 (“mad snatching by group-shoppers”).

Bào 爆 (“explosive”)

Bào 爆 forms the word bàokuăn 爆款 (“products that are in high demand”). Bào 爆 is also used in jīngbào jià 惊爆价, referring to extremely low prices that are surprising and newsworthy.

Rhetorical Devices

Figures of Speech

The use of figures of speech is a common and universal advertising technique. In a survey of 24,00 ads, 75% used at least one figure of speech (Leigh 1994). On Chinese shopping websites, one common type of figure of speech are those related to war and violence. These figures of speech shock people into paying attention and becoming energized, encouraging them to buy products.
In December 2011, before Christmas and the Chinese New Year, many shopping websites started sales promotions called xĭyíng shuāngjié bèizhàn niánhuò 喜迎双节,备战年货 (“Happily awaiting the double holiday and stocking up on New Year goods”). The word bèizhàn 备战 literarily means to prepare for war. In this context, it was used metaphorically to stress the intensive shopping rush to get ready for the holidays. It added a sense of urgency and intensity.

Exaggeration

The use of exaggeration is also a traditional advertising technique. It overemphasizes properties of products – be it their prices, functions or styles – to the extreme, encouraging consumers to buy them. On online shopping websites, words are often used in literary and exaggerated ways to promote sales. As shown in previous examples, adjectives such as fēng 疯and fēngkuáng 疯狂are often used in adverbial position to modify verbs, thus exaggerating the emotive aspect of the actions. Jù 巨, meaning “huge,” is used to exaggerate the scope and benefits of promotions, as in jùhuì 巨惠, jùxiàn 巨献,and jù huásuàn 巨划算.

Pun

Puns are amusing uses of words or phrases that have two meanings. Called the game of words, puns leave a deep impression on readers by their readability and humor. The nature of puns in advertising is nicely captured by Attridge. “The pun is the product of a context deliberately constructed to enforce an ambiguity, to render impossible the choice between meanings, to leave the reader or hearer endlessly oscillating in semantic space.” (Attridge 1988) Keenly aware of the limits of a computer screen display, shopping websites employ puns to maximize the information conveyed to customers.
One unique type of pun is to combine the brand name with the general meaning of the word. It conveys the product information, as well as the meaning of the word. One famous example is the advertisement for Lenovo computer:

人类失去联想,世界将会怎样?
(What the world would be like if man loses Lenovo?) (Baidu)

In this advertisement, liánxiăng 联想 is the brand name of Lenovo computer. At the same time its general meaning of associating ideas and thoughts is also employed. It makes readers think about the world without Lenovo and the world without man’s ability to think in connected ways. In addition to effectively using puns, this advertisement also resembles lines of poetry in the number of characters and rhyme structure. It is thus catchy and easy to remember. Lenovo’s ad was so popular it inspired similar ads from other companies, such as the one seen below:

人类失去苹果,世界将会怎样?
(What the world would be like if man loses Apple?) (IT Time)

Discussions and Conclusions

The rapid expansion of online shopping markets has provided vitality for China’s e-commerce and the Chinese language. Many of the new words and usages on shopping websites are vivid, dynamic and sometimes witty. They seem to appeal to e-shoppers, mostly people in their teens and early 20s.

In addition to their popularity, the new words quickly adapt to changes in e-commerce and marketing strategies. Lastly the new words also reflect changes in social and cultural spirits in China. One notices that the new expressions serve to build and maintain online communities and help establish net users’ identities. New address terms such as JM们 use kinship terms to address site visitors, thus shortening the distance between the online stores and their customers and generating the feeling of a big family.

Since online shopping websites attract millions of users, particularly young people, the impact of the new vocabulary and novel usage of words cannot be underestimated. Some of the expressions already have been used by the general public, even beyond the modality of shopping websites. As demonstrated in this paper, lively and vibrant new words – particularly when used by young people who are regarded as “in the vanguard of most [language] changes” (Wardhaugh 1998: 202) – have the potential to become integral parts of the Chinese language and contribute to linguistic changes.
The generation and development of the new Chinese marketing vocabulary also has had several negative impacts. For example, most words come from the more profitable and influential online shopping websites. Websites that are less profitable and popular tend to copy the popular words used on major websites and as a result create confusion among consumers. The quality of the products often does not match the description, generating dissatisfaction and complaints.

Despite the mixed effects on new words and novel usages on China’s online shopping websites, one cannot ignore their popularity and increasing influence on communication, particularly among the younger generation. Due to their potential impact on language change and development, they warrant more linguistic research.

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