Taikonaut? Yuhangyuan?

For a nation that is already two years into its manned space programme, China displays a remarkable lack of consensus on what to call its men in orbit.

This is no trifling matter since space travellers are probably the only profession in the world with different names in different countries, reflecting their status as belonging to a tiny elite.

Some fairly outlandish suggestions—such as “Chinanaut”—have failed to find many supporters, narrowing the field to three candidates, “Taikonaut,” “Yuhangyuan” and “Hangtianyuan”.

“Taikonaut” is an odd mixture of languages, merging the Chinese word for outer space, “taikong”, with the Greek word for sailor, “naus”.

Chinese officials do not particularly like this newly-coined word, and state-run newspapers mostly stick to the more technical term “hangtianyuan”, meaning “space navigator”.

However, “taikonaut” could eventually win out, because it is relatively easy for foreigners to pronounce, and because it alludes to terms for the profession coined by existing space powers.

The world public seems to overwhelmingly prefer “taikonaut.”

A Google search on “taikonaut” yields 67 000 results, with “yuhangyuan” a distant second, leading to just 891 results, while “hangtianyuan” had just 118 entries.

“Astronaut”, the US term, means “star sailor”, while cosmonaut, the Anglicised version of the Russian word “kosmonavt,” means “sailor of the cosmos”.

Possibly for patriotic reasons, there have never been any efforts by the two former space rivals to merge the idioms.

Rather each of the terms has spawned its own class of words in their respective languages. For instance, “astronautics” is called “kosmonavtika” in Russian.

Meanwhile, both terms have been translated into Chinese as either “hangtianyuan” or “yuhangyuan,” while Xinhua news agency in its English dispatches invariably uses the word “astronaut”.

It could be that at the end of the day, no special word for Chinese space travellers will be needed.

After all, Japanese traveling on the US space shuttle are still referred to as astronauts, just as East Germans who hitched a ride on Soviet spacecraft called themselves cosmonauts. - Sapa-AFP


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