Small Word, Nagging Question

Hello All,

What started out as an innocent conversation has become a nagging question and debate for me and a few friends. I would really appreciate the help.

A Taiwanese friend of mine asked me what the English word is for the Chinese word: 芬多精
It is the healthy thing believed to be put into the air by trees (not oxygen). I have never heard of such a thing, but what do I know.
What does this refer to? How should it be translated? A word - “Pythoncidere” was suggested but it doesn’t seem to be a real English word.

This has blown up into one of those nagging questions that won’t go away. Has anyone had the same discussion?



You’re very close – just a small spelling error.

The translation should be “phytoncide”. Below is a quote from Wikipedia:

“Phytoncides are antimicrobial allelochemic volatile organic compounds derived from plants. […] Today phytoncides are widely used in Russian, Ukrainian and Japanese medicine, including holistic medicine, aromatherapy, and veterinary medicine.”

If you want to be more specific, you can talk about “terpenes”, the phytoncides given off by conifers. Would this conversation have something to do with so-called “forest bathing”?

Thanks sjcma,

“phytoncides” might be the best answer yet.

My hangup is this - the word as I understand it to be used is more of a folk concept about the healthful properties of the aroma or a quality of the air in an area with lots of trees. In one woman’s words, “芬多精” is what causes the mind to feel clear and “gives you more energy” in the presence of lots of trees or in a natural setting. Translating this concept into a word that means “antimicrobial allelochemic volatile organic compounds derived from plants” seems deeply unsatisfying to me.

Another objection is that while “芬多精” seems to be a concept well understood by most Taiwanese, using a word such as “phytoncides” would send most intelligent English speakers scrambling for their dictionary.

On the other hand, you should know that I am still basic level A at Mandarin, and college biology 1001 was a long time ago.

Thanks for the Help so far!


If you go back to what I quoted from Wikipedia, it says this: Today phytoncides are widely used in Russian, Ukrainian and Japanese medicine, including holistic medicine, aromatherapy, and veterinary medicine.

The Taiwanese concept of 芬多精 comes, I believe, from Japanese medicinal thought which treats it as a sort of aromatherapy. As you can probably tell, 芬多精 is the Mandarin transliteration of the word “phytoncides” – phy 芬, ton 多. 精 means a concentrate or “essence of”. Phyton means the smallest unit of a plant structure.

To the Taiwanese and Japanese, 芬多精 is a plant aroma to be inhaled as a type of outdoorsy aromatherapy with the result of improved health. It is not thought of commonly as a “volatile organic compound”. An analogy for this may be the drug acetaminophen. Most people wouldn’t think of acetaminophen (Tylenol, Panadol) as an analgesic drug which has a chemical formula of C
. It simply thought of as a pill with the result of reduced pain.

Given the background of how the Taiwanese understand 芬多精, perhaps a more understandable translation would be “forest aroma”. Of course, a concept that is well understood by one culture/language often do not have an easy translation into another culture/language.

One that I can think of off the top of my head is 孝順. It is translated as “filial piety”. But so what? You’re going to get a lot of blank stares if you try to say “filial piety” in front of someone who has zero concept of this aspect of Chinese culture.

Whether it is 孝順 or 芬多精, no matter how you translate it, you’ll proably have to expand upon that translation if the concept is most likely foreign to your intended audience.


You make a convincing argument, enough that I will take it to be the answer to this question. Your point is well made, especially concerning my assumption that the translation must be as easily understood to us as the original is to a Chinese speaker.

But . . . from a simple pragmatic standpoint, in a casual English conversation between a Westerner and a Taiwanese person, the concept of “filial piety” is by its nature going to need a lot of explaining, especially as it can be taken as a cornerstone of traditional Chinese society. On the other hand, talking about feeling refreshed from the phytoncides during your mountain vacation will most likely be met with blank stares. Saying something such as “the aroma essences of the forest” will at least serve the purpose of communicating something of the concept to the typical Westerner not familiar with Japanese, Russian, or Ukranian alternative medicines.

To put it another way, maybe the concept of “filial piety” is important enough to warrent a translation requiring an explanation, whereas “phytoncides” just seems esoteric (unless one is a practitioner of Ukrainian alternative medicine.)

Still, as an answer to “that nagging question” I’ll take it . . . with the caveat given above.



Is this something to do with that “forest bath” concept? At places such as Alishan, you sometimes see English wording on tourist information signs that mentions “forest baths”. Before stripping off in anticipation of a good tub ‘n’ scrub, you should realise that it just means walking about in the forest and breathing in the good stuff, which presumably is these phyto-thingies.

I’d change the wording to “aromatic essences of the forest”, but that’s an excellent solution for translating for an ordinary Western audience.

To a non-biochemist, just call it “what shoots out of onions when you cut them and makes you cry, except that different plants shoot out different stuff.”

“forest bath”? I thought it was “forest shower”.

Anyway, in a translation I would go for one of the two expressions and add maybe in brackets a further explanation of what happens to your body while in the woods.