A taikonaut, we are told, is a Chinese astronaut.
Do you know what we call a Chinese baker? A baker. Do you know what we call a Chinese pilot? A pilot. Do you know what we call a Chinese physicist? A physicist. Do you know why? Because we’re speaking English. Of course if we were speaking Chinese we could call them mianbao shifu, linggangyuan, and wulixuejia.
And if we were speaking Chinese, we would call an astronaut yuhangyuan or hangtianyuan or, if we were from Taiwan or Hong Kong, perhaps taikongren.
So where the heck is this taikonaut from?
Well, in taikongren, ren means ‘person’ and taikong means ‘outer space’, from tai ‘greatest, farthest’ and kong ‘empty space’. Take taikong and add the Greek naut ‘sailor’ suffix by analogy with astronaut and cosmonaut, dropping the ng for ease of pronunciation and to make the ending onaut like the others, and you get taikonaut. The Xinhua News Agency has, since China started sending astronauts up, used this modified term (not invented by them but seen on the web variously since at least the late ’90s).
So why wouldn’t they use astronaut?
Well, why wouldn’t they use cosmonaut, for that matter?
You know the difference between an astronaut and a cosmonaut, right? One is American (or at least is with the American space program) and the other is Russian (or at least is with the Russian space program). Both words come from Greek roots – ‘star sailor’ and ‘universe sailor’ respectively; astronaut is the older of the two, around since at least the 1930s. But the Russians were the first to send a person actually into space, and a space program is a big thing to have – only the greatest world powers have them, and the space race was a big big thing – so they went with their own branding, космонавт kosmonavt, anglicized as cosmonaut.
So a pattern was established. Each different space program has to have its own naut! Otherwise you’re sending out your product, your pride, with someone else’s branding! Your marketing would be all for naught! Better for it to be for naut.
Frankly, I can’t make myself not see it as silly. But, yes, there are historical political reasons for the difference in word choice. Obviously we make an exception to the usual “call someone what you call them regardless of where they’re from” rule here, a rule usually infringed only by job roles that are culture-specific (e.g., chai wallah for a tea delivery person in India). And the naut suffix has become a handy identifier. If some other country develops its own space program, their astronauts will get their own naut word too, I guess. India’s astronauts, for instance, will apparently (as per the Indian Space Research Organization) be called vyomanauts, from a Sanskrit root for ‘space’ plus the naut (although the echo of vomit presents an uncomfortable overtone).
So the Chinese march to the beat of their own drum. Cue pun on taiko drummers. Oh, wait, taiko drummers are Japanese. Well, if we want to go with Mandarin, taiko really sounds like tai ‘too much’ and kou ‘mouth’ to me. Or, on the brighter side, it could make me think of Tycho as in Tycho Brahe, a Danish astronomer of the 16th century (they’re all astronomers no matter where they’re from) who made some good steps forward in understanding the planets and their motions (and their non-fixity), steps towards having a space program in the first place.