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While travelling recently for two months in mainland China I noticed many buildings with the English letters KTV in their signage.

At first I thought this was something to do with company names or such and had no idea what the usually very gaudy buildings were for. Later I learned they were Karaoke places and still wondered about the Latin letters common in their signs.

I finally discovered that KTV is widely believed to be an English term originating in an abbreviation of Karaoke Television. I found this to be quite odd as I'm a middle aged native English speaker and have travelled in the majority of the other English speaking countries of the world but had never seen this term before. In fact to me it has the feel of "foreigner English" a bit like the German term Handy and many Japanese terms, which look like English, are believed by many speakers of those languages to be English, but are not used, or do not have same meaning, by native English speakers.

I also travelled in Taiwan after China but can't recall for certain whether I saw the term there also or just in mainland China. I've also travelled in Korea and Japan, which each have their own terms and haven't seen KTV used in either country.

It does get Google hits in English speaking countries, but not many and, without further evidence, I assume it is infrequently used for Asian-themed karaoke places, or places run by and targeting Asian customers, in western countries.

But I don't know everything, so maybe this is widely used by native English speakers in some English-speaking part of the world that I never ran into.

Does anybody know the true origin and history of this term? Is it really used in English? Is it only used in "foreigner English"? Could it be due to some brand or product name in some Asian country that became genericised? - I believed that's how Germany got Handy.

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I think this kind of borrowing-with-a-slight-change-in-meaning-and-usage is quite common. English borrows like that as well; examples that come to mind are rsvp, which is used as a verb (I've even seen "rsvp, please") or "table d'hote" meaning "set menu". –  oerkelens Apr 24 at 10:33
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It appears that KTV is mainly used in China. It is possible that it may have a different meaning to some. –  medica Apr 24 at 10:35
    
Oh yes it's definitely common. Television could be a prime English example made of pieces from classical languages. So far I've found Chinese to be strongly against the very idea it's not English though, such as deleting mentions of it from Wiktionary! –  hippietrail Apr 24 at 10:41
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I travel extensively around the globe and I've honestly never noticed nor seen this before. I'll keep an eye out the next time I traverse through the orient. –  Tucker Apr 24 at 22:18
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I haven't heard of it in England or the rest of the UK. –  Tristan r May 1 at 22:37

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The origin seems clear enough: an abbreviation for karaoke television. Whether or not the average person in China understands the origin is probably not relevant as to its popularity; after all, I think relatively few Americans could write out the long form for RSVP.

Several years ago, it was widely reported in anglophone media that some arm of the Chinese government was trying to discourage the use of roman acronyms like NBA (but not Q?), and while I think this is probably an example of press misunderstanding or exaggeration, the reports acknowledge that various acronyms are commonly used in China— indeed that various organs of the Chinese state itself are best known by their English abbreviations, like CCTV and SARFT.


KTV returns zero results from the British National Corpus, and the one entry in the Corpus of Contempotary American English is the name of a television news show. So I turn to the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWbE), which turns up the following results by country:

  • Singapore 67
  • Hong Kong 35
  • The Philippines 20
  • Malaysia 6

Almost all of these refer to karaoke or karaoke parlors, so depending on your standard for "English-speaking country," it does seem to be in use in Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Malaysia.

There are 8 results for the US, of which 5 come from websites about China and three come from travel blogs about China. The 11 results for the UK, similarly, are about travel in China or entertainment in China. In both cases, KTV is invariably described as the local name for a karaoke parlor.

In contrast, results for karaoke alone show

  • GB 867
  • US 528
  • Singapore 233
  • Malaysia 235
  • Philippines 198
  • Hong Kong 174

In fact, there are even more results for noraebang (the more obscure Korean term for the same entertainment; venues are signed with NRB) in Singapore than for KTV in either the US or UK corpora. The Google Books results for KTV, similarly, refer exclusively to karaoke parlors as they exist in China, Taiwan, or Southeast Asia.

The Yelp category is karaoke (though KTV turns up in some reviews, along the lines of This place reminds me of a KTV/karaoke place in Guangzhou). For Google Maps/Google Local in my area, there are 414 results for karaoke, and only 3 of any kind for KTV, only one of which is for a karaoke joint.

All of this suggests very strongly to me that KTV as a term referring to a karaoke establishment is not a mainstream usage in the US (and does not seem to be in the UK or Canada, either), though expats or tourists might use it, and any businesses catering to them.

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Never heard of it, native AmE (California/Indiana). Google search brings up a few hits of karaoke places called "KTV" in the US, but given the prevalence of the name that you report in China, I'm guessing those US locations imported it from China rather than vice versa.

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