And now gamer-linguist nerd crossover content that may not be for everyone. You are warned.

A discussion of the word for “nerd” in Chinese included a note about Chinese usage of the term “PK,” which is comparable to English “pwn” or “versus.” (I hope that usage converges, otherwise you need strong context to tell whether the word implies simply opposition or also the result of that opposition.) Excerpt:

5. As so often happens when words cross from one language to another language, it does not mean exactly the same thing in Chinese (“to thoroughly dominate; to beat” [in one-on-one or multiple competition]) that it means in English (“player killer”).

I note that the English usage is also ambiguous. In our MMO context, I am most familiar with “PK” as an abbreviation for any sort of PvP player, but my usage arises from starting MMOs with Asheron’s Call, where characters had a PK flag that indicated whether they were participating in PvP. Victor Mair suggests that Counter-Strike players use “PK” where I would use “TK” (“team killer”) or perhaps “griefer,” someone who intentionally shoots people on his/her own team rather than the enemy. Feel free to contribute from your own idiolect in the comments.

The researchers Victor Mair mentions in his post (Matt Smith and Brendan O’Kane) have graciously forwarded me their notes with permission to use them for posting. They track the term back to MUDs. This is your chance to be on the cutting edge of Chinese gamer linguistics and potentially contribute to research in its advancement. Are you excited? I’m excited..

I was going to summarize and rephrase the notes, but then I realized that I am not competent to do that with the Chinese content. And then I liked the rawness of exploratory speculation rather than projecting false confidence about pop culture lexicography. These can be data points available if anyone is working on a definitive answer. If you have any relevant information, please contribute, or just go off on a tangent about gaming terms and how words drift over time. (And there’s your Friday TV Tropes timewaster link.) There is also a bit more PK discussion in the comments on the original post.

From Matt Smith:

There’s quite a lot out there about this.

I’d understood it was from video games – player kill(ing), but had expected there to be a Japanese or Korean connection which, at a very quick search, I’ve not found.

You could probably start here (noting point 2, 一对一决斗): PK
With a little more here: MUDs

The expression seems to have been around quite a few years, and I think I’ve only noticed it used to mean something like ‘one on one elimination bout’. I’ve always thought of it as being like KO, but where KO would be the conclusion of a head-to-head contest, PK would be the contest itself.

I would guess it first came to my attention in some of the early-ish (2005/6/7?) TV talent shows where, as far as I recall, one of two contestants would be eliminated in a head-to-head, at various stages of the competition.

That said, I’m just not that up with the kids. I guess some of your other correspondents will be able to add something on other uses, and perhaps much earlier use.

One other thought; I suspect it’s sometimes a mistake to look for the ‘one true source’ of a word. The following offering from Baidu notes some other meanings (in addition to the WP pages above). So with a little imagination we might note the connection to:

Penalty Kick(s) – in soccer, a penalty kick (awarded for a foul in the penalty area) is a head-to-head between ‘striker’ and goal keeper. Furthermore, where a match is drawn in a knockout competition (e.g final stages of a world cup), the game will be decided by penalty kicks – another form of head-to-head elimination.

扒开/爬开 It’s just about conceivable that ‘separating’ two contestants could add to or reinforce the meaning.

仆街 Pok Kai (see Wikipedia link above – bankrupt…out of the game?)

Whether there’s anything to these, I just don’t know. But it’s worth noting that soccer was extremely popular prior to the great NBA invasion.


From Brendan O’Kane:

In terms of usage today, “PK” seems in some ways to be analogous to the old opera term 叫板, which is now being used to mean “call (someone) out; challenge; upstage.” One of the first results for a Google News search for 叫板 is in the headline “三星推小尺寸平板叫板苹果iPad mini“. A search for “苹果 PK 三星” obligingly turns up “蘋果PK三星世紀專利大戰詳解“, which is about Apple’s lawsuit against Samsung rather than about its eventual victory in one of the suits.

“PK” also turns up in the headline “养生:冻豆腐PK鲜豆腐 哪个更有营养?“, where it’s clearly introducing a comparison in the way that “vs.” might in English. “PK” seems to be a bit more flexible, though, both in scope and function; consider the highly informative “中国城市三围PK 盘点女性身材最美旅游地“, where it’s acting like a noun and is talking about a comparison between multiple contestants, rather than the one-on-one implied by the earlier examples. Or “多C多营养 12款果蔬大PK 选出加强版营养王“, if you’d prefer something that doesn’t objectify women quite so much.

I’ve heard the same explanation of “PK’s” origins as Matt. As explained to me, the term came from the first-person shooter Counterstrike, or “CS” as it’s known in China. An answer on 百度知道 dates “PK” back even earlier, to text-based MUDs (multi-user dungeons). A quick look for English material on MUDs online (mostly suggests that this is plausible, since the term “PK” for “player killer” does appear to be a real one within the Anglophone MUD gaming community — whereas I don’t think I’ve ever heard a non-Chinese person use the word when talking about first-person shooters. (Though I’m not a gamer, and you could fill the Great Hall of the People with all the things I don’t know about gamer lingo.)
I first started noticing “PK” in tech industry articles around mid-to-late 2005, I think.


From Matt Smith:

Just to add a little more…there should be quite enough of this already!..I asked a class of 50-odd post-grads this morning, who are old enough to have some sense of how long the expression has been in use. Most of what they said fitted with what I’ve heard before.

1) Most of them think they probably first encountered ‘PK’ on the TV show 超级女声. A quick search suggests that the show began in 2004 but, although there are references to PKs online, I’m doubtful that the term PK was used in that first series. It looks likely that PK was first known as such in the 2006 competition, but I just can’t say for sure. You could always sit through a bundle of shows on Youku, Tudou etc, if you have the stamina. I don’t! Though I did watch one item from ’04 which was described online as a PK, even though it’s not described as such in the broadcast. PK appears in scrolling subs which I’m pretty sure would have been added long after the fact, but not in the dialogue or onscreen idents etc.

2) Two students thought they knew the expression prior to its use on TV from their playing of a computer game called something like ‘Legend’. For further detail on this, see Brendan’s comment on computer games. My knowledge certainly doesn’t exceed his.

3) Nobody brought up any reference to ‘penalty kicks’ or any other term, though one of the computer game boys said he originally thought it meant ‘personal kill’ rather than ‘player kill’. This is what I thought until today.

Oh, and I almost forgot. The expression 被PK下来 does seem to be reasonably widely used online, as well as 谁PK谁. So it seems quite flexible.

And though it seems to be widely agreed that it’s a one-on-one thing, it’s worth looking out for evidence that (in some people’s eyes) it might be *any* kind of elimination round.

: Zubon

10 thoughts on “PK

  1. Jason

    when I was in college, I played MUDs a lot. There was one in particular called “Genocide” (I think hosted out of university in Austin, TX) that was a “PK MUD” – a flavor of MUD where you didn’t hunt mobs, but hunted people.

    The entire MUD was focused on short duration matches of various types, including team v. team or “last man standing”. You basically start each map naked, have to gather resources, equip yourself, and then use various methods to find and gank others.

    This would have been 1995-1996 time frame. I played on a console over a 9.6k baud modem (iirc).

    (edit – yay for wikipedia – )

  2. *vlad*

    When I played Phantasy Star Online on the Dreamcast back in 2000, PKers were hackers who would kill your character (in a non-pvp game) so they could steal your money and weapons.

    That was bad enough, but things got worse with PKers who only wanted to ruin your game rather than make item thefts. The most-feared attack was so-called ‘Nolling’, where your character got turned into an npc called Nol. Once you had been Nolled, your character was useless. Another attack was Lobby FSOD that froze your game so that you had to reboot it.

    PKers often referred to other Pkers as Script Kiddies: people who had got hacks from websites, but had little understanding of how their hacks actually worked. That didn’t stop said Kiddies wreaking havoc and making the online experience one of constantly fearing PK attacks rather than enjoying yourself.

    Games companies have long-since switched from Peer-to-Peer sytems to Client Server systems to stop people hacking games so easily. The term PKer as I remember it is hopefully a thing of the past.

  3. Jeromai

    Wow. Mind blown, My personal experience with the term ‘PK’ definitely dates back to MUDs. The SMAUG MUD I played at the time used it in the typical dikuMUD context – PK was player killing or a player killer.

    ( for a general reference to the term.)

    You could choose the option on character creation or later on in the game to go ‘deadly’ instead of ‘peaceful’ but never the other way around.

    They were limited to only beating on other deadly characters, so very limited griefing opportunities. It basically evolved into a tiny tight knit sub-community of 20-30 people who all knew each other by first name, leaned heavily towards competition and spent their days chasing each other around the MUD in the hope of scoring a kill and getting the option to loot the loser’s corpse of three items. I believe an entire ‘honor’ culture evolved around that ability, some players who enjoyed the fight the other person gave wouldn’t loot or would only loot a token not-so-valuable item, whereas someone whom most deadly players didn’t like would be repeatedly killed and stripped bare.

    1. Zubon Post author

      The definition is ambiguous because of the consensuality of it. Note two people above: one group seems PKs as griefers, another sees them as people who have collectively agreed to participate in PvP. Kirlo takes the first view, while other people saw that as the whole point of UO.

  4. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    Mmm, language geekery. It’s almost like you wrote this post just for me. :)

    My memory of the term “PK” goes like this:

    It was originally a term in text MUDs applied generally to any player directly combatting another. It usually meant “Player Kill” as in the sentence: “That PKer PKed me!” It could also be short for “Player Killer” as in “That character Rogue is a notorious PK,” but I remember “PKer” being the more common term for a player killer.

    As Jason says above, there were a few “PK MUDs” that focused entirely on players fighting each other. Genocide was one more popular one. These were basically text versions of FPS arena death matches, where you would try to be the last person standing or would be assigned to a team at game start.

    In MMOs, the term “PvP” came into fashion; I don’t remember people using it in text MUDs. The original distinction was to separate people who like to fight against other willing players vs. those who preyed on victims; PK took on a negative connotation here that wasn’t as strong in text MUDs. PvE became the counterpoint to PvP.

    Interesting to see it possibly made the leap to the Chinese language. :)

  5. Curuniel

    Interesting to see the info and comments. I haven’t been gaming long enough to add anything historical from my experience, but I can say that playing in an English-speaking context (specifically PvP servers of TERA) I have seen ‘PK’ used as a verb – which seems to be what is suggested for the Chinese case. I knew it as ‘player killer’ and thought it was originally a designation for a person, a noun (as the Ultima example cited above), but people seem to be using it as a verb now. Of course, at this point it’s possible that would come in part from Chinese influence rather than being a parallel English development, right?

    I’ll also back up Psychochild’s assertion, although I’m sure most of us know it, that in my experience ‘PvP is a more neutral term whereas ‘PK’ has negative/griefer connotations in English. May not be the case in China.


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