Chinese Neologisms

(If you just want to go to the Neologisms and skip the theoretical background, go to II.)

I. Thoughts on Chinese and English differences

As I’m beginning to settle into my English teaching job here in China, I’m seeing more and more differences between Chinese and English. For example, in Chinese you can write a sentence with 4 or 5 commas separating the phrases and it would be grammatically correct, as long as all the phrases are about the same subject (My TESOL practicum supervisor told me that this is correct in Spanish as well). In English you can’t do this, and between phrases you often need conjunctions. For example, in the last sentence I have to use “and” before “between,” otherwise the sentence just sounds wrong.

But in this post, the focus is something smaller than a sentence, which is words. I started learning English when I was 7 years old, and for several years I always thought that the equivalent to the English “word” was the Chinese term for “character,” “字” (zi). But then I found out that individual characters were called “characters” and not “words,” and a combination of characters (usually 2 or 3), which in Chinese is “词” (ci), was called a “word.” In this system, English letters would be equivalent to Chinese radicals, or the stroke combinations that make up a character. This is also where the name of this blog come from – compounds of radicals make characters.

This is a really fundamental difference between Chinese and English, that compared to Chinese, English lacks a linguistic level of the character. In Chinese, characters mean something individually but mean different things depending on which other characters they form words with. In English, if you want to say a female bovine animal, you have a new word, “cow.” If you want to say a male bovine creature, you say “bull.” By contrast, in Chinese there are no new words for “cow” and “bull”; you simply say “female bovine” (母牛) and “male bovine,” (公牛) with two characters in the name each. The only cases that comes readily to mind where it’s opposite, ie. where there’s 2 words in English where there’s one character in Chinese, is in the labels for family members and for cooking (how stereotypical…). If you want to say “younger sister,” all you would have to say in Chinese is “妹,” and there is “姨” for an aunt on your mother’s side and “婶” for an aunt on your father’s side. Similarly, in cooking, pan-fry, stir-fry, and deep-fry all have one character each to express them, which are 煎 (jian), 炒 (chao), and 炸 (zha). There’s also a character, “爆” (bao), which the textbook I’m using for speaking class tells me means “quick-fry,” though I have to admit I’ve never heard “quick-fry” before. Anyway, this would be the character pronounced “pao” in “kung-pao chicken.” Other than these two categories, I think in many cases it takes more than one character in Chinese to express one word in English rather than the other way around.

(long aside: I just had a thought last night that this enables the Chinese language not to have a gender hierarchy, for example in English sometimes the word “man” stands in for all of humanity, whereas in Chinese it would be “person,” “male person,” and “female person,” and the combination “male person” would rarely stand for everyone. I’m sure people like Julia Kristeva have mined this language difference and its implications for gender already. But this also means that cognitively Chinese people might think differently. If you have “cow” and “bull” and each is a word on its own, it’s not immediately obvious from the word that they belong to a larger category “bovine.” However, if all you have is “female bovine” and “male bovine,” then you would always be reminded of the category that they belong to. Perhaps what cross-cultural social psychologists have noticed, that Asians tend to think more holistically, comes partly from such language differences. As a side note of a side note, this makes it really hard for me to read Axis Powers Hetalia fan works in Chinese, because in common Chinese the name of countries rarely stand alone, like “France” and “America,” but they would be “Fa-Country” and “Mei(beautiful)-country” respectively. Hence, when a Hetalia character in English says “I am France,” it’s possible to forget for a moment that France is a country and just believe that the person is called France. Chinese never lets you forget that the person is in fact a country. When the fan work gets raunchy I really, really just want to forget that we’re talking about countries. Oh the implications.)

Anyway, so this way of combining different characters makes Chinese exceptionally rich in shades of meaning. Each character has its own meaning, and if you say XY the meaning can be different from if you say XZ, where X gives a basic meaning and Y or Z gives a different twist to it. For example, “精神” (jingshen) can mean “vivacious” or sometimes a person’s psychology, but “神经” (shenjing) means nerves and neurons, where “神” by itself actually means divine or magical (“神经” literally means “magical/divine meridians,” but it’s usually not understood literally). So while in Chinese there might be fewer characters, there are tons of character combinations, but English has few combinations in comparison while having a lot of individual words. Of course, there are prefixes and suffixes that change the meaning for the root word, but they are limited because the root word still bears most of the meaning of the word, whereas in Chinese in a combination both words might carry similar weight of meaning and combining with a different word can radically change its meaning. Also, the words in English that have a root plus affixes are most likely from French and are not really “English.” In English there are concatenations too, like the expression “get up” cannot be explained with either “get” or “up” individually. Looking at the New Words and Slang tab of Merriam-Webster online, there are such words as “frenemy,” and of course more established words like “Internet,” “blackmail,” etc.

But even if these words exist, comparatively single-word expressions overwhelmingly outnumber them in English. I believe that because English tends not to use combinations, combinations seem a bit strange and are slow to become official words. (Not all European languages are like this – for example, there are insanely long words in German like “vergangenheitsbewaeltigung.”) But because Chinese has always operated by pulling characters together and changing their meaning, it’s easier for new concatenations to take hold in Chinese. Finally, the actually neologisms in Chinese…

II. Neologisms
(all phonetics are given in pinyin for Mandarin pronunciations, without tones)

给力 (geili): literally, “give power.” This has mostly taken the place of the older expression “加油,” which literally means “add gas” (as in add gas to a car and make it run faster). 加油 is used as an expression of encouragement, but as a friend explained it, gas is so expensive that no one can afford to give anyone else gas. Hence, just give power in its raw form. “给力” is also used in more contexts, for example a commercial for some sort of slow cooker has a middle-aged woman saying that the cooker is 给力.Or, as my friend explains it, if you see a piece of news or an incident that really amazes you (in either a good or bad way), you can say it is very 给力. Because English is so popular in China (you have to take an English exam to graduate from university), Chinglish is also very popular. My friend explains that there’s a word floating around that is an English conjugation of this expression, which is “geilivable.” To keep going in this vein, we might end up with more conjugations like “ungelievable” and “geilivability,” as in “the geilievability factor of X incident ranks 10 on a scale from 0 to 10.”

山赛 (shansai): literally, “mountain competition.” This expression comes from a story about criminals hiding in a mountain, outside the law, and it’s come to mean “knockoffs,” which are outlaw products. I’ll probably write a post later on about these specifically.

你妹 (nimei): literally “your (younger sister).” This is usually used with the character for “to look at,” which is “看,” so the expression is “看你妹,” which translates to “What are you looking at?” I have no idea how this went from younger sisters to this.

In China there’s a website called Baidu, which is the equivalent of Google. It also has a section where you can ask questions and people will answer then, like in Yahoo Answers. One question asking for a clarification of “你妹” got a long hack answer about how your sister isn’t the same as my sister because of genetics and so forth.

雷 (lei): literally “thunder.” This expression is for anything that disturbs you a little and makes you go “wtf?!” For example, a funny but bad ethnic joke. Often this is used with the character for person, so it’s the adjective “雷人,” which means the joke would often make people go “wtf.”

2B (erbi): this is an insult and an amalgamation of two other insults: “250” and “傻逼” (shabi). The first one, 250, is pronounced “erbaiwu,” a shortened form of the accurate pronunciation for the actual number. Both of these terms mean varying types of stupid, and I’m not too clear on exactly how they’re different yet. I think 250 means someone is immature and irresponsible and thinks about things in an illogical way, whereas “傻逼” just means sort of dull or slow. So I guess 2B means someone who’s both slow on the uptake but then acts out and does stupid things as well? Not sure.

海带 (haida), 海藻(haizao): literally “seaweed” and “algae.” The origin of these 2 terms is another term, “海归” (haigui), where the first character means “ocean” or “sea” and the second means “return.” This term denotes Chinese people who leave China to get a better education and then come back to China to work. China has tended to hold these people in high esteem, because usually they have to be very hard-working and intelligent, and they usually get national fellowships to study abroad after competing with millions of people. So, in general, they find great work positions in China. In this term, a looser translation is “return from across the ocean.” However, the character for “return” is pronounced exactly like “龟,” which means turtle, and so without an appropriate context “海归” can sound like “sea turtle.”

Hence, new terms for people who come back to China further elaborate on the theme of the ocean life. “待,” which sounds the same as “带” but with a different tone, means to stay or wait; so, 海带 refers to people who go back to China but stay at home instead of work. Because more and more people are leaving China for their education, it isn’t a special status anymore, and people often can’t find jobs when they go back. In 海藻, “藻” also has the same pronunciation as another character, “糟,” which means “terrible” or “to ruin.” There are also people who leave China not because they work hard, but because their families are rich enough to support them. Often they just work barely hard enough to get a degree. These people are often looked down upon.

囧 (jiong): this character is an archaic character meaning “bright” or “shining” (archaic as in…the word “hap” in English or something. We only have “happen” in common use nowadays, though “hap” was used a little more than a century ago). Though now it’s not used as the original character – it’s used as an emoticon, an equivalent to “D=” It ranges from expressing “damn” to “awww”.

The page for this on Baidu has really nice pictures showing different drawings of this character to be more anthropomorphic. It also shows pictorial conjugations (I want to copyright the term “pictorial conjugations”!) by combining this character or character that look like with the expression “orz” or “OTL” (which looks like a person on their hands and knees, head being the O to the left) This combination is an emoticon for the humblest apology, which is kowtowing. Suppose you insulted someone on a forum and then found out it was actually your favourite singer in disguise, I guess you would use a combination of the two.

There’s a huge list of popular terms on Baidu. it’s a little outdated (2007) but I’m sure some of these terms are still in circulation.

III. New Chinese Words Transliterated From English
(“translation” is keeping the meaning in another language, “transliteration” is keeping the sound of the word).

Chinese is different from English in another interesting way, in the relationship between a sound of a character or word and its meaning. People who grew up speaking English might think that Chinese and Japanese accents sound really exaggerated and worse than other accents, and in a way it might be true, because in Chinese and Japanese the language has fewer sound. In another words, the language doesn’t require you to twist the components of your mouth and throat in as many different ways. So, if you learn Chinese or Japanese first, your tongue probably settles into a kind of narrow habit, and it’s really hard to do thinks like distinguish between “r” and “l.” In Chinese every character has an average of 10 homophones (even taking into account different tones), whereas in English only a very small fraction of words have homophones (see / sea). Sometimes this can be confusing, for example “制癌” and “治癌” are both pronounced “zhì’ái” (tones 4, 2), but the former means “cause/produces cancer” and the second one means “cures cancer,” but most of the time the context of the expression gives you clues about which character it is. This means that the meaning of the characters in Chinese come from how they are written and not how they sound. For example, if you look at the third paragraph in the first section, 3 out of 4 of the characters for various kinds of frying have the same radical on the left, and this radical written larger is the character for “fire.” So, even if you don’t know how to pronounce the character, you would know from the “fire” radical that the character has something to do with fire, and given the context of the sentence, you would probably guess it’s something to do with cooking. And almost every Chinese character has a meaning, which means that every Chinese sound has a meaning, unlike in English. For example, you can pronounce a random string of syllables like “staflenich” based on your understanding of how the 26 letters are pronounced, but this has no meaning. You wouldn’t even begin to think about what it means. But in Chinese, if you see a combination of a few characters, most likely it has a meaning, even if it’s not an actual Chinese word.

This also means that when things get transliterated from English, there are many characters to choose from to express one syllable of English sound, and they all have different meanings. So, the practice is usually to choose characters which have both a similar sound and nice meanings. This makes things very different from English, because in most English names, the meaning behind them are not obvious (though this is partly because many English names aren’t actually English, but maybe Hebrew or German or whatever). What does “McDonald’s” mean? It means “belong to McDonald.” If you’ve read or watched Shakespeare’s Macbeth you might know that “MacX” means “the son of X,” so ok, so the fast food chain belongs to someone who many generations ago was the son of someone named Donald. says that “Donald” comes from the Gaelic name “Domhnall,” which means “ruler of the world.” Well, seeing how far McDonald’s has spread, that meaning really fits. But unless your name is Donald and/or you’ve looked up what it means, then it’s not obvious what “McDonald’s” means. But in Chinese, the transliteration is “麦当劳” (mai’danglao), which sounds inelegant, but because each character has a meaning, the meaning of the name is immediately obvious. It literally means “grains as effort,” or more loosely, an advertisement that the food at McDonald’s will give you energy. The following are more words transliterated from English but with their own connotations:

Hacker: 黑客 (hei’ke), literally “black guest.” This Chinese term makes hackers seem more like digital ninjas. It also spawned a whole spectrum of other coloured guests like red, blue, white, and grey (I kid you not!) Red hackers are patriots who use their skills to protect national networks. White ones are anti-hackers that are employed to protect company networks and so on, and grey ones are the worst of all and cause trouble for everyone. And I don’t quite understand blue ones yet. Baidu says that blue ones “believe in freedom” and work independently, rather than being employed, to “keep peace on the net.” This is all so mindboggling.

Blog: 博客 (bo’ke), where “博” means “rich” or “expansive.” It’s commonly used with “士” (shi), which , to denote the Ph.D. degree. This makes blogs sound a lot more learned.

Fans (as in “we are fans of X singer”): 粉丝 (fen’si), literally “vermicelli rice noodle.” And in Chinese it’s always pronounced like the plural even when talking about one person. The first thing that comes to mind by associating people with noodles is that the people are spineless. It seems that this makes the term slightly derogatory, but maybe it’s just my personal perspective. Apparently different fan clubs will name themselves differently, sometimes by different ways to cook rice vermicelli noodles, like cold vermicelli rice noodles. It’s like if “pasta” was the collective term for fans in English, and fans of Alfred Hitchcock movies would call themselves “fettuccini alfredos” or something.

Talent: 达人 (da’ren), literally “achievement person.” This is used slightly differently from the English word, which is used more as a noun to talk about the field that someone is good at, as in “X has a lot of talent.” In Chinese, because of the character for “person,” it usually means a person who is good at something instead of the actual thing, as in “X is a talent at…” In English this also works, but it’s not used as much. The meaning of the Chinese doesn’t differ so much from the English, but this is used in a lot more places than in English. In English, “talent” is used to talk about an inborn ability, usually in some kind of humanities or arts subject, like languages or music. But in Chinese it’s used to mean an ability at a variety of things, eg “You can be a talent at saving money” or “we are talents of happiness.”

“Out” and “high”: These haven’t been transliterated, but often printed in English. “Out” as in someone being “out” of a game, used in more situations than in games, and usually it’s used intransitively, as in it’s not explicitly stated what the person would be out of. A Heinz radio commercial: “You’re going to be ‘out’ if you don’t come to X event this weekend.” There’s also “outman,” meaning someone who is “out,” though this is often written in the characters “奥特曼” (aoteman), which is also the Chinese name for the Japanese Ultraman franchise. And “high” is sometimes translated rather than transliterated, into the character for “high” or “tall,” “高” (gao). Since as a whole Chinese people do drugs less than Westerners, it’s used mostly for a state of rowdy drunkenness or extreme excitement.

IV. For English words of Chinese origin, here’s the wikipedia article
Apparently the Chinese slang for a bachelor, “光棍” (bare stick / bare branch) has been used in The Economist. Geilievable!


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