Liu Shinan

Do not leave language to the whims of big pawns

By Liu Shinan (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-10-25 05:42
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Do not leave language to the whims of big pawnsIf somebody calls you an "Ashes Class" maestro, don't be angry. This person is not cursing you to death; actually, he is expressing his admiration of your seniority in your profession.

The term comes from modern video games, referring to a top-class warrior under the understanding that ashes represent the highest stage in one's life from birth to death. It is widely used by netizens, mostly teenagers and people in their 20s, who have coined hundreds of such words.

Most of the new words were born by twisting homophones or transliterating foreign words. For example, a three-character word - YiMeiEr - is used to mean e-mail. But the literal meaning of the Chinese characters is "she (the) sister."

Some new words were simply coined by a lazy hand. Take "banzhu," meaning "web-page host."

When writing Chinese characters with a computer, young netizens like to type pinyin - Chinese alphabetic spelling. The input system in the computer will transform the spelling into Chinese characters on the screen.

But the software does not include "web-page host" in its dictionary; instead it presents "mottled bamboo," which is also pronounced as "banzhu." The lazy writer doesn't bother to search for the right words and uses "mottled bamboo" for "web-page host" anyway. Many people did this, and now everybody uses "mottled bamboo" instead of the two real characters for "web-page host."

Probably the most absurd example is the coining of "fen si." The word - literally meaning vermicelli made from rice or bean starch - is now used to mean fans. The term was invented last year when the Super Girl TV contest - the Chinese version of American Idol - was at its height. Supporters of the women contestants called themselves "fen si."

The event, an annual occurrence since the year before last, was so popular that "chao nu" (Super Girl) has become a household phrase. Last week, there was an Internet debate on whether the new edition of "Cihai" (word encyclopedia) should include chao nu as an entry.

Defenders of such jargon argued that it should be recognized since it is now widely used by a considerably large portion of society. They also said that dictionaries should reflect the changes of language.

It is right that language should absorb new words born during the development of society and technologies. But two conditions should be met before these words are accepted into formal, authoritative dictionaries such as Cihai. First, they should have stood the test of time over a fairly long period; second, they should make sense literally and must not cause confusion. Chao nu has existed for only two or three years; and fen si doesn't make sense at all.

Lots of new words appeared in the information technology industry over the past two decades and made their way into Chinese vocabulary, such as "shan cun" (flash memory) and "hei ke" (hacker). Shan cun literally means "flash storage" and hei ke "black guest." They both make much sense.

Some other new words, such as "modem" in English and "ke long" (clone) in Chinese, may not carry much literal sense but do not confuse with any currently existing words. Banzhu and fen si, however, produce a lot confusion.

Other examples of such confusing words: "da xia" (literally big pawn), a homophone of "great chivalrous swordsman," referring to a sophisticated computer user who is ready to help greenhands; "xi fan" (literally rice gruel), a twist of "xihuan" (like); and "ji" (chicken) used for whore (which is also pronounced as ji).

These words definitely should not be accepted into formal use no matter how many people use them in Internet chat rooms. Otherwise, our language would be seriously garbled.

Just imagine a teenager saying to her mother: "Today mottled bamboo sent me a sister saying an ashes class big pawn will visit me. I'm so glad because I rice gruel him so much. I'm his vermicelli."

I bet the mother would faint away upon hearing these words.


(China Daily 10/25/2006 page4)