Ammon Shea, an American writer, has an unusual hobby: reading dictionaries. In 2008, he finished reading the 17-volume Oxford English Dictionary, and wrote a book about it with the title: Reading the OED: One Man, One Year: 21730 pages. He resurrected several obsolete and recondite words from the OED. Here are two of them. Acnestis is the name of that part of your back, which you can’t reach to scratch; and deipnophobia is the fear of dinner parties.
Dictionaries are not meant to be read from A to Z. But there are people who pick a dictionary and recline on their sofa browsing the pages.
I remember looking for the word “rambunctious” in my collegiate dictionary. The entry read: “rambunctious: robustious (of which it appears to be a variation).” Turning to robustious, I saw “earlier in common use; robust; now chiefly with reference to Hamlet III ii 10.” Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew had the reputation of being rambunctious; and recently, actor Richard Burton was described as a strong, rambunctious companion of Elizabeth Taylor.
How would you like to browse a Chinese dictionary? My copy is Beginner’s Chinese Dictionary (Turtle Publishing). It has entries in Romanized pinyin. On the first page itself, I came across the word airen, meaning husband or wife. The literal translation is love person. The note for the word said it had been promoted by the communist rulers of China after 1949 in their effort to reform the language. Outside mainland China, the word may grate on the ear of a listener, as it means sweetheart or mistress. The use of xianshang and taitai to refer to husband and wife, a long-established practice in Taiwan and Hong Kong, has been adopted in China.
When I hear someone ask “What is your good name, sir?”, I can see myself smirk at this droll use of English. But Chinese has an equivalent. It uses the word gui, which means noble. Nin gui xing means “What is the name of your noble family?” The usual reply is of the form Wo xing Wang, “My name is Wang.”
The Chinese word for beer, pijiu, has two parts. The second part jiu means alcoholic drink. The first part pi is a simple adaptation of the English word beer. Country in Chinese is guojia: guo means country and jia means family. Traditionally, the dictionary says, China was seen as one big family, with the emperor as patriarch.
But a language breathes life only outside the dictionary. Chinese has been changing. New buzzwords have swept through the Chinese Internet. Nancy Shang, in an article on a CNN page, has a list of notable vogue words of 2010.
Gei Li is the equivalent of the ubiquitous, all-purpose “awesome”. It caught the fancy of Chinese youth and netizens, and became the “hottest buzzword of 2010”. Another interesting word is jia lihun, “fake divorce”, a ruse to bypass the restriction of one property per family. I link that word with the early years of communist rule in some Indian states. The Kerala land ceiling Act restricted property ownership to a specified area of land per family. The people then resorted to jia lihun. One family became two, and the land ceiling rule did not hold.
The English phrase “rat race” has a parallel in the Chinese buzzword, yi zu, “ant tribe”. This refers to the increasing number of graduates who throng to the major cities with dreams of a better life. Their number is increasing, but job opportunities are not keeping pace. Many of them have to live like ants in cramped conditions.
Slang continues to emerge from Web forums and chat rooms and move into mainstream Chinese, and on to the corporate world and the media.
VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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