In China (and around the world among China watchers), everybody's talking about this ungainly syllable. "Duang" surfaced less than a week ago, but already it has been used millions and millions of times.
"The Word That Broke the Chinese Internet" (2/27/15) by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian
"'Duang' is Everywhere on the Chinese Internets, Here’s What It Means" (2/27/15) by Charles Liu
"Chinese netizens just invented a new word, and it's going insanely viral" (2/28/15) by Ryan Kilpatrick (English text part of the way down the page)
We know exactly how the word arose and developed, every step of the way. It was first used by the famous actor, Jackie Chan, in a shampoo commercial that was made in 2004.
From the Liu article, quoting Jackie in the ad:
I don’t want to say it, but when commercials are shot, they can add special effects afterwards, and the hair will be like “DUANG”! So rich! So shiny! So soft! (But if) I were to do that, the audience would scold me for not actually having this hair. …And after making the commercial, the hair is still mine. You don’t have to add any special effects.
Ryan Kilpatrick says that "duang" can be roughly rendered in English as "boing". Fair enough — that's a pretty clever translation, but we'll dig deeper into the semantics of duang later on. For the moment, it's enough to note that duang is an onomatopoeic expression for describing the fluffiness and bounciness of someone's hair.
Before analyzing the phonology and morphology of duang, let's watch a video of Jackie delivering the commercial. Naturally, this version has been doctored to emphasize the effect of Jackie telling us how "duang" his hair became after using Bawang Anti-hair Fall Shampoo.
The doctored version is hilarious, and there are also cute gifs of the magic moment when Jackie says "duang" floating around the internet (some are embedded in the articles cited above in this post).
You can watch the original 2004 commercial here (in Kilpatrick's article), about halfway down the page. Note that there are two videos: 1. the heavily manipulated one that has been sweeping the internet, 2. a. the original commercial, b. a slightly modified version where Jackie's words in praise of the naturalness and purity of Bawang shampoo are cleverly subverted by voice-over to say exactly the opposite: the shampoo is full of artificial ingredients (not Chinese herbs) and the ad-makers have used special effects to emphasize the bounciness of Jackie's hair, etc..
So here's the complete derivation of "duang". At first it was just a spontaneous sound in Jackie Chan's mouth. Then somebody wrote it down in romanization for the subtitles of the doctored version of the video (the subtitles for the original commercial and the slightly modified version just skipped over "duang", omitting it altogether). At this early stage in the evolution of "duang", it didn't have a tone attached to it, just "duang". Later, the pedants decided that it should have a first tone, so now people who are fussy and take the time to do it add the first tone diacritical: duāng. But that's still not good enough. Since Jackie Chan is Chinese and he spoke "duang" as part of a Chinese sentence, surely there has to be a Chinese character for this powerful meme, and this is it (you have to imagine that the two characters stacked on top of each other are actually a single character written within the square occupied by one of the characters):
The problem is that the sinographic form of "duang" doesn't yet exist in any electronic font, much less any dictionary, whether in printed or online form. It might as well have been invented by Xu Bing as part of his "A Book from the Sky". To the extent that it is circulating around the web, it is doing so as an image (i.e., it is not yet typable and transmittable via Unicode). The vast majority of people are still just writing "duang", and I expect that will be the case for quite a while yet. Thus, what is probably the most popular Chinese word on the planet right now — in its written form — exists almost entirely in romanization.
Where did they dig up this new character — chéng 成 + lóng 龍/龙 (lit., "become dragon")? Simple — that's Jackie Chan's name in Chinese:
陳成龍 (traditional) / 陈成龙 (simplified)
Cantonese Can4 Sing4 Lung4 / Mandarin Chén Chénglóng
Phonologically, there's no connection between the two characters of Jackie Chan's name and "duang". The sound "duang" was just arbitrarily assigned to the new character.
The most that can be said phonologically in defense of the new character is that "duang" and Lung4/-lóng both end in voiced velar nasals.
"Duang" is not even a legitimate syllable in Modern Standard Mandarin, although d- is a possible initial and -uang is a possible final. Nor do I know of any Sinitic language, topolect, or dialect that has the syllable "duang"
This reminds me of one of David Moser's classic papers, "Some Things Chinese Characters Can’t Do-Be-Do-Be-Do" (2001), where he gives examples of "scat singing" in Chinese that couldn't be represented without pinyin.
He shows how Pinyin allows you to break through the one-syllable chunk that the characters tie you to, and allows you to create syllables that combine the consonants and vowel segments of Mandarin into new chunks like the following:
"Duang" would be another example of this sort. You can't convey this level of morphology with the characters, which code for a static, unbreakable syllable.
As for semantics, one could argue that, when it was first uttered, "duang" really had no meaning at all, but was just a funny sound effect. Already, however, in less than a week, "duang" has been given various definitions, such as jiā tèxiào 加特效 ("add special effects").
Where do Chinese words come from? Sometimes they come from nowhere — just out of thin air. Where do Chinese characters come from? Sometimes people just make them up out of other characters, or out of their own minds.
"'Book from the Ground'" (12/5/12)
"Weird characters" (7/7/13)
"New radicals in an old writing system" (8/29/12)
In recent years, Chinese artists have become fond of inventing not just new radicals and new characters, but whole new writing systems that incorporate Roman letters and English words, as Petya Andreeva has shown in a paper written for my "Language, Script, and Society in China" course, which I hope to publish soon in Sino-Platonic Papers.
[Thanks to David Moser, Maddie Wilcox, South Coblin, Axel Schuessler, Nathan Hopson, Wendy Fuglestad, and BJS]