Because I like the Chinese term tǔ 土 ("earth; soil; dirt; ground; earthy; rustic; colloquial") so much, I was going to add the substance of the remarks below as a comment to the "Fun bun pun" (4/9/17) post, in which we devoted a lot of attention to one of my favorite expressions, "tǔbāozi 土包子" ("earthy steamed stuffed bun", i.e., "country bumpkin, hick, rube, clodhopper, backwoodsman, boor, dolt, yokel"). But the ramifications grew to such large proportions that they merited their own post.
This was what I was going to append as a comment to the previous post:
I can't resist adding another of my favorite expressions based on tǔ 土, namely, "tǔlǐtǔqì 土里土气 / 土裡土氣" ("countrified; rustic; uncouth; provincial") — the "lǐ" would be pronounced in neutral tone by many speakers. N.B.: the two Sinographic versions of the expression separated by a slash are the simplified and traditional forms of the characters.
But then I started to think: what are the lǐ 里 / 裡 (lit., "in") and qì 气 / 氣 (lit., "vapor; steam; gas") syllables doing there? What's their function? What do they mean?
Before attempting to answer these questions, I'd like to say a few words about the character tǔ 土 itself. The conventional explanation is that it is supposedly a pictogram showing a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel. See here and here.
Matt Anderson, a specialist on oracle bone inscriptions (obi), thinks that the most likely explanation is a depiction of a lump of earth on the ground, but many of the early forms have an additional element, viz., two, three, or four short, vertical strokes to the left and right of the upper part of the lump. The character is most commonly used in obi for a recipient of sacrifice (the earth god) or the name of a sacrifice (to the above) or as the name of a fang*-country (the Tufang), rather than as simply “earth” (though it can have that meaning too). This form, with the added dots, may be a description of the act of sacrifice, among other things. Scattering dust? Pouring liquid on an altar to the earth? (I guess that could also conceivably be a drawing of some part of the pot spinning process.) Some scholars hold that the obi graph represent a heap of dust, in which case the small strokes near the upper portion of the graph may represent dust particles drifting away from the heap.
[*Presumably non-Sinitic groups living in the various "directions" (the literal meaning of fāng 方, also "place; square; region")]
Back to "tǔlǐtǔqì 土里土气 / 土裡土氣" ("countrified; rustic; uncouth; provincial"). Basically what we have are two tǔ 土 ("earth") characters separated by a lǐ 土里 / 裡 (lit., "in") and followed by a qì 气 / 氣 (lit., "vapor; steam; gas"). Just the two tǔ 土 characters by themselves mean "very earthy".
Here's where it gets interesting. According to my interpretation, adding the lǐ 里 / 裡 (lit., "in") and qì 气 / 氣 (lit., "vapor; steam; gas") conveys the notion of "thoroughly tǔ 土" ("earthy"), that is, "having the air or temperament of tǔ 土 ('earthiness') inside [and out]". Others may wish to interpret the lǐ 里 / 裡 as having no particular semantic content but simply functioning as a modal particle for emphasis. An argument in favor of the latter interpretation is that the 里 of tǔlǐtǔqì 土里土气, etc. is pronounced as though toneless: li.
One of my respondents offered this explanation for "tǔlǐtǔqì 土里土气 / 土裡土氣" ("countrified; rustic; uncouth; provincial"):
I think 里 means that the person is within the category of 土 or it literally means that the person is so 土 that he is blended with soil (considering the term 土里土气 originally means that the person is from rural area and has never seen the outside world).
You can form many other colorful expressions from disyllabic adjectives this way (X里XY, where Y is often 气 or a morpheme that doesn't really mean anything by itself), e.g.:
yángliyángqì 洋里洋气 ("thoroughly Western / foreign")
guàilǐguàiqì 怪里怪气 ("thoroughly strange")
luōlǐluōsuo 罗里罗嗦 ("thoroughly prolix / wordy / garrulous")
lālilātà 邋里邋遢 ("thoroughly slovenly / dowdy / sloppy")
and so forth. See also this explanation (in Chinese).
It is said that the people of the city of Wuhan are particularly fond of this construction, but you can hear it elsewhere as well.
Here's an interesting sentence focused on tǔ 土, which comes at the very end:
Nǐ zhège rén zěnme nàme tǔ 你这个人怎么那么土? ("How can you be such a dolt?!") — grammatically speaking, tǔ 土 here is an adjective.
Cf. "zhèige rén zěnme nàme nèige? 这个人怎么那么那个?" ("how can this person be so [like] that?") in the last paragraph of this post:
"That, that, that…" (1/24/16)
Now for something really enigmatic and esoteric, yet extremely folkish, I will introduce two xiēhòuyǔ 歇后语 / 歇後語 ("truncated witticisms") that are related to "tǔlǐtǔqì 土里土气 / 土裡土氣" ("countrified; rustic; uncouth; provincial").
Here's how xiēhòuyǔ 歇后语 / 歇後語 ("truncated witticisms") work. The person initiating such a truncated witticism says something that seems quite mystifying and even bizarre. In doing so, they imply — but do not state — the concluding part, and the alert auditor knows at once what they really mean (the unspoken second portion).
1. qiūyǐn fàngpì 蚯蚓放屁 ("an earthworm farts")
2. qiūyǐn dài cǎomào 蚯蚓戴草帽 ("an earthworm wearing a straw hat")
Let's see how many smart Language Log readers can explain these two truncated witticisms in such a way that the unspoken conclusion follows from the first part of each which is written out at 1. and 2. You don't have to be a Sinologist to reply, and you don't even have to know Chinese, because you can work from the English translations that I've supplied.
[Thanks to Yixue Yang, Jinyi Cai, Jing Wen, Fangyi Cheng, Maiheng Dietrich, Melvin Lee, and Liwei Jiao]