Ho Hou2 Ho!: English / Cantonese combo

« previous post | next post »

Seen today by Jeff DeMarco in the IFC mall in Hong Kong:

Cant. hou2 / Mand. hǎo 好 ("good; fine; well; OK")

Other than the numerals yī, èr, sān 一, 二, 三 ("1, 2, 3"), 好 is probably the best known character outside China.  It is generally explained as depicting a mother and child, though there are other interpretations, for which see this Wiktionary entry.


  1. Chris Button said,

    November 24, 2017 @ 9:21 pm

    It is generally explained as depicting a mother and child, though there are other interpretations, for which see this Wiktionary entry.

    What the Wiktionary entry fails to note is that 好 is analyzed in the Shuowen as 从女子 which following R.A. Miller's proposal means 聲 was probably excised from an original 从女子聲 since treating 子 as phonetic in 好 no longer made sense. Although 子 is not a viable phonetic for 好 in and of itself, a solution comes from 㐬 which originally shows an inverted 子 (as can still be seen in the modern form) and some dots of parturition fluid (now represented by the lower three vertical strokes). It was most likely this 㐬 in abbreviated form (i.e. missing the parturition dots) that was the original phonetic in 好 (OC ʰlə́wʔ) and, by extension, also in 孝.

  2. cameron said,

    November 24, 2017 @ 9:36 pm

    "dots of parturition fluid", eh? – but of course, what else could it be?

  3. Chris Button said,

    November 24, 2017 @ 10:28 pm

    Actually not much else (and please don't suggest hanging hair :) )…

    㐬 (which incidentally is modern 育) is essentially a variant of 毓 which originally shows a mother 母/女 (later merged with 每) or even just a person 人 (necessarily female) with an inverted 子 coming out of her. This OBI form of 毓 does not actually show the parturition fluid (dots around the head) in spite of the three strokes present in the modern form, although they are present in the variant OBI form of 㐬 – hence a similar abbreviation in 好 is also likely. If you still aren't convinced, take a look at what happens to the three strokes of parturition fluid in 旒 when they are moved to the left side of the character in what is essentially its variant form 游 (give or take a little lexical confusion) and in which they are now miraculously "water" (i.e. fluid).

  4. Chris Button said,

    November 24, 2017 @ 10:35 pm

    Just to be clear, there are OBI forms of 毓 showing the parturition fluid as well – the point is that it may be abbreviated.

  5. unekdoud said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 1:56 am

    I'd doubt that 好 is the "best known" character to those who have not studied Chinese. There are several characters that are more common and more versatile (and simpler to write), both on signage and in sentences.

  6. Steven said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 4:35 am

    I'll grant you I can think of a few better candidates for "most well recognised character" (中 immediately comes to mind in its Mahjong tile form), but it's almost certainly up there, at least in the "extremely passing knowledge of MSM" category. Signage I would not think would be a big factor unless you were in an environment where you encountered it frequently (not often the case outside of the Sinosphere).

  7. David Marjanović said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 7:32 am

    What the Wiktionary entry fails to note

    Don't put that here, put it in the entry. Just click on "edit".

    not often the case outside of the Sinosphere

    …which includes every Chinatown in America and Paris and Belgrade and a bunch of other places.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 8:28 am


    Aside from zhōng / zhòng 中 ("middle"; "to hit the center"; etc.), which Steven mentioned, and the first three numerals, which I mentioned, I'm curious to hear about the "several" other characters that you think are "probably" more familiar to people who don't know Chinese.

    Back in the days (30-40 years ago) when I led educational groups to China, 好 was invariably their favorite character, and usually one of the very few to which they paid attention. Why? For two or three main reasons:

    1. It was in one of the two or three Mandarin expressions they learned:
    Nǐ hǎo 你好 ("Hello!"). Their mnemonic for the pronunciation was "knee how / howgh" (the latter as the Native American greeting in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, Karl May, et al.


    They never bothered to figure out how to write or recognize nǐ 你.

    2. They loved the vignette-story of mother and child which was very easy to remember.

    3. Some of them, especially the ladies, had forced themselves to learn the shape of nǚ 女 ("woman") so that they would go in the right toilet, leaving the men to go in the one marked with that harder, more complicted character, nán 男 ("man") — if they tried to recognize it at all, they usually thought of the part on top as a big head, instead of "field" which the character construction dictionaries tell us it represents. I would tell them that zǐ 子 depicted a baby with a schematic head at the top, arms outstretched, and legs wrapped in a swaddling blanket. They loved that.

    Usually, the only other Mandarin expressions they learned on the 2-3 week trips were "xièxiè 谢谢" ("thanks") and "zàijiàn 再见" ("goodbye!"), the pronunciations of which they mangled, and they weren't about to try to figure out how to write or recognize those characters.

    The participants on these trips were usually middle-aged and older folk who were intelligent, interested in all sorts of things, and fairly well off.

    BTW, in addition to the Cant. hou2 / Mand. hǎo ("good; fine; well; OK") pronunciation that I mentioned in the O.P., 好 also is pronounced Cant. hou3, / Mand. hào with the meaning "like; be fond of".

  9. unekdoud said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 10:58 am

    I am saying this with pretty much no experience with "foreigners", but my candidates are the (easy to write, in no particular order) 人大小不儿了口日天. As for more complicated characters, I'd say many people would be able to tell you the meaning of 個(个)你我的要爱华 characters based on their pronunciation. This is, of course, subject to change based on any current events.

  10. ~flow said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 12:50 pm

    I think what my father learned first when he visited Japan and Taiwan was 出 because that sign told him how to find his way out of airports and shopping centers. Western people, learners and travelers alike, definitely love characters like 好 and 東 because of the picturesque pictorial stories they get to hear. In a way it's a good thing because at least that lends a sense of readability to a script that's otherwise visually overwhelming to the uninitiated. I also like to point out to people how similar 一二三十 are to Roman numerals. In the Global Most Popular Chinese Character Contest 好 certainly has an unshakable position on the shortlist—no book that spends a page or two on explaining Chinese writing fails to mention it.

  11. John Swindle said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 3:31 am

    How is this an "English/Cantonese combo"? I don't know Cantonese, but doesn't the "Ho HO" in Roman script represent Cantonese "好好“ (hou2 hou2), 'very good', with the Chinese character ”好" for clarification? Or are we supposed to see the English exclamation "ho!" or even a Santa-Clausy "Ho ho ho!"?

  12. Alex Fink said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 5:33 am

    What the Wiktionary entry fails to note

    Don't put that here, put it in the entry. Just click on "edit".

    Seconded! I might do it myself except that Miller's thesis appears to be hard to get hold of if one isn't at Columbia.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 7:59 am

    @John Swindle:

    Of course, it's "a Santa-Clausy 'Ho ho ho!'"

    1. One exclamation point at the end.

    2. Santa Claus is right there!

    3. This is the kind of seasonal play on words that Hong Kongers love to indulge in.

  14. Chris Button said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 8:39 am

    @ Alex Fink

    Miller didn't say anything about 好. That was from my "Phonetic Ambiguity" monograph. It was just Miller who first pointed out in a short section of his dissertation that certain entries in the Shuo Wen might have lost the character 聲. The entry for 好 is one of those.

  15. John Swindle said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 12:30 pm

    Oh my goodness! I didn't recognize him. Sorry!

RSS feed for comments on this post