Linsanity

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By now, practically everyone has heard of the remarkable basketball performances of Jeremy (Shu-How) Lin 林書豪, the Harvard grad who came off the bench for the New York Knicks last week and helped them win seven straight games.

So sensational has his play been that enthusiasts swiftly coined the term "Linsanity" to describe it.  Of course, because Lin is of Chinese (er, Taiwanese [more about that later]) ancestry, there had to be a Mandarin equivalent.  Unfortunately, I think that the translation of Linsanity, Línfēngkuáng 林疯狂, that was circulating most widely (267,000 ghits; had 212,000 ghits two days ago) is not a good one.  No sooner had I heard the expression Línfēngkuáng 林疯狂 a few days ago than was I disappointed by it.  Not only did it fail to capture the nuances of "Linsanity", it sounded as though it had been invented by someone who doesn't have a native feel for Chinese word formation.  To quote Deadspin:  "Our resident Chinese expert, Tom Scocca, gives the translation of 林疯狂 as "Lin-insane," which carries a somewhat different connotation."  Tom Scocca's unease is not unfounded.

Let me analyze in greater depth and more detail why I believe that Línfēngkuáng 林疯狂 is a bad translation for Linsanity.

First of all, it is not cute or clever the way Linsanity is.  It is clumsy and clunky; just doesn't sound right.  Moreover, the rhythm is wrong for a Chinese word, and believe me, rhythm is very important for Chinese word formation.  (This will be spelled out very clearly in Perry Link's forthcoming book entitled An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics, due out from Harvard University Press in the fall.)

Línfēngkuáng 林疯狂 actually sounds like a person's name, which, in English order, would mean something like "Insane Lin"!  That certainly is not the impression we wish to convey when we shout "Linsanity"!  Chinese trisyllabic nouns usually have their main constituent at the end, and what comes before modifies it:  fēijīchǎng 飞机场 ("airport" [lit., "airplane field"]), dǎzìjī 打字机 ("typewriter" [lit., "strike character machine"]), huāshēngjiàng 花生酱 ("peanut butter" [lit., "peanut sauce"]), bōlípíng 玻璃瓶 ("glass bottle"), and so forth.  Note that the rhythm is usually 2 (modifier / dependent) + 1 (modified / head noun).  In this type of noun construction, 1 + 2 (which is how Línfēngkuáng 林疯狂 is constructed) doesn't scan well.

We might avoid the confusion with an inept personal name by reducing the fēngkuáng 疯狂 ("insane") part to just fēng 疯 or kuáng 狂 (both of which mean "mad; crazy; insane; wild"), hence Línfēng 林疯 or Línkuáng 林狂, but these don't sound right either.  There are several reasons for that:  a. they could still be awkward personal names (though the majority of Chinese names consist of one syllable for the surname and two syllables for the given name, there are many that are 1 +1, 2 + 1, or 2 +2, b. whereas fēngkuáng 疯狂 may be either a noun or an adjective, fēng 疯 and kuáng 狂 normally only function as adjectives, but we really need a noun in this position if we want to talk about "insanity".

So, what other alternatives are there? I will list some of them here, give their ghit numbers, and offer a few comments:

Línrè 林热 ("Lin craze") (663,000 ghits, though I can't guarantee that all of these are about Jeremy Lin)  The problem is that this focuses on the rage and hoopla over Lin, while Linsanity includes his abandoned, exuberant style of play.

Lín shì xuànfēng 林氏旋风 ("Mr. Lin cyclone") (10,300 ghits)  This expression is popular among certain circles in Taiwan, but it doesn't capture the flavor of Linsanity with regard to the wildness surrounding Jeremy Lin.

Lín shì fēngkuáng 林氏疯狂 ("Mr. Lin insanity") (2,200 ghits) dud

Lín shì fēng 林氏疯 ("Mr. Lin crazy")  (7,490 ghits) sub-dud; a considerable proportion of these ghits include bào 暴 ("storm") at the end, hence Lín shì fēngbào 林氏疯暴 ("Mr. Lin crazy storm")

Lín shì kuáng 林氏狂 ("Mr. Lin mad") (1,280 ghits) sub-sub-dud

For nearly a week, I was in despair.  Such a fantastic phenomenon as "Linsanity", yet such an unsatisfying rendering of that into Chinese as Línfēngkuáng 林疯狂!

Finally, however, a new translation of "Linsanity" surfaced, namely, Línláifēng 林来疯.  Brilliant!!  I fell in love with this rendering as soon as I encountered it.  Not only does it capture the spontaneity of Jeremy Lin's moves and the thrills they evoke in the crowds who watch him, it is constructed in accordance with the rules for Chinese word formation.  Moreover, like "Linsanity", which is modified from an actual English word, Línláifēng 林来疯 is transformed from a real Chinese expression:  rénláifēng 人来疯 ("get hyped up in front of an audience").  Perfect!

I was particularly pleased and enormously gratified when I noticed that the number of ghits for Línláifēng 林来疯 had soared from 155,000 two days ago to 683,000 today!  This shows that, when an excellent, idiomatic translation is made, people recognize it and approve of it enthusiastically.  So the problem of how to translate Línláifēng 林来疯 into Chinese has been solved, and beautifully so.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Lin's surname seems made for spinning off coinages based upon it.  Here are a few I've heard in recent days:

Linderella (New York Post, Sydney Morning Herald)

Lin-plausible (Los Angeles Times)

Lin-sational (USA Today)

Limmense (here, which also suggests many other possibilities)

Now come the non-linguistic problems, such as whether Jeremy Lin is American, or Taiwanese, or Chinese, and to what extent his Christian faith helps him play such astounding basketball.  The internet is abuzz with discussions on these topics, and politicians are making pronouncements and claims.  But I'm sure that Jeremy Lin is unfazed by all of it.  He's the type of guy who just loves to play basketball, so he's not going to get bent out of shape by identity issues (the same as Yo-yo Ma, who doesn't care whether he's French, American, or Chinese, or something else; he just loves to play the cello — and, like Jeremy Lin playing basketball, he plays the cello with abandon and utmost finesse).

Embedded in this Savage Minds post by Kerim Friedman is a Next Media Animation (NMA) video from Taiwan.  Because I'm in China, I cannot see it, but friends have told me that it shows Jeremy Lin throwing flaming basketballs at Yao Ming, as mentioned in "The Political Footballization Of Jeremy Lin Has Begun".

For those who are interested, there is a good article in the Times on mainland reactions.  Evan Osnos has also written on related issues in the New Yorker.

As a former Ivy League basketball player, I'm as moonstruck as anyone over Jeremy Lin's dazzling displays of sheer gutsiness and finesse.  Nonetheless, I care enough about Chinese that I don't want his fans around the world to be calling him "Insane Lin" when what they really want to be saying is the Chinese equivalent of "Linsanity".

[Thanks to Mandy Chan, Gianni Wan, Zhao Lu, Ben Zimmer, Perry Link, Alan Chin, An Rong Xu, Bonlap Chan, Nelson Ching, Mien-hwa Chiang, Grace Wu, Yunong Zhou, Liwei Jiao, Daniel Maas, Nathan Hopson, and Rebecca Fu]

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39 Comments »

  1. Andrew said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 5:31 am

    > practically everyone has heard of…

    Really? Or just people in North America?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 5:42 am

    @Andrew yes, practically everybody in North America and Taiwan and Hong Kong and Singapore and lots of other places, and about a billion people in China

  3. Nathan Hopson said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 6:33 am

    FYI, Japanese netizens and news sources have taken the "pave the world with katakana" approach, resulting in a bevy of explanations along the lines of: リンサニティ (Lin + insanity)

  4. richard howland-bolton said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 7:26 am

    I'm in the US and (until I read this) I'd not heard of him. Of course I'm in TX which may make a difference and (English and in my 60s) to me Basketball is just Netball with less attractive players. :-)

  5. Nick said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 8:21 am

    A good name for this linguistic phenomenon is "linsertion".

  6. Frank said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 10:42 am

    However, this is nowhere near as Lin-freaking-tastic as Linfixing.

  7. julie lee said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 12:29 pm

    Thanks, Victor, for letting us know that there is finally a witty and accurate translation for Linsantiy– Linlaifeng. I am always amazed and delighted at the wit of the wags out there, whether it's the US, China, or elsewhere. Thanks also, richard howland-bolton, for mentioning you'd never heard of Lin till you read this languagelog. Makes me feel better, because though I've seen Lin in the headlines and gathered he was the Chinese Jackie Robinson and Marian Anderson of basketball, I never really read the articles and didn't learn about Linsanity and Linderella until a friend told me over the phone yesterday. Thanks richard too for mentioning Netball, because that's what I played in missionary school in the Far East. ( Glad to hear you're in your 60's. Phone, netball, Far East— so long ago.) I never heard of basketball till I came to this country much later. I'm surprised to find I have so much in common with someone in TX.

  8. TK Mair said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 12:31 pm

    like basketball, interested in the Lin story? Explanation of Lin's impressiveness here :

    http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/02/11/its-official-linsanity-is-for-real/

  9. TK Mair said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

    I have one other, rather off-beat comment about this phenomenon. Years ago, I had a suspicion that culture, much more than genetics, determines a person's physical development. Within my own theory, this is another leaf in the basket. I was thinking at the time about why certain races seemed to me to have been producing larger and larger athletic players.

    What are you reaching for, what are your expectations and what's available to you? Your body may develop based on the answers to those questions.

  10. David Eddyshaw said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 2:07 pm

    書豪 strikes me as a pretty cool name (assuming the meaning is more or less what I would guess from Japanese.) Couldn't fail to get into Harvard …

  11. Robin said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 3:44 pm

    If the Knicks go on from here to win several championships we be calling them the "Lin Dynasty"

  12. Bob said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 4:45 pm

    LINSANITY is so bad as compares to AIR, MAGIC… it doesn't deserve to be tanslated.

  13. Shenyun Wu said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 4:47 pm

    The news in Taiwan calls Linsanity 林來瘋. They also refer to Jeremy Lin as 林傳奇 ( Lin the Legend), 林可能 (Linpossible), and 豪小子, a play on 好小子 (good ol' fella), the 豪 came from the last character in his Chinese name 林書豪.

  14. a George said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

    quoting: "I was particularly pleased and enormously gratified when I noticed that the number of ghits for Línláifēng 林来疯 had soared from 155,000 two days ago to 683,000 today!"

    Does that not mean that they now have a word for "Linsanity" in that language, too? All other constructs seem to have been clumsy. Surely, this is a counterexample to the "no word for X" argument that otherwise completely logically says that you can talk about something, even though you need several words to define the concept. Apparently not quite.

  15. Fred said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 7:42 pm

    I had heard about Jeremy Lin prior to reading this, but not bothered to actually find out who he was or what he had done. Having now done so, I'm duly impressed.

    But what has probably caught my eye the most in all this is that Mr. Mair inverted the auxiliary in the subordinate clause of this sentence:

    "No sooner had I heard the expression Línfēngkuáng 林疯狂 a few days ago than was I disappointed by it."

    I don't think I've ever seen that before, and it strikes me ear as distinctly odd-sounding.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 8:17 pm

    @Fred

    It's interesting that you spotted the inversion of "was" in that sentence. I actually spent a lot of time thinking about that, and went both ways, back and forth. Finally, I just followed my instinct / intuition, because — in the rush of trying to get this post out in a timely fashion — I couldn't think of a compelling grammatical rule that would guide me irrefutably in its placement.

  17. Josh Capitanio said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 8:51 pm

    I've also seen Línmí 林迷 (="Lin-mania?") used, which probably would have been this non-native speaker's first attempt at rendering "Linsanity."

  18. Rashon Clark said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 9:46 pm

    I'm hoping Lin-sanity moves to France, so I can coin the phrase "Lin de siècle." And the phenomenon of making bad puns off his should be described as name lin-guistics ::cough::

  19. Josh Capitanio said,

    February 17, 2012 @ 1:14 am

    When he returns to his native Taiwan, perhaps he will be greeted with resounding cries of 歡迎光林!

  20. Shenyun Wu said,

    February 17, 2012 @ 10:07 am

    @Josh Capitanio "歡迎光林" is clever!

  21. julie lee said,

    February 17, 2012 @ 2:07 pm

    re @Fred and Victor Mair's response

    Several times in the past, when I pointed out what appeared to be slips in what Victor wrote, I was surprised to find, as Fred may be too, that he had actually thought carefully about each one before making the "slip", that is, before he consciously chose to write as he did.

  22. Rob P. said,

    February 17, 2012 @ 4:08 pm

    @Andrew – to give an idea from another basketball hotbed, Spain's Thursday El Pais had NBA game summaries for each of the teams that have Spaniards (Minnesota – Rubio, Toronto – Calderon, Memphis – Gasol) playing for them plus the Knicks and Lin.

  23. Shenyun Wu said,

    February 17, 2012 @ 4:39 pm

    Here's an article from today related to Linsanity. The Dialect Society says that "Linsanity" has become a contender for Word of Year! http://buswk.co/z58BxN

  24. Victor Mair said,

    February 17, 2012 @ 5:29 pm

    Here's Ben Zimmer's excellent piece for Word Routes:

    http://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wordroutes/3140/

  25. Yang said,

    February 17, 2012 @ 5:42 pm

    HOW ABOUT 林彪? LOL…

  26. Tina Lu said,

    February 19, 2012 @ 2:24 pm

    Of the thousands of blog entries I have read over the last decade and a bit, this is the SINGLE most satisfying one. Thank you, Victor!

  27. Rashon Clark said,

    February 19, 2012 @ 10:37 pm

    I don't know if this topic is past its expiration date, but I like to note that Linsanity is a play off the nickname of another basketball player (Vince Carter) who was also known as Vinsanity. I believe whoever made the original pun for Linsanity was going off of Vinsanity rather than the actual word of Linsanity.

    Coincidentally, when Vince Carter first appeared in the league in 1999 he also created a buzz similar to Lin. For his above the rim acrobatics, he was given a number of sobriquet such as Half-Man Half-Amazing, the Human Highlight Reel, and Air Canada (as he played for the Toronto Raptors). Although he did not have the underdog status like Lin, similar to Linsanity people tuned in nightly to watch his cartoonish feats of athleticism (please youtube vince carter top dunks). I think Linsanity is a subtle allusion to this, at least for hardcore followers of the NBA.

  28. itgens said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 9:52 am

    yeh,there are so many translations of linsanity in chinese including taiwan. so far i think the best one is linlaifeng,just like above .thers is a Chinese expression: rénláifēng 人来疯 ("get hyped up in front of an audience"). is common use to describe the childrens that cheers when familiar people like uncle or elders coming to home.it get the happiness 。

  29. Craig Sailor said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 2:01 pm

    @Rashon Clark: I've never heard Vince Carter referred to as the "Human Highlight Reel" — I believe that nickname is uniquely Dominique Wilkins'.

    Regarding "Half-Man Half-Amazing" — apparently Carter was given that nickname by Shaquille O'Neal following the 2000 Dunk Contest. However, the first time I ever heard that phrase used was in 1992, in a hip-hop single called "It Ain't Hard to Tell" by Nas. (Interestingly enough, Nas also mentions Shaq in that song.)

  30. Victor Mair said,

    February 22, 2012 @ 8:05 am

    http://deadspin.com/5886973/how-to-say-linsanity-in-mandarin

  31. David Moser said,

    February 22, 2012 @ 8:50 am

    Two limericks — or "lin-mericks"

    It can't be too good for Lin's vanity,
    To be subject to all this "Linsanity".
    While Asians adore him,
    Bad-pun foes abhor him,
    This lincessant, linsulting Linanity.

    It’s time that we sports-numb Caucasians
    Warned all of you Lin-crazed East Asians.
    This seems like a cult
    And just might result
    In Fa-Lin-gong type demonstrations!

  32. Victor Mair said,

    February 22, 2012 @ 5:29 pm

    The New York Times Artsbeat blog also had a call for Lin-ericks, and 16 readers made contributions:

    http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/20/a-call-for-lin-ericks/

  33. Victor Mair said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 7:34 am

    http://motherboard.vice.com/2012/2/21/how-the-chinese-figured-out-how-to-say-linsanity

  34. Victor Mair said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 7:37 am

    http://www.todayonline.com/Sports/EDC120217-0000127/Linguists-loving-the-Linsanity

  35. Victor Mair said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 7:39 am

    http://www.kansascity.com/2012/02/16/3434533/its-linguistic-bliss.html

  36. Victor Mair said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 7:43 am

    http://dailyportmanteau.blogspot.com/2012/02/tracking-linsanity.html

    I wasn't congratulating myself!

  37. Victor Mair said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 10:02 am

    http://xinchina.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/translating-linsanity-into-chinese/

  38. Victor Mair said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 10:40 am

    From Geoff Wade:

    Surely Linsatiable or Linvincible would be a better name!!!

  39. Victor Mair said,

    February 29, 2012 @ 8:08 am

    http://www.eurasiareview.com/23022012-nba-jeremy-lins-star-wavers-in-china/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+eurasiareview%2FVsnE+%28Eurasia+Review%29

    So much for "Chinese" ethnicity!

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