Back on December 17, 2011, I wrote a post entitled "Morpheme(s) of the Year" about kòng 控 ("control", but having lots and lots of other meanings, all covered in detail in my post). The unusual title and thrust of that post were due to my dissatisfaction with the concept of a "character of the year" as a satisfactory parallel for or clone of Western "word of the year" competitions. It was probably due to that dissatisfaction that I seem not to have written anything along these lines for the year 2012.
Now, however, we are inundated with Chinese words and characters of the year for 2013, so let's see what they convey and whether there has been any improvement in the grammatical understanding of what words are and how they function.
Well, People's Daily Online has proclaimed that fáng 房 ("house") has been chosen as the word of the year by a committee composed of representatives from China's National Language Resource Monitoring and Research Center, Commercial Press, and Beijing Language and Culture University.
"Fang" (literally: House) became the word of the year 2013 in China, Shandong TV announced at the ceremony of 2013 hot Chinese words on Sunday.
Li Yuming, Party chief of Beijing Language and Culture University, said the selection of "Fang" reflects people's expectation for a better policy that can tame overheated property market in China.
First of all, I'm suspicious of any WOTY competition where a Communist Party chief plays a major role, and I'm also dubious of the propriety of any WOTY selection process that has to do with public policy in the future. Shouldn't a WOTY reflect what has happened during the current year? But those are not my main beefs with the selection of fáng 房 ("house") as the WOTY for 2013. For the meanings intended by the selection committee, fáng 房 would have to be combined with other morphemes to make sense, e.g., fángdìchǎn 房地产 ("real estate"). So, once again we encounter the problem of confusion between "word" and "character" that has plagued Chinese WOTY selections in the past.
The People's Daily Online got its wires even more badly crossed when it engaged in promoting jìn 进 ("advance; make progress; enter; go / move forward / ahead; go / get in; go on; come / go into; take / receive [N.B.!]; drill into) as another WOTY.
Jìn 进 was allegedly named WOTY
…by netizens on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, reflecting their feeling and expectations.
Lin Zhongsen, chairman of Strait Exchange Foundation, said at the announcement ceremony, "Jin delivers the feeling and expectation from the people across the strait and also indicates our relationship is upgrading and developing peacefully."
[VHM: emphasis added]
Aside from the monotonous projection of expectations, there are more serious linguistic problems with choosing jìn 进 as WOTY. Above all, jìn 进 is not even a word. It is a bound morpheme which cannot function in grammatical isolation. Examples:
jìnqù 进去 ("enter; go in")
jìnlái 进来 ("come in")
jìntuì 进退 ("advance and retreat")
zǒujìnlái 走进来 ("walk in")
jìnshì 进士 ("advanced scholar" — the highest degree in the traditional examination system)
Note, moreover, the committee's claim that jìn 进 "literally" means "upgrade; promote" (as in "upgrade / promote relations"), which shows pretty clearly what they had in mind.
In terms of the writing of jìn 进, it is strange that, for a character (NOT a word!) that was supposedly selected "by netizens on both sides of the Taiwan Strait", on all three pages of the Peoples Daily Online article cited above, not once does the character jìn 进 actually appear, despite the fact that there are photographs of numerous realizations by "famous calligraphers from Taiwan and Fujian"! Instead, what we see is jìn 進 written over and over again. 進 is the traditional form of the character and 进 is the simplified form. You'd think that at least some of the "famous calligraphers" from the Fujian side of the Taiwan Strait would have been willing to produce a rendition of the standard form of the graph on the Mainland.
This leads me to a consideration of the WOTY from Taiwan. According to the South China Morning Post, a survey carried out by the United Daily News selected jiǎ 假 ("fake") as the WOTY in Taiwan. Wait a minute! It's the other side of the Taiwan Strait where so many things are fake (handbags, cigarettes, cell phones, food, medicine, infant milk powder…). Furthermore, jiǎ 假 ("fake") is a real Chinese word (not merely a morpheme) and the poll by which it was selected is far more believable than the politically motivated committees that choose the so-called WOTY in China.
I've received reports of many other WOTY contests in the Mainland, on Taiwan, and among overseas Chinese groups. Since they are nearly all marred by confusion over just what a word is, have some sort of ax to grind, or were chosen by dubious means, I won't analyze all of the selected items. For those who are interested in pursuing this topic further, however, here are a few articles to which you can turn: link, link, link.
As for myself, I will be eagerly awaiting the announcement of this year's English WOTY at the meeting of the American Dialect Society on the evening of January 3 in Minneapolis. Will it be "selfie"? "Twerk"? "Marriage"? "Obamacare"? Something else I haven't even thought of? I'm starting to get nervous already!
[Many thanks to Ben Zimmer, Mr. English Word of the Year]