Archive for Idioms

GE

The particle "ge 個/个" is one of the most frequent characters in written Chinese (12th in a list of 9,933 unique characters).  It is generally thought of as a classifier, numerary adjunct, measure word.  Indeed, it functions as the almost universal, default classifier when you're not sure what the correct / proper measure word for a given noun should be.  In addition, "ge" has more than a dozen other definitions and usages, for which see Wiktionary. However, I'm not sure that any dictionary or grammar accounts for a very special usage that I have long been intrigued and enchanted by, namely the "ge" in this type of sentence:

Wǒ máng de gè yàosǐ

我忙得個要死!

"I'm so busy I could die!", i.e., "I'm incredibly busy!"

Here de 得 is a particle marking the complement of degree.

Because I lived with a big household full of Chinese (Shandong) in-laws, I picked this construction up very early in my learning of spoken Mandarin, but I always had a visceral feeling that it was extremely colloquial and unlikely to be encountered in written texts and was probably not covered in conventional grammars.  So I asked around among colleagues and native speaker informants how they would explain this unusual "ge", grammatically or otherwise.  Here are some of the replies I received.

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Yet another literary misreading by Xi Jinping

This one amounts to a Sinitic spoonerism.

In his major July 1 speech celebrating the 100th anniversary of the CCP, Xi Jinping wanted to impress people with this set phrase:

yízhǐqìshǐ

頤指氣使 / 颐指气使

lit. "chin / jaw / cheek — point out / at [with a finger] — haughty attitude / bearing — command / order / dispatch"

i.e., "(arrogantly / contemptuously) give orders; boss people around (by looks and gestures)"

Instead, what came out of his mouth was this:

yíshǐqìzhǐ

頤使氣指

which might be playfully rendered as something like "beatbrow"

This expression goes back to at least the Tang period (618-907).

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"Lying flat" and "Buddha whatever" (part 2)

A week or so ago, we looked at the phenomenon of "lying flat" (see under "Selected readings" below).

Karen Yang writes from China:

Hahahahha, tang ping ["lying flat"] was kind of a hot topic last month, for about one week. Maybe it’s because the College Entrance Exam was on-going, people tended to talk about life attitude such as tang ping or work hard. But you know how fast the Internet in China moves on,  so I wouldn’t say tang ping is a significant movement.

On the other hand, foxi (佛系) is a rather more frequently used word similar to tang ping. Basically it describes that young generations in East Asia, especially in Japan, tend to be indifferent or even negative about money, promotion, marriage, raising kids and so on, just like a Buddha. It’s an attitude in response to the heavy pressure brought by social development. 

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Rain rises

It rained for the last two or three days, so someone wrote me a note saying she was looking forward to "ameagari no aozora 雨上がりの青空" ("blue sky after the rain").  I knew what she meant, but when I started to analyze the semantics of the verb, I was drawn into a vortex of uncertainty about how the simple verb "agaru 上がる", whose primary meaning is "rise; go up", could mean "stop".  That, however, is to look at the kanji shàng 上 with the eyes of a specialist in Sinitic languages, where it has these meanings:

preposition:  on; above; upon; on top of

adjective:  upper; last; previous; superior; preceding; topmost; overhead; higher; better

adverb:  up

verb:  rise; go up; board; mount; climb; apply; send in; fill; present; leave for; serve; submit; supply; first  

prefix:  over-

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Pineapple suicide

Sign at a fruit stand:

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Odoriferous Mandarin term for "copycat"

A gēnpìchóng 跟屁虫 (lit., "follow-fart-bug / worm") is somebody who tags along after someone else so as to smell his farts, i.e., someone who follows another person all the time, a copycat, a shadow, a flatterer, sycophant, boot / ass licker, kiss-ass, yes man.

And here's a cute little tutorial about how to be a gēnpìchóng:  

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"Take off your pants and fart"

British actress "Rosamund Pike’s RUDE Mandarin lessons!" | The Graham Norton Show – BBC

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India pips China

Headline from the Deccan Herald:

"India pips China, inks deal to develop, support maintain harbour at naval base in Maldives", Anirban Bhaumik (2/21/21)

Although I could guess from the context what it meant in the title of this article, I had never encountered "pip" with this meaning before.

Upon looking it up in Wiktionary, I find that "pip" has no less than seven different main meanings.  Of these, five are nouns and only two are verbs.

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Happy Niú Year!

These days I'm getting so many greetings like this:

Chūnjié jiànkāng, niú zhuǎn qiánkūn.

春节健康,牛转乾坤。

"May you be healthy at this time of the Spring Festival, when the ox turns heaven and earth (the universe)."

The first part of this Lunar New Year's (February 12, 2021) greeting is transparent and easy to understand, but the second part makes you stop and wonder, "What?  How and why does the ox do that?"

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"Hit the airplane" and Google Translate

Charles Belov writes:

In response to a tweet by How Wee Ng:

During speaking class today, students practised describing different modes of transport, including taking a taxi dǎchē 打车, taking a plane zuò fēijī 坐飞机. But someone almost said "He took the plane to Beijing" using dǎ 打+ fēijī 飞机. I immediately intercepted, "No, you can’t go to Beijing that way."

I checked Google Translate and it responded "Take a plane".

I've submitted the correct translation "masturbate", but it will take more than one person submitting it to get the correction to happen.

Wiktionary has the correct translation, and it apparently has acquired a secondary meaning in Cantonese ("to do something solely for the feel-good feeling"), according to that entry, to my surprise.

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"Jesus talk" and "human speech" in Hong Kong

Editorial by Geremie Barmé in China Heritage (10/6/20): "Hong Kong & 講耶穌 gong2 je4 sou1".  Here are the opening paragraphs of this installment of "Hong Kong Apostasy":

The Cantonese expression 講耶穌 gong2 je4 sou1, literally ‘to give a sermon about Jesus’, or ‘to preach’, means to prattle, or to speak in a boring and vacuous fashion. When I worked for The Seventies Monthly in Hong Kong in the late 1970s, colleagues would regularly mock Mainland propaganda as being nothing more than 講耶穌 gong2 je4 sou1, boring harangues.

In the decades since the People’s Republic subsumed the former British colony, its people have been increasingly exposed to Communist officialese, be it in the form of government speeches, media pronouncements or just everyday palaver. On the Mainland, blathering partyspeak has long been derided for being 假大空 jiǎ dà kōng, ‘mendacious, hyperbolic and fatuous’. Nonetheless, Communist logorrhea also disguises serious, often deadly, intent. (See ‘Mendacious, Hyperbolic & Fatuous — an ill wind from People’s Daily, China Heritage, 10 July 2018.)

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"I stand corrected"

From Elizabeth Dreyer:

Ah!  Autant pour moi, as the French say for "I stand corrected": As much for me.  So much for me?  … I've just looked up the origin of this expression and in fact it's rather fascinating.  People write "autant pour moi" but that is a corruption, a miswriting of "au temps pour moi".  "Au temps!" is the order given in the military when one has to repeat a movement from the beginning because of an error.  I have absolutely never seen "au temps pour moi" in print and have seen "autant pour moi" many times.

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Pointing at a deer and calling it a horse

The following graphics reflect the disgust of Hong Kong protesters over the police rewriting of the notorious attack on subway passengers by CCP orchestrated goons at the Yuen Long MTR station on July 21, 2019 (hence "721").

All of the illustrations have as their theme the set phrase (chéngyǔ 成語, often misleadingly referred to as "idioms") zhǐlùwéimǎ 指鹿為馬 ("point at a deer as a horse", i.e., "point at a deer and call it a horse"), i.e., "deliberate misrepresentation for ulterior purposes".

The Records of the Grand Historian records that [the powerful eunuch] Zhao Gao [d. 207 BC], in an attempt to control the Qin [221-206 BC] government, devised a loyalty test for court officials using a deer and horse:

Zhao Gao was contemplating treason but was afraid the other officials would not heed his commands, so he decided to test them first. He brought a deer and presented it to the Second Emperor but called it a horse. The Second Emperor laughed and said, "Is the chancellor perhaps mistaken, calling a deer a horse?" Then the emperor questioned those around him. Some remained silent, while some, hoping to ingratiate themselves with Zhao Gao, said it was a horse, and others said it was a deer. Zhao Gao secretly arranged for all those who said it was a deer to be brought before the law and had them executed instantly. Thereafter the officials were all terrified of Zhao Gao. Zhao Gao gained military power as a result of that. (tr. Watson 1993:70)

(Source)

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