Morpheme(s) of the Year

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In the tumultuous run-up to the momentous announcement of the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year (to be proclaimed on January 6, 2012), Language Log's own Ben Zimmer is the main point-man with the media.  See here, here, and here.

The Chinese, of course, are not to be outdone, so they have for the past few years been choosing a "Character of the Year."  This year, 2011, the character selected is kòng 控.  Everybody seems to think that kòng 控 means "control".  In this post, however, I'm going to question that assumption, and I'm also going to cast doubt upon the whole usefulness and validity of choosing a "Character of the Year".

Here, from BBC News China (December 15, 2011), is a typical account reporting the choice of kòng 控 as Character of the Year:

"Kong, or 'control', is character of the year in China"

More than two million internet users took part in the selection, say the organisers of the state-backed poll.

Kong generally means "control" and replaces 2010's "zhang" which means "price hikes".

The organisers say the choice symbolises the government's economic policy, which is aimed at keeping inflation under control.

The widespread use of "kong" by Chinese people when discussing control of the internet, media and society was not mentioned in the official reports.

The phrase of the year is "shang bu qi" which means "too delicate to bear a blow". According to state news agency Xinhua, this choice reveals the public's sensitivity to personal and social problems.

China's growing importance in a globalised world economy was reflected in the choice of "debt" and "euro debt crisis" as the international word and phrase of the year.

In last year's poll "zhang" was followed by the characters for "resentment", "grey", "demolish" and "death". It's not known whether 2011's runners-up are as cheerful.

From other news sources, we learn that the sponsors of this state-backed poll were the National Language Resource Monitoring and Research Center under the Ministry of Education, the State-run Commercial Press, and the China Youth Daily.  Despite the state sponsorship, superficially kòng 控 might seem to be a good choice because, for example, it reveals the dichotomy between the views of the government and the people:

a. the government tries to say kòng 控 refers to controlling inflation and other worrisome aspects of the economy

b. the people mean by kòng 控 that the government harshly controls the citizenry, the internet, and practically everything else

A fundamental linguistic problem with the choice of kòng 控 as the Character of the Year surfaces in the first paragraph of this article in the official China Daily, "New character took control in 2011":  "The Chinese character kong, a word that generally means control, has been selected as the 2011 character of the year in China."  Unfortunately, kòng 控 is not a word.  Rather, kòng 控 is a character that represents a morpheme, or, as I hope to demonstrate in the following paragraphs, several morphemes.

The fallacy in this type of thinking (viz., kòng 控 is a word that means "control") lies in the fact that, in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), kòng 控 with the meaning of "control" is always a bound morpheme.  That is to say, it only occurs in disyllabic or trisyllabic or other polysyllabic words or phrases:

kòngzhì 控制 ("control; dominate")

kòngzhì lùn 控制论 ("cybernetics"; more literally, "theory of control")

kònggǔ 控股 ("holdings"; "to own a controlling number of shares in a company")

cāokòng 操控 ("control"; "manipulate")

chéngkòng 程控 ("program-controlled")

kěkòng 可控 ("controllable"); N.B.:  kěkòng bù kěkòng 可控不可控 ("[whether something is] controllable or not")

zhè zhǎn dēng shì shēngkòng de 这盏灯是声控的 ("this light is controlled by sound")

lùdēng shì guāngkòng de 路灯是光控的 ("the street lights are light-activated")

diànshì yáokòng qì 电视遥控器 ("TV remote control")

The same is true of kòng 控 with the quite different meaning "sue, accuse":  it only occurs in polysyllabic words:

kònggào 控告 ("sue")

kòngsù 控诉 ("lodge a complaint; make an accusation")

kòngzuì 控罪 ("criminal charges")

bèi kòng 被控 ("be charged with; be accused")

These are just a few of the dozens of polysyllabic words and phrases in which kòng 控 occurs.  By itself, kòng 控 does not mean "control" in MSM, nor, for that matter, does it mean "accuse, sue," and so forth.

The status of kòng 控 as a "word" allegedly meaning "control" becomes even more complicated and vexed when we consider that it has also been chosen to represent a northern (especially Pekingese, at least so far as I am personally familiar with it) colloquial morpheme that means "to turn a jar or bottle or something else upside down to let the liquid trickle out / off".  Here are some example sentences:

bǎ wǎn xǐhǎo fàng zài yībiān kòngzhe (kòng shuǐ) 把碗洗好放在一边控着(控水) ("wash the bowl and set it aside to let the water run out / off")

xǐwán cài yào kòngkong shuǐ zài xià guō 洗完菜要控控水再下锅 ("after washing the vegetables, let the water drip off them before putting them in the skillet")

bǎ shuǐfèn kònggàn // kònggān shuǐfèn  把水分控干 // 控干水分 ("let the moisture drip dry")

bǎ bēizi lǐ de shuǐ kòng gānjìng 把杯子里的水控干净 ("let the water in the glass drip dry")

pào chá qián, nǐ yīnggāi bǎ bēizi lǐ de shuǐ kòng yī kòng 泡茶前,你应该把杯子里的水控一控 ("before steeping the tea, you should let the water in the cup dry out")

bǎ píngzi dào guòlái, bǎ shuǐ kòng yīxià 把瓶子倒过来,把水控一下 ("turn the bottle upside down and let the water run out")

bǎ píngzi kòng gànle zài shōu qǐlái 把瓶子控干了再收起来 ("turn the bottle upside down to let the water drip out before putting it away")

kòng chū bàn wǎn shuǐ láile 控出半碗水来了 ("poured out half a bowl of water")

yóuyǒng hòu yīnggāi bǎ ěrduo lǐ de shuǐ kòng jìngle 游泳后应该把耳朵里的水控净了("after swimming, you should [tilt your head to the side and] let the water in your ears run out")

Perhaps one of the most curious applications of this usage of kòng 控 occurs when villagers are making yóutiáo 油条 ("deep-fried dough sticks; fritters") and they say "bǎ yóu kòngkong" 把油控控 ("let the oil drip off") or "bǎ yóu kòng gàn" 把油控干 ("let the oil drip dry") to save as much oil as possible and recycle for future use.

I would not recommend trying to translate the above items with a machine, because I doubt that any translation software would be up to the task (they would probably just spew out "control" wherever kòng 控 appears).  Furthermore, since people who are not northerners are unlikely to be familiar with this specialized usage of kòng 控, and since it exists far more frequently in speech than in writing, I have given a generous number of examples.

In addition, I should note that the use of kòng 控 to represent this very specialized northern colloquial morpheme is arbitrary and has been picked chiefly for its ability to approximate the sound of the morpheme in question (i.e., it has nothing to do with the meanings of "control" or "sue, accuse").  I have met highly educated northern Mandarin speakers who have used this expression in speech throughout their daily life, but who never knew how to write it with a Chinese character and were surprised when I told them that this morpheme is customarily written as kòng 控.  This is an aspect of character orthography that I cannot stress too heavily, namely, that a large proportion of morphemes in written Chinese languages have been arbitrarily assigned characters purely on the basis of phonetic resemblance.  Ironically, such morphemes are often among the highest frequency graphemes in the languages to which they belong, e.g., de 的 (particle of nominalization / possession / relativization / etc. , de 得 (particle of complementarity), de 地 (adverbial particle).

But kòng 控 in the northern colloquial sense of "turn upside down and let drip dry" is not the end of the story for this Character of the Year.  There is still another entirely different morpheme attached to it that has suddenly become immensely popular and that is twice removed from being Sinitic in its origins.

Kòng 控 has lately been suffixed to certain nouns with the meaning of ”(psychological) complex”.  This usage in Mandarin stems from Japanese Rorikon ロリコン, a doubly abbreviated transcription of English "Lolita complex" (from the Nabokov novel).  In Mandarin, the Japanese transcription has been re-transcribed as Luólìkòng 萝莉控, where the kòng 控 portion serves as a phonetic rendering of Japanese kon コン and ultimately represents a shortened form of English "complex".  As such, kòng 控 has become a highly productive Mandarin suffix signifying "-com(plex)."  A few examples:

dàshūkòng 大叔控 ("Uncle complex")

nǚwángkòng 女王控 ("Queen complex")

jìshùkòng 技术控 ("tech complex")

By extension, kòng 控 as a suffix signifying "-complex" can now also be used in the sense of "fan /-phile / maniac".  Thus:

mànhuàkòng 漫画控 ("comic book fan") — a very Japanese expression (for those who know their manga)!

Méi Wéihéng shì gè yǔyánkòng 梅维恒是个语言控 ("Victor H. Mair is a linguaphile" — this sentence courtesy of David Moser)

A curious development with this new usage of kòng 控 ("-complex") is that what started out as the transcription of a doubly foreign syllable has been reanalyzed by some thus:  X kòng 控 ("to be controlled by / obsessed with X"), making it seem Sinitic in its derivation, but we know better.

To conclude, when confronting kòng 控 as the Character of the Year, we should not blithely think that it means "control".  As we have seen, it means both much more and much less than "control".

[With a tip of the hat to Carmen Lee and thanks to Gianni Wan, Maiheng Dietrich, Jiao Liwei, Davd Moser, Xu Wenkan, Yao Dali, Wen Jing, Zhao Lu, Rebecca Fu, and Zhang Zheng-sheng]


  1. Viktor said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 11:47 am

    I don't speak chinese, but I do play Mahjong where kong is one of the best combinations (four of a kind). Is that the same word? (I have never seen the character for that kong of course.)

  2. Mr Fnortner said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 12:09 pm

    Although BBC News China reports kòng as word of the year, are they also free of Sinitic expertise? That is, if kòng is more morpheme than word, why would not a China-based press entity get this correct? What does the Chinese press itself consider kòng to be?

  3. suntzuanime said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 12:38 pm

    It seems like it's not just a matter of knowing Chinese, but also of having some linguistic sophistication. There's no shortage of mistaken claims about English by native English speakers.

  4. oo said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

    So mangakon means something like manga otaku in Japanese? In English, I would interpret it as "manga convention".

  5. Yang said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 2:27 pm

    It seems quite obvious to me that what makes "控" the character of the year is precisely the third meaning, i.e., 'obsession with something' that you talked about. I am quite sure that the meaning in "控制" and "控水" have nothing to do with the current popularity of the suffix "控".


  6. Markonsea said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 3:34 pm

    Erm. A "control freak", then, will be a 控控?

  7. Rod Johnson said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 4:44 pm

    Can't wait for "distinctive feature of the year." Go [coronal]!

  8. Victor Mair said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 5:54 pm

    Yang's quotation in English:

    "Starting from around the year 2010, 'kòng 控' started to become popular. By this year, 'kòng 控', has completely become a frequently used suffix, at least on the internet."


  9. Nathan Hopson said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 9:59 pm

    Great post as always.

    The same character (控) in Japanese has a markedly different primary meaning at least. "Withdraw, draw in, hold back, refrain from, be moderate, deduct." Other meanings include "backup/stand-in, memo," etc., which all include the meaning of "holding back."

    In other words, I think the meaning of "control" has shifted more toward "self-control." from which the other meanings arose.

    FYI, the character of the year in Japan is 絆 ("kizuna;" ties that bind, or connections). I guess people were looking for a positive.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 11:37 pm

    From a colleague, complementing well Nathan Hopson's comment:


    In Japanese, 控 is used in the following ways: 控える(V)to refrain, to use something moderately, to (have prepared and) wait, to take a note, to have something close by, etc. 控え(N)note, record, copy, etc. The meaning of control is reflected in some usages, but 控 carries more extended meaning in Japanese. Could it be the reflection of this Kanji's historical change of meaning in China? Or, is it changed in Japan?


    For the moment, I will *refrain* from answering her questions to see if anyone else wishes to do so.

  11. Claw said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 12:07 am

    Viktor wrote:

    I don't speak chinese, but I do play Mahjong where kong is one of the best combinations (four of a kind). Is that the same word?

    No, it's a different word, with a different pronunciation as well. The character for 'Kong' in Mahjong is 槓, which means 'rod' and is spelled 'gàng' in pinyin (pronounced /kɑŋ/ in IPA; for comparison, 控 is /kʰʊŋ/ in IPA).

  12. Jeremy Goldkorn said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 4:57 am

    This year, I have most frequently seen 控 used to mean obsession or psychological complex in the phrase Weibo Kong 微博控 – someone who obsessively posts to Weibo.

  13. Diandian said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 8:13 am

    Interesting post! kòng certainly deserves to be the word of the year. I've heard it used mostly in the third context. I guess most Chinese people who said it weren't aware that it was taken from Japanese which in turn was an abbreviated translation of English. One needs to know all three languages to figure it out.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 9:17 am

    Jiajia Wang suggests that, if a character is to be attached to the northern colloquial morpheme meaning "to turn upside down and let the liquid drip / dry out / off", it probably should be kòng 空 ("leave empty or blank" — FREE) instead of kòng 控 ("control," etc. — BOUND), or perhaps there should be a special, as yet unknown or uncreated, character for this usage.

    Jiajia further points out that kòng yóu 控油 ("let the oil separate out") is also employed in the setting of modern cosmetics, such as oil control (face cleaner, etc.). Quoting Jiajia, "In cooking, we say bǎ yóu kòng chūlái 把油kong4出来 ('to separate oil [from food using a colander]'), and we also say bǎ shuǐ kòng yī kòng 把水kong4一kong4 ('let the water drip / dry off / out'). Somehow, i feel the meaning is closer to bǎ fángjiān kòng chūlái 把房间空出来 ('empty out the room'),bǎ nàgè hézi kòng chūlái 把那个盒子空出来 ('empty out that box')."

  15. Victor Mair said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 9:21 am

    Another complex to add to our collection: mazakon マザコン ("mother complex").

  16. JH said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 5:29 pm

    @Viktor, Claw;

    The "kong" in Mahjong comes from Cantonese, where 槓 is pronounced gong3

  17. Michael said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 11:23 pm

    I think the most common Japanese "Kons" are loli-con and Mother-con, respectively. My informal google search reveals 14,200,000 and 2,980,000 hits, respectively. I remember hearing ファザコン (father complex), and got 638,000 hits for it. The Japanese wikipedia lists a number of other complexes (which it describes as being psychological terms). I think I may have heard "brother" or "sister" complex as well.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 11:02 am

    Is a "mother complex" a psychological problem related to one's feelings about one's mother, or is it a tendency to act like a mother to everyone? Or neither, or both?

    (An Oedipus complex means wanting to enact what Oedipus did, but a Lolita complex or Lolicon means wanting to enact what Humbert did. "On some level.")

  19. Giorgio said,

    December 21, 2011 @ 5:45 am

    So the problem is that China Daily called 控 a "word". No big deal, there are often linguistic inaccuracies — especially words used very loosely — in China Daily every day. In addition, the general tone of the Daily is usually patronising toward foreigners when it comes to Chinese language and culture, with inaccurate "simplifications" being part of an "effort" intended to make Chinese culture more "understandable" to the poor laowai (who is "never gonna get it anyway").

    Kong, as a morpheme and as a character, is a cloud of meanings and, in modern Chinese, is *rarely* used as a word. The regional use of kong as a word that you document (e.g. 把油控控 ("let the oil drip off") proves that it is indeed used as a word in a regional variety of Mandarin (not a dialect/different language).

  20. Hyponymus said,

    December 21, 2011 @ 2:17 pm

    @Prof. Mair,

    This might be slightly off topic, but it is somewhat related to the word-morpheme distinction.

    I've been reading through the comments (+700 at this time) in The Economist What is the Chinese Language? (Johnson, December13 th) -I do not recommend reading the comments, for they are plagued with misconceptions and "xenophobic nationalism", as DeFrancis puts it- and I ended up reading the essay The Prospects for Chinese Writing Reform. I was wondering if you had any news on the "Zhuyin Shizi, Tiqian Duxie" situation (if any), since the article is already almost six years old.

    I was absolutely baffled to read about the Government refusing to admit joining syllables in pinyin.

  21. Lareina said,

    December 26, 2011 @ 9:32 pm


  22. Victor Mair said,

    December 26, 2011 @ 10:13 pm

    Lareina's comment declares that Professor Victor H. Mair has a gānshī kòng 干尸控 ("mummy [more accurately: desiccated corpse] complex")

    In this blog post, Qian2 Ai4lin2 is said to have a "mang2guo3kong4", which she renders (in an e-mail to me) as having a "mango complex / fetish", i.e., she really likes mangos.

  23. WalterW said,

    November 15, 2012 @ 11:22 pm

    I'm a native Mandarin speaker, but not from China, and have not heard this being used where I lived. So I guess it's still limited to China?

    But it's certainly a wonderful addition to use. It brought to mind—that is, the usage of 控 for -phile, -maniac, etc—the character 狂. So we might have similar usages like 漫画狂,购物狂(shopping maniac, or rather, shopaholic?). It does seem to suggest a more “crazed” aspect to the whole thing, far more than 控. But maybe it's because I'm new to the use of 控.

  24. WalterW said,

    November 15, 2012 @ 11:27 pm

    Ah, sorry. To add on, it certainly helped to create the link between控and狂by their rather similar sounds(kong4 / kuang2).

  25. Pete said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 6:49 pm

    In my experience, -kon in Japanese always means sexual attraction to. If I ever heard someone say mangacon, I would take that to mean they were sexually attracted to comics.
    And since we're collecting terms, I'll list a few.
    (brocon, siscon, lolicon, shotacon)

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