Creeping Romanization in Chinese, part 3

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A highly educated Chinese colleague sent me the following note:

More Chinese phrases with Latin alphabet, such as C位, diss, etc. have become quite popular. Even one of my friends who is so intoxicated by the beauty of the Chinese classic language used "diss" in her WeChat post. She could have used any of the Chinese words such as wǔrǔ 侮辱 or dǐhuǐ 诋毁 to express her idea, but she chose "diss" instead. It was quite a surprise. I feel reluctant to use this kind of word, especially in writing.

"C位" is pronounced "C-wèi" and means "center position".  I am not aware that there is an equivalent frequently used expression in English, so this seems to be an invention of the Chinese.

"Diss" is the same as our "diss" or "dis".  As a verb it means "speak disrespectfully to or criticize; put down".  As a noun it means "disrespectful talk".  Five or more years ago, I heard "dis(s) used a lot in casual English.  When I first heard it spoken among young people, I had no idea what it meant.  By the time I figured out what "dis(s)" signified, it had fallen out of usage (I don't hear it much nowadays).  So it is surprising that, now that it is no longer current in colloquial English, it has become extremely popular in Chinese.

I asked a couple of graduate students from the mainland if they had noticed the use of such words (C位, diss, etc.).  One of them said:

Yes, they are both quite popular!

C位 means "center position" and diss, abbreviated from "disrespect" and "disparage," means wǔrǔ 侮辱 and dǐhuǐ 詆毀. These two phrases are very popular on the internet nowadays. I am pretty sure that "diss" comes from the popular rap competition "Zhōngguó yǒu xīhā 中國有嘻哈" ("The Rap of China"; lit., "China has hip-hop"), and it basically refers to a hip-hop phenomenon that rappers rap to show their disparagement and release their complaints to each other. So, there are many raps along the lines of "diss xxx" and "diss back." However, I think "diss" has some broad meanings now when it is not only applied in hip-hop culture but also applied in general popular culture.

With multi-meanings, "diss" replaces many internet expressions such as "sībī 撕逼" ("catfight; girl fight"), "tǔcáo 吐槽" ("bitch / complain about; trash talk; roast; rant; tease"), "tiáokǎn 調侃" ("ridicule"), "kāihēi 開黑" ("gang up"), and duǐ 懟, which initially referred to a physical move, but now signifies a type of verbal behavior that means "dǐngzuǐ 頂嘴 ("talk back; reply defiantly; bicker").

For C位, I am not quite sure where it comes from, but I first heard about it from an award ceremony. A starlet stood in the central position of a group and was dissed by many fans of other stars. Later, there was an entertainment programme named Ǒuxiàng liànxí shēng 偶像練習生 ("Idol producer"). It was a competition, and the top nine competitors would debut as a group. Thus, the group members needed to decide who would take the central position.  Needless to say, there was lots of jockeying around. C位 thus became a common phrase!

Another student replied as follows:

Yes, They both are common to me and I have seen them a lot.

Also, yes, C位 means the center position, however, there is a long story about the specific context in which C位 is normally used.  C位 is, perhaps first of all, a video-games coinage which refers to the core character in the game. But very few people knew the usage and even fewer people actually used it. What initially promoted C位 to a larger amount of users is fans' notorious fighting for the center positions for their idols on promotional posters.

In the above picture, it is obvious that the center position gives the impression that whoever stands in the middle is the most important person on the poster. On this poster, the center, C位 is Fan Bingbing 范冰冰 (who has now been forced out of the limelight due to alleged tax evasion). Consequently, the fans of other people on the poster were angry with the arrangement. For instance, the fans of Zhang Huimei 张惠妹, the woman with purple hair, felt that this was so unfair because this superstar and Chinese Mariah Carey had always been "yāfān 压番", which means her position or banner was suppressed by stars who are not as superb and influential as she. In this way, C位 is more frequently and widely used by fans and stars' agents.

One event that disseminated C位 to people outside of fans clubs is the 15th anniversary of Chinese Harper's BAZAAR's charity night (in the year 2017, 9th September, hosted by then editor-in-chief, Su Mang 苏芒 in Beijing). The charity night is more entertaining than charitable. By summoning a large number of stars from various backgrounds, the charity night raises some money, meanwhile produces many controversies that gain those stars heat and publicity. During the 15th anniversary of Chinese Harper's BAZAAR's charity night, an outdated starlet Zhang Shaohan 张韶涵 stood in the center position, which incurred people's ridicule and derision. The news "Zhang Shaohan seized C position" became so heated that it helped Zhang to gain more publicity than before! As an ancillary result, C位 turned out to be commonly accepted as a word entry outside of the entertainment world since then.

As for "diss", the word refers to rappers writing songs to insult each other. "Diss" became popular in China with the airing of  a TV show in 2015 called "Zhōngguó yǒu xīhā 中国有嘻哈" (The Rap of China), a rap competition. The show is credited for bringing hip-pop music into Chinese mainstream music. During the show, many hip-pop terms spread to a wide range of Chinese audience, such as shuāngyā 双押 (= shuāngzì yāyùn 双字押韵) double rhyming words, and diss. In 2018, during the second season of The Rap of China, one of the judges in the show, Wu Yifan, Kris Wu, who is very handsome but thought to be talentless in either music or acting, released a diss track to counter people's criticism. His diss track, for the second time, boosted the spread of "diss". I guess my mother knows the meaning of the word.

Readings

[Thanks to Tong Wang, Zeyao Wu, and Qing Liao]



12 Comments

  1. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 26, 2018 @ 1:22 am

    In Swedish, I still seem to hear diss (n) and dissa (v) with some regularity. Fairly or not I associate it primarily with people in their late twenties or early thirties.

  2. David Marjanović said,

    November 26, 2018 @ 6:57 am

    German has taken up the verb, too; possibly limited to people in their mid-late twenties.

  3. WSM said,

    November 26, 2018 @ 9:57 am

    How are these examples of romanization?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    November 26, 2018 @ 11:00 am

    Duh?

  5. WSM said,

    November 26, 2018 @ 11:41 am

    "Romanization or romanisation, in linguistics, is the conversion of writing from a different writing system to the Roman (Latin) script, or a system for doing so."

    Neither of these usages involve conversions from native Chinese orthographies, rather they involve integrations of non-Chinese words into the language; so the question stands.

  6. wanda said,

    November 26, 2018 @ 12:00 pm

    I think the young people in the US now say "throw shade" instead of "diss." However, whereas "dissing" is usually more or less direct, "throwing shade" tends to be more subtle, for example not mentioning the insulted person by name. The best shades are comments that can be taken innocuously or even as compliments, but everyone knows they aren't.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    November 26, 2018 @ 12:39 pm

    There's a narrow definition of Romanization which is "the conversion of writing from a different writing system to the Roman (Latin) script, or a system for doing so." But there's also a broader definition which signifies the gradual absorption of Roman letters into another writing system such that they become an integral part of that writing system. We've had scores of Language Log posts that touch upon this phenomenon, which I refer to as "creeping Romanization" or "emerging digraphia". Many of these posts are listed in the "Readings" section of the o.p.

    Mark Hansell pointed out already in "The Sino-Alphabet: The Assimilation of Roman Letters into the Chinese Writing System," Sino-Platonic Papers, 45 (May, 1994), 1-28 that the Roman alphabet has long since been fully incorporated into the Chinese script. There are entire dictionaries consisting of thousands of what are called zìmǔ cí 字母詞 ("letter words"). Even standard dictionaries, such as the Xiandai Hanyu Cidian (Dictionary of Modern Chinese), which was edited by scholars at the Institute of Linguistics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and published by the famous Shangwu Yinshu Guan (Commercial Press), either have a section devoted to "letter words" at the back or integrate them into the main body of entries.

    This may be referred to as Pīnyīnhuà 拼音化 ("Pinyinization") or Luómǎhuà 羅馬化 in the broader sense described in the first paragraph of this comment.

    The question no longer stands.

  8. John from Cincinnati said,

    November 26, 2018 @ 5:51 pm

    "C-wèi" means "center position". I am not aware that there is an equivalent frequently used expression in English, so this seems to be an invention of the Chinese.

    A coincidence has occurred that I consider astonishing. On the same day of this post by Prof. Mair, with its embedded picture featuring Fan Bingbing in "center position", the New York Times ran a feature about the new USA TV season (here, but might be behind a paywall). The NYT article is headed by a picture that is almost identical to the Chinese poster except for the irrelevant detail of having a different set of celebrities. The "center position" is assertively occupied by Candice Bergen in her TV role as Murphy Brown.

    The snowclone meme that language X has no word for Y is ordinarily dismissed by observing that language X has no difficulty expressing Y with a phrase. In today's case, English might not have a frequently used expression for "center position", but apparently we can "do" center position without formally naming it.

  9. Mary Kuhner said,

    November 26, 2018 @ 6:47 pm

    To snub someone by seizing the center position seems very analogous to English "upstaging", from the observation that actors with minor roles are not supposed to be downstage (towards the audience and therefore prominent) of the main actors in a scene.

  10. Troy P said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 4:18 am

    '"C位" is pronounced "C-wèi" and means "center position". I am not aware that there is an equivalent frequently used expression in English'

    Not a basketball fan? The examples of current usage by contemporary native speakers don't really support it, but the first thing I thought of as I read the post was "Yao Ming at the center position for Houston", variations of which would have been heard multiple times in every broadcast of a Rockets game during his career there. And in the constant screen infographics, that gets abbreviated to 'C'.

  11. ajay said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 11:19 am

    We talk in English about people taking "centre stage" – i.e. taking the most important or most prominent position.

  12. The other Eric said,

    November 30, 2018 @ 3:06 pm

    Is it an oversight, I wonder, that 位 (wèi) is transcribed in pinyin, but C is not. (I know pinyin stipulates that terms imported from languages written with the Roman alphabet be left as is.)

    I would have assumed C is pronounced p.y. si, but with what tone?

    But looking around, I see the answer may be a bit more complex than that. James Jiao of Wiktionary posts a pinyin chart of Mandarin pronunciations of the Roman alphabet, which is different than this song I found on YouTube while searching for `pinyin alphabet song'. And yet another chart lists different pronunciations. Swofford lists something different still.

    In short, it seems that Mandarin pronunciation of Roman letters is highly idiosyncratic and context-specific.

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