Flash sale

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Ben Zimmer spotted this interesting street sign in the New York Times photo essay, "DMs from New York City" (June 26, 2023).

The Chinese says:

suǒyǒu shāngpǐn
"all merchandise"

"clearance / liquidation of goods"

jǐnjí chǔlǐ
"[must / will be] dealt with / handled urgently"

It is true that chǔlǐ 处理 often, if not usually, means "process" (might make you think of "processed food" or something like that), but in this context it idiomatically signifies "sell off at a sharply reduced price".  It is surprising that this specific explanation is listed as the second definition in the literarily inclined Zdic.

I personally thought that the writing looked execrable, or nearly so, but all of the native speaker consultants I asked about it said that it's not bad, though perhaps by someone who is not experienced writing with a brush and also had a hard time squeezing things in proportionally.  One person opined, "I find it rather endearing with an unsophisticated grace".

In forthcoming posts, I will discuss the nuances of jí 急 ("urgent; pressing; anxious") and shāng 商 ("merchant; name of the first attested dynasty in the East Asian Heartland [EAH]").

Selected readings

[Thanks to Zihan Guo, Jing Hu, and Jack Lu]


  1. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 28, 2023 @ 6:20 pm

    FWIW, getting rid of / "unloading" excess goods, waste, etc. is called chùlǐ not chǔlǐ in the Chinese I know — but I guess this subtlety, like so many others, is bound to disappear due to the mentality surrounding writing/characters :(

  2. Victor Mair said,

    June 28, 2023 @ 8:29 pm

    If someone still cares to make a distinction between chǔ and chù in MSM for 處/处 (I do, most don't), the former is verbal and the latter is nounal. This is what I was taught from my early years of studying MSM more than half a century ago, and it is what all the standard dictionaries I checked recently still say — if they give the chù reading at all.

  3. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 28, 2023 @ 9:24 pm

    I was raising the very specific question of whether there might be two different lexemes chǔlǐ 'deal with, etc.' vs. chùlǐ 'get rid of waste, etc.'. No dictionary will support this, but I think it reflects actual usage in (some?) northern Chinese. Speakers are of course easily convinced by dictionaries/teachers that saying chùlǐ 'get rid of' is "wrong".

    As for the larger question of chǔ vs. chù, your comment is incorrect — among the many, many written words featuring "處/处", any dictionary will tell you which contain the syllable chǔ and which contain the syllable chù, with almost no overlap — just a few cases like chùnǚ ~ chǔ​nǚ​ 'virgin' where basically everyone says one (here the former) but dictionaries prescribe the other (here the latter)… and IMO maybe chǔlǐ ≠ chùlǐ. The division verb chǔ vs. noun chù is useful but not fail-safe… I suppose it is this kind of etymological consideration that leads dictionary authors to insist e.g. that chǔ​nǚ, chǔlǐ must be "correct".

  4. Victor Mair said,

    June 28, 2023 @ 11:15 pm

    The usages of real northern speakers with whom I am familiar on a daily basis are not in accord with your claims about "actual usage in (some?) northern Chinese".

  5. Jerry Packard said,

    June 29, 2023 @ 3:51 pm

    I’m with Victor here; I’ve never heard chùlǐ. Also the chǔ and chù distinction as V and N respectively is completely reliable in any dictionary I’ve used. chù is an example of ‘derivation using 4th tone’, examples of which are legion in MSM.

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 29, 2023 @ 8:34 pm

    Interesting thoughts — though since we have the internet, we don't need to rely on self-reports about what we/others think we hear or say. Below are the the first five Youglish instances of "处理掉", a context chosen because my specific random thought was that fourth-tone chùlǐ might tend to be associated with 'get rid of' semantics. Of these, #1 #2 #4 and #5 are fourth-tone:

    chùlǐ diào 1 (get rid of chemicals bought in secret)
    chùlǐ diào 2 (get rid of a knife handle)
    chùlǐ diào 4 (get rid of a virus)
    chùlǐ diào 5 (use up excess veggies)

    This is just barely suggestive of course; one would have to do serious statistics to get a real answer.

    Re: no such thing as chùlǐ, then, definitely untrue — surely no native Chinese speaker says so? BUT it occurs in contexts outside of those that came to mind for me when I saw this sign; ahead of serious study, it would be OK to regard it as a variant pronunciation of chǔlǐ.

    (However I seem to recall one instance in which I heard a Chinese professor insist on the pronunciation chùlǐ — a lamp or sth had been obtained via some kind of close-out sale… the purchaser needed to explain that the thing was "chùlǐde" not "chǔlǐde"…. hmmm. YMMV)

    Re: "third tone verb chǔ vs. fourth tone noun chù", this is a strong tendency which we can analyze out of the modern Mandarin lexicon (and which of course has an underlying historical explanation), not a grammar rule of some kind. Again cf. the frequently-heard verb chùlǐ, and I have yet to find an online example of dictionaries' favored chǔnǚ for example…

    Re: VHM's claim that "most [people] don't" distinguish chǔ vs. chù, this doesn't make sense and must be an misphrasing/misunderstanding of some kind. There seem to be very few words in which we see the alternation found in chùlǐ ~ chǔlǐ.

  7. Jerry Packard said,

    June 30, 2023 @ 7:47 am

    Good work.

  8. Jerry Packard said,

    June 30, 2023 @ 9:07 am

    But I do think V is right in saying "most [people] don't distinguish chǔ vs. chù…”, if he meant that most native speakers are not aware that they are producing chǔ and chù as V and N respectively.

  9. Jerry Packard said,

    June 30, 2023 @ 9:10 am

    How do you get the tone info out of Youglish (whatever that is)?

  10. Jichang Lulu said,

    June 30, 2023 @ 12:34 pm

    My experience agrees with Jonathan Smith's here, precisely in familiar Northern speech and in contexts similar to the example in the last video link (e.g. ‘use up leftovers’).

    This does of course violate the etymological distinction between chǔ as a verb and chù as a noun, but it also reinforces Professor Mair's point that the two morphemes get confused ij the contemporary language. Are these two really live free morphemes in spoken Mandarin? Bound nominal -chù ~‘place’ is surely productive, which might conceivably create pressure to flip some chǔ's to chù's as in our example. Just an ad hoc explanation though.

  11. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 30, 2023 @ 4:45 pm

    Youglish (and similar tools) searches for text strings in Youtube caption files and cues up videos at the associated time-stamps. In the case of Chinese, it also offers pinyin transcripts automatically generated from the character text.

    However it is "user beware" in the sense that the text in a caption file need not agree with the audio (indeed may be in a different language entirely.) And with Chinese, the Pinyin is an unsophisticated conversion and thus often wrong; e.g., it gives chǔlǐ across the board for "处理" (a minor inaccuracy compared to most others.)

    So I was just listening to audio stretches suggested by the "处理掉" text search.

    I don't know if the form chùlǐ is due to a mechanism like that suggested by Jichang Lulu or is (partially?) text-mediated, as happens so often with Chinese languages. The suggestion of a distinct lexeme is probably going too far, but there is some kind of nascent semantically-conditioned separation…

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