A horse of course

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My colleague Bob Ladd wondered how many people noticed the translingual pun at the top of a recent Economist article. The topic was the ascent of Ma Ying-jeou to the presidency of Taiwan— sorry, to the presidency of the the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu (Chinese Taipei). Mr. Ma is a Mandarin speaker. Now, every linguist knows that one of the large number of meanings the syllable ma can have, along with "mother", "hemp", and "scold", is (if the 3rd tone is used) "horse". (See this site for a tutorial on Chinese tones.) Chinese teachers delight in sentences with meanings like "Horse eats hemp, suffers mother's swearing" (ma3 chi1 ma2 a1i ma1 ma4) containing four different ma words. So The Economist's headline choice was: Ma's horse comes in. The ‘Ma’ can be read as both "Ma" (personal name) and "ma3" ("horse") — and in fact both of these are written with the character 馬. But the allusion to Chinese lessons was not picked up anywhere in the story. I wonder how many readers will have noticed it.

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