Chinese word of the day #3: 巧克力

Few moments in class have been as fun as when we were first introduced to this word – the two contestants that come to mind are:

  1. when we had to keep repeating the word 白色 (bái sè, ”white”) over and over again and everyone tried not to laugh as it sounds exactly like the Swedish word for ”poop” (and with the Chinese teacher not understanding the hilarity), and
  2. when everyone tried to say the repeated adjective for 漂亮, 漂漂亮亮 (piáopiáoliàngliàng, ”pretty”) as fast as possible. Try saying it ten times, it’ll kill you.

巧克力
qiǎokèlì

巧克力 is one of few English loanwords in Chinese, and it’s fairly clear from hearing its pronounciation that it derives from the English ”chocolate”. As with most loanwords derived from English, the key when pronouncing it is to have an as derogatory Chinese accent as possible, and the result is pretty okay. The same goes with words such as ”卡拉OK” (káláǒukèi, ”karaoke”), another loan words (the original is from Japanese).

Except for sounding funny, 巧克力 has stayed with me for being one of a few words that when I learned them included a bunch of all new characters. Before being introduced to the word, I had never before seen any of the characters. As with most loan words, the characters are chosen because they sound like the word sounds in English, and there is nothing logical to get from the three words put together other than forming the brand new 巧克力 (the same goes for other loan words and brand names, for example 可口可乐 (kēkǒukělè, ”Coca-Cola”)). With time, I have learned all the the three words in separate ways, and because of this, I find it much easier to remember both 巧克力 and the separate words (by thinking of 巧克力).

The meanings are in two of the cases a tad fuzzy, as is the case with many words in Chinese – they are seldom used alone, but are often parts of two-character words to change the meaning.

The meaning of 巧 (qiǎo) is basically ”opportunely” or ”coincidentally” (in a positive sense). Similarly, 不巧 (literally ”not opportunely”) means ”unfortunately”.

The most common meanings of 克 (kè) includes ”to be able to”, ”to subdue”, ”to restrain”, ”to overcome”, ”to overthrow” and ”gram”, as well as the name of a Shang dynasty mythological emperor. Interestingly (and speaking of loanwords), 克 alongside 朗 (lǎng, ”clear”) forms 克朗, the Chinese loanword for the Swedish monetary system krona.

力 is more fuzzy, and apart from being one of the most common surnames in China (Li), and part of probably hundreds of two- or three-character words, it means something along the lines of ”power”, ”strength” or for that matter ”strong”.

So what’s the point of all this? 1. Loanwords in Chinese are funny, and are great at reinforcing Chinese stereotypes. 2. Multicharacter words with characters you’ve never heard of are often a pain in the ass in the beginning, but once you’ve learned the different characters they are generally extremely easy to remember, because of all the time put into it as well as the memories you can c0nnect to the parts. With 巧克力 I simply waited, and as my vocabulary increased I learned 巧, 克 and 力 within a month or two. With most new multicharacter words I get, however, I generally look the words up immediately, and this often helps understanding and remembering the word right from the start – and ofcourse, as a plus, I learn several new words alongside the original one.

In the case of 巧克力 the words are nonsensically connected, but in most cases the different words connect in ways that help deeply understand the language and helps learn several new words. A common trick in word forming in Chinese is putting together two words that are basically synonyms, and together they form a third word that basically means the same thing. Learning the third word first helps you understand three at the price of one.

And to give a nice last example (in which the words aren’t nonsensical), Star Trek in Chinese is 星际旅行 (interstellar journey).

The death of another great man – Christopher Hitchens

In spite of some terrible opinions on the Iraq war, Christopher Hitchens will always remain in my heart as one of our time’s greatest journalist, and a man who could speak his mind without caring for the consequences. An atheist who gave power to all of us, and who showed us what could be in a world of reason.

Hitchens died December 15, merely 62 years old, due to complications of his long struggle with cancer, or as he called it, ”a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death”.

His last great address to the world of skeptics and atheists was published in April 2011, when he was scheduled to appear at the American Atheist convention, but was forced not to due to his illness. The entire letter can be found on Pharyngula.

I have found, as the enemy becomes more familiar, that all the special pleading for salvation, redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before. I hope to help defend and pass on the lessons of this for many years to come, but for now I have found my trust better placed in two things: the skill and principle of advanced medical science, and the comradeship of innumerable friends and family, all of them immune to the false consolations of religion. It is these forces among others which will speed the day when humanity emancipates itself from the mind-forged manacles of servility and superstitition. It is our innate solidarity, and not some despotism of the sky, which is the source of our morality and our sense of decency.

Chinese word of the day #2: 希望

Variation certainly helps in learning new characters (and to a lesser extent also words) in Chinese – it is much easier to mix together two words that sound alike or two characters than look alike, than it is to forget about a word that is absolutely unique.

There are several examples in Chinese of characters that look like they’d come from an entirely different language, often because the characters are of a more complex nature, with four parts instead of the usual two (or one or three, but two is most common). I always find it helping to discover obvious symbols in the characters, such as X:s, plus signs and characters that look like Latin letters (most commonly B), and the more complicated a character is, the easier it is to find some symbols that are easy to remember. Alongside the fact that more time is spent on more complex characters than simpler ones, this is the reason why I can much easier remember these ones with time than I can the simpler ones.

Today’s example of such a word that belongs in the complex category, yet is one of the simplest in that category, is:

希望

xī wàng

”to wish for” / ”to desire” / ”to hope”

The word consists of two characters. 希 means ”rare”, while 望 has several meanings, including ”full moon”, ”to hope” and ”to gaze into the distance”. A direct translation is basically ”to hope for something unusual”.

The characters have several nice rules of memory that I keep with.

  • 希 has distinct symbols in an X and what to me looks like a dagger, and so it helps me imagine a treasure hunter sticking his dagger (or more preferably his spade) into the X that marks the spot, hoping for an unusual discovery.
  • 望 includes as one of its three parts (two on top, one bottom) 月 (yuè), the character for ”moon”, which seems logical since one translation of the character is ”full moon”. The bottom part looks like a deformed plus sign, and ofcourse the full moon is one added size of the other moon phases. In the first days of learning the character, I constantly had it mixed up with 恐 (kǒng, ”afraid”) which I was also learning at the time. Both characters are of three parts, located the same way, with an I-like symbol in the top left and a 月-like symbol in the top right. My way out of the trap was to recognise the 月 (and not the similar but different character in 恐) as vital for 望:s meaning, and the top left character followed organically from there.