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).

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