Although One Would Make a Good Birthday Present...

It’s been awhile since I last complained about the Chinese language, and I’ve got a wonderful illustration of its craziness too.  Here goes.

I just had a Chinese lesson today.  While there, my teacher informed me that she was planning on getting me a nice gift for my birthday.  It was to be a small piece of wood on which she would write some Chinese calligraphy.  She asked me what I wanted written.  Cogitation commenced.  

Time for a tangent that I swear is totally connected to the story.  For thousands of years, Chinese men (and even some women) have adopted what we call in English a “courtesy name.”  When a man turned 20, he was either given or chose a new name.  This would be the name by which he would be known to most people.  Only very close friends and family members would call him by his given name.  This practice has mostly died out in China, but was common into the 20thcentury.  Anyway, the night before I had been reading about courtesy names.  According to Wikipedia, the Chinese term for a courtesy name is 表字or biǎo zì.

So I decided that what I wanted for my birthday from my teacher was for her to give me a courtesy name, and to write that on the wood block.  I tried to explain the concept as best I could in broken Chinese.  She didn’t seem to get it.  So I said the term as I remembered it from Wikipedia: biǎo zì.

Unfortunately, I messed up the tones.  I said the first character correctly, but I made a subtle error on the second.  Instead of saying “zì” with the Chinese 4th tone*, I said it with the nebulous Chinese 5th tone**.  As a result, I changed the meaning entirely.  I went from saying 表字 biǎo zì to saying 婊子biǎo zi.   

*A hard, downward inflection

 **They don’t call it the 5th tone, even though it totally is.  They refer to it as “toneless” or “light tone.”  However, it is possible to mispronounce this alleged “toneless” tone, which to me makes it a 5th tone.  Not a single Chinese person I've said this to agrees with me, but that doesn't make me wrong

My teacher seemed scandalized by my request.  I repeated it.  "Yes, I want a biǎo zi for my birthday," I said.  She went to the computer and typed what I said into an online Chinese dictionary.  She said: “this is what you want?”  I looked at the screen.  As it turns out, biǎo zi means “whore.”

So I just asked my Chinese teacher for a whore for my birthday.  Lovely.  Fortunately she is pretty cool and understood that I had made, in the words of Gob, a huge mistake.

Or did I?  I will link you the dictionary entries to 表字 (courtesy name) and 婊子(whore).  If you go to those links and click “listen,” you can hear the pronunciation of those two words.  Tell me if you hear any difference at all.  Remember that the first character is each word is pronounced exactly the same*.  The difference lies entirely in the second character.  

*Even though the characters are totally different 

This is what I’m up against.  This is the everyday struggle of Chinese.  The difference between a polite name and a prostitute.

Howard TanzmanComment