Sunday, April 18, 2010

Top hole!

The ever inventive Tony of Other Men's Flowers has recently issued a challenge to his readers to try to use online dictionary/thesaurus resources to produce a definitive list of all the words for approbation currently in use in the English language. He suggests that tech-savvy aspirants to his prize ($50 donated to charity) may want to build their own database of eligible words, and even customise some code for the elimination of duplicates (although it occurs to me that it should be possible to use the reviewing tools in Word to highlight/delete all instances of a particular word and then restore a single example... yes?). That sounds like it might be the kind of task that Froogville's resident IT guru JES would relish.

Tony's intriguing post set me to thinking about how the Chinese express their approval or delight.

It seems to me that they have a considerably more limited range of common words and expressions for this purpose than English. They get an awful lot of mileage out of the basic (hao = good): they can reduplicate it to make it stronger (hao hao) or use adverb intensifiers with it (hen hao, feichang hao). One way or another, you do hear an awful lot of hao, hao, hao - and not a lot of anything else. Well, apart from 'OK', which seems to have become hugely popular in recent years - though mostly for expressing agreement rather than admiration.

Other than these, the only really common expressions of approbation I seem to encounter are:

不赖 (bu lai, not bad), which always strikes me as rather quaintly understated (I don't think they employ a lot of litotes in Chinese); it tends to put me in mind of a Brit saying something like "Not too shabby".

漂亮 (piao liang, beautiful), which is the ubiquitous - just about the only - term of praise favoured by sports commentators in this country. When addressed directly to a person, I can't help thinking it comes across as a little like the Australian phrase, "You beaut!"

And then there's 励害 (li hai, which the Mandarin Tools online dictionary tells me means "skillful; adept; proficient; professional"), the standard expression of respect exchanged between players at my favourite pool-playing bar in Beijing. The intriguing thing about this one is that there's another word with identical pronunciation (possibly, indeed, two different words, since there seem to be two distinct character pairs, 利害 and 厉害, which are now indistinguishable in meaning - perhaps The Weeble can assist us on this point? Weeble? Weeble?) which apparently translates as 'terrible, formidable, serious, devastating, tough, capable, sharp, severe, fierce'. That seems to me to be a far more potent - and far more painfully apposite - word for expressing your awe of the local pool shark who's just handed out a spanking to you. I feel sure the two (or three?) words must be tending to merge into a single usage. It would be rather amusing, would it not, if HR people in writing out performance appraisals on staff inadvertently started to use the term that means 'tough, fierce' rather than merely 'competent, professional'? I bet it does happen from time to time. Anyway, to my mind, li hai seems closest in nuance to the French use of "Formidable!"

I wonder if my readers would like to contribute any other suggestions for favourite words or phrases of this sort - whether in Chinese or any other language?


The Weeble said...

The most obvious would be 牛 (niú, "cow") or its more colorful origin, 牛屄 (niúbī, "cow cunt"). The is frequently written with a homophonous character 逼, but that's just because the character for "cunt" is generally not known to people, and doesn't always show up in Chinese fonts.

, a sound-loan for English "cool," doesn't really get used in quite the same way as it does in English, but in recent years some young people have started saying 酷毙 (kùbì, "deadly cool" - though I've seen other characters used to write it as well), which seems to work more or less the same way "Awesome" does when it's used as a response to something. (Rather than a modifier, that is.)

There are plenty more, I'm sure, but those are the first two that come to mind. Been a long day.

The Weeble said...

Re: difference between 厉害 vs. 利害: most of the time there's no difference between the two; they're just different ways (厉害 is more standard) of writing the Mandarin word lìhai. However: 利害 can also be used to write the word lìhài (note that the 害 is given a fourth-tone reading there rather than the neutral-tone reading), meaning something like "pros and cons" or "benefits versus drawbacks."

JES said...

The whole business about "two different ways of writing lihai": fascinating. (Are there such things as typos in Chinese???)

I used an online sort-of-thesaurus site to drill down a few levels, starting with "good," and came up with this list of 139 candidates:

abundant, acceptable, accepted, ace, adept, advantageous, ample, angelic, angelical, bang-up, bankable, beatific, beneficent, beneficial, benevolent, best, big, bully, cherubic, close, complete, cool, copious, corking, cracking, dandy, dear, dependable, discriminating, effective, estimable, expert, fine, fit, fortunate, fresh, full, generous, genius, genuine, go-to-meeting, good, good enough, good-hearted, goodish, goodness, goody-goody, gracious, great, groovy, healthful, healthy, honorable, hot, hotshot, in effect, in force, intellectual, just, keen, kind, kindly, large, lovable, maven, near, neat, nice, nifty, not bad, openhearted, operative, opportune, peachy, pleasing, plenteous, plentiful, practiced, proficient, received, redeeming, redemptive, reputable, respectable, rich, right, righteous, ripe, safe, sainted, saintlike, saintly, salutary, satisfactory, saving, secure, sensation, seraphic, serious, sizable, sizeable, skilful, skilled, skillful, slap-up, smashing, solid, sound, soundly, standard, star, suitable, sunday, sunday-go-to-meeting, superb, superior, sweet, swell, thoroughly, tolerable, unexceptionable, unimpeachable, unobjectionable, unspoiled, unspoilt, upright, virtuoso, virtuous, well, well behaved, well-behaved, white, whiz, whizz, wide, wide-cut, wiz, wizard, worthy

Not all unique, strictly speaking: it treats UK and US variations as different words, which Tony would probably disqualify, and there are other variations like "well behaved" vs. "well-behaved" which even I couldn't justify by my innate desire to cheat. For the record, in the original list (synonyms for "good"), I got as far as "angelic" in the alphabetic list -- and only went down one level past that. On the other hand, even just to this point the list includes few overkilled items (awesome, amazing, fantastic, and the like). I'm pretty sure it would be easy to meet Tony's goal.

More interesting, maybe, would be to come up with something like a Gunning fog index which would analyze a given text sample vs. the average of all samples submitted to date, and tell you whether YOUR text sample is, er, good or bad.

Froog said...

Wow, JES, I had thought the thesaurus route might prove a thorny one, but I hadn't bothered to look into it myself. I think a very large number of those suggestions would have to be eliminated. Tony, I believe, was looking for words or phrases which might be used as general expressions of praise (and perhaps, even more particularly, as ejactulations of admiration); most of these are highly specific to certain conditions.

I think your (perhaps facetious?) suggestion on his site about using negatives of synonyms for 'bad' would also prove largely unworkable, because of the English distaste for double negatives. The only one I could think of off the top of my head that might work was inoffensive, but that, as they say, would be damning with the faintest of praise.

I was very interested in the Gunning Fog Index, and would be interested in running the test on some of my posts. I discovered a rather unsatisfactory online reading level test a couple of years ago which presumably used this test, or something like it. Or at least, it purported to, but I'm fairly convinced it was just a tease, purely RANDOM in its assessments.

Froog said...

By the way, JES, over the weekend I put up another long post about popular music over on The Barstool - about the song Lili Marlene. I think you might enjoy it.

Froog said...

Weebs, I omitted to mention niubi not only from innate prudishness but also because it seems to have a fairly limited circulation. You'd never hear it in 'polite company' or on CCTV. In fact, you just about never hear it outside of a rock music club.

Similarly with ku (or kubi) - it just doesn't seem to be all that common. Whereas you can't get through a day here without encountering The Big Three at least once or twice or each.

Froog said...

Weeble, what about the other lihai - 励害 - with the apparently rather milder meaning?

You're usually able to come up with detailed histories of particular characters and character combinations, and it occurred to me that this sounded as though it might be a relatively recent coinage - an attempt to reflect in writing a perceived divergence of nuance in the use of lihai, branching into two distinct meanings. I wonder if this distinction in writing has failed to become established, or is now wilting; and whether this may lead to a blurring of the distinction in the spoken language too. Your thoughts? Or facts??

Froog said...

No, I couldn't resist....

I reckon the Gunning fog index (although I dislike the term 'fog': my verbosity enhances clarity rather than obscuring it, thank you very much) for this post is around 15 (junior year undergraduate in the US education system?) using the newer methodology, and a little over 13 (college Freshman) using the old-school approach of counting clauses rather than only sentences.

Curiously, this online 'fog tester' (the only one of the links from the Wikipedia article that JES directed us to above that seems to be working at the moment) rates the post at only 12.12, despite counting many more 'complex' words (I discounted most of the adverbs and participles) - so there are obviously some wrinkles with these automated text-readers.

Froog said...

Tony's post struck particularly close to home for me because I'd just been writing another review of Oscar-nominated films, and had been struggling to vary my use of adjectives for films that I liked.

The Weeble said...

Well, if you were listening to Taiwanese television you'd hear more slang terms -- things like 吊, which Jay Chou popularized, for example.

As for 励害: It's yet another way of writing the same word, and is generally considered to be a straight-up typo (as opposed to 利害, which is deprecated but still in common-enough usage).
The reason for this is that despite people's tendency - Chinese and foreign alike - to focus on characters, the fact is that Chinese is a spoken language, and people are speaking it fluently years before they are able to write it with any degree of proficiency. (And indeed, many people never do learn it to any degree of proficiency. I seem to end up translating their stuff a lot.) So people know the word lìhai as something they've been saying since they were young children, and when the time comes to write it, they reach for whatever characters are at hand in their mental Scrabble tray.

There are plenty of even clearer examples of this: Beijing dialect, for instance -- which Beijingers believe, erroneously, to be virtually the same as standard Mandarin -- is full of terms that don't have characters to write them. Cuībar, for instance, meaning "flunky" or "gofer" or "lackey," is frequently written 催巴儿 -- three characters that have nothing at all to do with its meaning. (OK, 催 can mean "to urge," "to hurry," but this is a coincidence.) Zhóur, meaning something between "slow-witted" and "slightly off one's tray," is given by one of my Beijing dialect dictionaries as 轴儿, meaning "axle." It's possible to construct a rationale for this, in which, I don't know, "axles" can get squeaky and rusty and slow -- and this is what the fixation on characters leads people to do -- but the fact is that it's an arbitrary choice of a character to represent a sound.

In the case of lìhai, I'm not sure what came first, and haven't got any of my reference books at hand to check. My guess is that 厉害 (the "official" way of writing it) was probably the original way of writing it, if only because the characters do add up to mean something between "formidable" and "terrifying."

Froog said...

Why, thank you, Professor Weeble - most informative.

The level of disconnection between the written and spoken language here fascinates (and sometimes appals) me.

The shift in meaning, or range of variation in nuance in lihai is curious too. I'd be interested to know if one of your big reference books could tell us if it started out as a routine word of commendation and moved towards the more intimidating, or vice versa.