Wednesday, January 26, 2011


A colloquialism I used recently to express a tightness of funds or a limitation on resources that might apply to some people in Chinatown was, in five easy words, 欏朝唔得晚 loh chiew m-tak man.

"What is gotten in the morning isn't sufficient to last until evening."

As I said, five easy words. In Cantonese. And only if you realize that the first character is a homophone of the verb 攞 loh - to take, to get. The character 欏 is also commonly transcribed, however, even though it makes no sense in the contexts in which it occurs - it means a tree fern - and the Cantonese speaker will automatically adjust the brain to make room for the usage. This is because spoken Cantonese does not perfectly match the characters easily available. As a language, it doesn't actually have a standard dictionary.
Given that until recent times Chinese literature was written in a style and with a vocabulary derived from the classic language, not all words in the Chinese regional tongues have written forms. For Cantonese, some words have different meanings than they do in the national standard language.
Some other words are common in Cantonese, rare in other languages.

And some words just don't have a written form that can be blogged.

Which is why I didn't throw in the colloquial expression I really wanted to use: maan maan gan.
'Gan' (緊) means tense, tight, taught ; nervous; firm.
'Maan' means to be mounted, to clench.

I actually know how to write the correct character for maan, I just have no clue how to get it onto my computer.

Left side radical 才 (choi: talent, ability; only) attached to 蠻 (maan: rude, barbarous, rough; quite). Altogether 28 strokes. Easy.


One can break the phonetic element 蠻 down as follows: fine silk, word, fine silk, over a bug.
糸 si 言 yin 糸 si, 虫 tsung. Six strokes each.
Note that used as a word as by itself, 虫 is correctly written 蟲. Such three-repeat characters are not unusual - the pattern indicates a more abstract concept that can have a solitary instance, rather than a single unit representing a general idea.
Examples of three-repeats: 鑫 (yam) prosperity, surname Yam: three golds (gold is represented by a pulley on top of a mine shaft with two levels branching off, ore in the lower level represented by the two diagonal dots). 轟 (gwang) rumble: three chariots seen from above. 磊 (leui) lumpy, uneven, a rock pile: three rocks. 聶 (nip) whisper, surname Nip: three ears.


Originally 蠻 was a very good descriptive term for certain tribes on the periphery of civilization, being a pictograph of a silk-producing bug - not the silkworm of northern China but its wild cousin in the subtropical zone, source of a fabric similar to Thai silk - in its own way quite desirable as a trade item. By extension, then, it was applied to the non-Sinicised natives of the southlands, coming eventually to mean what it does today: barbarian, coarse, and brutish - which is what the hill-tribes and proto-Thais were in the eyes of Northern exiles.
It is no accident that a near-homophone (according to the phonetics of many centuries ago) became the term for Fujian province: 閩 man (pronounced 'min' in Mandarin). It likewise has a bug. The gate 門 that encloses it is both the phonetic element AND the radical by which you look it up in the dictionary.

[I suspect that 閩 is merely a simplification of 蠻 with a little fine-tuning - fourteen strokes instead of twenty eight. The modern simplified version of 蠻 is 蛮. That 'gate' (Mandarin: men) and 'verminous tribal kingdom' (min) sound similar is a happy coincidence.]


The problem with using 蠻 as a phonetic element is that whatever radical is then appended drives the number of strokes up beyond a convenient level. No, it's not harder to memorize such words - that being the alleged reason for imposing the simplified characters now commonly in use on the mainland - it's more difficult to write them, neatly and legibly, yet keeping them the same size as characters with fewer strokes.
Compare, for instance thirty three stroke 麤 or 籲 with such easy constructs as 生 or 本 at four strokes each.
[Explanation of the characters: 麤 (tsou): rough, coarse, rude: pictorially, three deer. 籲 (heui): to implore: bamboo radical over a reed organ on the left and a suspended page or leaf on the right. 生 (sang): life, alive, to be born, to give rise to - a stalk coming out of the earth with a seed attached to one of the branches, but actually a flame coming from a primitive candelabrum. 本 (pun): root, origin, source: a tree with part shown beneath the surface of the earth.]

The net result is that while the number of possible characters at the lower end of the stroke count is limited - there's only so much you can do with two or three lines - the number of characters in the upper reaches is also less. The vast majority of characters are between eight and sixteen or seventeen strokes. Once you cross twenty or so , most dictionaries start becoming sparsely populated. More than thirty strokes is really rare.

Maan has twenty seven strokes. Four units of six strokes each forming the phonetic element, a radical of three strokes - though you would have to look the radical up in the four stroke radical category, as 才 (choi) is an abbreviation of 手 (sau): hand.
You can't even find maan online.


So, what does the colloquialism 'maan maan gan' actually mean?
To be tightly mounted, clenching the bony back of one's nag firmly between one's own stringy thighs, as if scared that even that miserable possession will be lost from underneath one.
Straightened circumstances, barely able to make both ends meet.

Which, of course, explains why there are so few Chinatown girls whose fathers buy them a Benz.


This post is particularly for four people. Oregon intellectual Tzipporah, who will no doubt read it with avid curiosity. The Search for Emes, who posted the Hong Kong Mambo (and whose musical selection is rather addictive - the Jewish hijackers has a certain wry appeal). Commenter Bookish Ice-cube Tray, whom I miss, even though he/she only visited for the first time two days ago.
And especially Crystal Tao, who has graciously permitted me to guest post on her blog - in two parts:



Reader comments will be welcome on any of the links I have posted here - including the one below.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.


Cinderella said...

Stroke count

I think I'm going to get quite a few strokes, after all those cigars which I have inhaled over the past two weeks. (30+ each day.)

Bookish Ice-cube Tray said...

Indeed, I do find this post interesting. (And I'm a she.)

This is because spoken Cantonese does not perfectly match the characters easily available. As a language, it doesn't actually have a standard dictionary.

Again, fascinating. Are any scholars working on (romanized) dictionaries of Colloquial Cantonese? Or have any attempts been made to investigate the spoken language? I imagine there must have been some, given that the language is spoken by so many people.

e-kvetcher said...

Since we're on the topic of Chinese...

Can you figure out the sign (yellow letters)? :)

There's a funny story behind it.

The back of the hill said...

Hi e-kvetcher,

Dog shit noodles? I'm rather scared of what the story behind that might actullay be.


The back of the hill said...

Hello Bookish Ice-cube Tray,

Indeed, there are quite a number of dictionaries and catalogues of Cantonese, both in phonetic / alphabetic transcription, and using both standard and non-standard characters.

Main problem is that to print, special character sets are needed - not all of which show up as computer symbols yet. Secondary problem is the use of radicals to turn a phonetic element into a separate word, such as for instance the mouth radical to indicate "go by the sound, ignore the original meaning", which is common..... but the Japanese often used the Jade radical for the same thing. Hence coffee being written nearly the same in Chinese and in Kanji. But the Chinese have 'add' and 'negation' with a 口 ('kou'), the Japanese use a 玉 ('yiuk').

咖啡 versus 珈琲

('ga') = Add, increase; plus.
('fei') = Isn't. Wrong. Not.

Plus, of course, given that Chinese characters are sometimes used purely phonetically, irrespective of meaning, there are multiple variants on writing dialect words. As well as alternative ways of writng the same character.

Crystal Tao said...

I am trying to count how many languages you speak - English, Dutch (?), Cantonese, Mandarin, Toishanese (?), Tagalog, Ilokano, Cebuano, Tausug, Hebrew (?), Yiddish.

11 already :-)

What have I missed?

Bookish Ice-cube Tray said...

"Coffee being"? You mean coffee bean? Or is this a pun -- a being who is totally identified with coffee, because of drinking it so much. (Perhaps like Cinderella above, who seems to have inhaled so many cigars that she'll probably turn into a cigar.)

e-kvetcher said...

>Dog shit noodles? I'm rather scared of what the story behind that might actullay be.

Apparently, the guy who owns the restaurant had received the nickname "Dog Crap" at some point early in his life. Not sure what he did to earn this sobriquet.

When he decided to open a noodle shop, perhaps lacking imagination or some basic marketing skills, he apparently decided to call it "Dog Crap's Noodles". I can only assume that most of his clientele is local and knows him personally.

The back of the hill said...

Hi Crystal,

From most fluent to least fluent:
Dutch (including Flemish and Afrikaans)
Visayan (Cebuano)

For a translation I did a while back of a Norwegian article, see this link:

Anything below Indonesian is certainly far from fluent - I can understand a lot, especially if I have a dictionary handy, but find it impossible to think in those languages.

I also know a few words and phrases in Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, and Tajiki - but my ability in those languages is extremely limited. In reading Latin, Spanish, and Italian I am more likely to stumble and miscomprehend entirely than actually understand even one thing.

Tried learning Shanghainese a long time ago, but didn't have enough opportunity to practice. So I still have my notes, and once in a blue moon I'll look at them, or listen to songs in the Suzhou dialect while reading the lyrics..... but again, hardly any opportunities to use any of it.

Many Chinese in the Netherlands are from Zhejiang province (浙江), specifically from Wenzhou (溫州), so the next time I go back I'll be armed with a taperecorder.
Should be interesting - their dialect (溫州話) is apparently quite divergent from other versions of Wu (吳語).

The back of the hill said...

Bookish Ice-cube Tray,

Coffee as in the beverage. It was new to the Chinese at one point, so they transcribed the word using Cantonese pronunciation (the character 加 ('ga') sounds like 'gee-ah' in Mandarin).

Like many characters used phonetically, the addition of a simple radical (the mouth character, in this case) differentiates it, and tells the reader to simply go by the sound. Cantonese is particularly rich in such 'new' characters.

The back of the hill said...


Sounds like a Cantonese guy to me. But the sheer defiance of using the sobriquet is very Chinese in any case.

The back of the hill said...

Hi Bookish Ice-cube Tray,

"Hence coffee being written nearly the same in Chinese and in Kanji."

Clarification: 'hence the characters used to write 'coffee' in Chinese and Japanese being nearly the same.'

Sorry for the confusion.

Tzipporah said...

I did, indeed, read with fascination, especially as "maan maan gan" seems poignantly apropos of our current financial situation. Minus the horse. Horses are for rich people, la!

The back of the hill said...

Wah, no horse! Perhaps a station wagon instead?

Ford Festiva also can. Short. Parking easy. Hide in backyard when taxman come.

As long as you're not limited to eating instant noodles (did that on and off for roughly four years), you're holding your own.
But be strong - things must improve.

The back of the hill said...


Thirty plus per day? Do you work at a tobacconists?
Or do you hang out in casinos?

Thirty cigars? Oy!!!!!

Do you have a major habit?

You really need some whisky with that.

Cinderella said...

Thirty plus per day? Do you work at a tobacconists?


Or do you hang out in casinos?

Only on weekends.

Thirty cigars? Oy!!!!!

Why oy? I thought you liked tobacco.

You really need some whisky with that.

I like whisky in moderation only.

The back of the hill said...

I used to work at a tobacconist. And, if you’ve browsed through this blog a bit, you may have surmised that I possess a pipe-tobacco stockpile.

But thirty cigars a day is rather a lot. Most smokers of normal size cigars only do three or four a day (though folks like uncle Milty, Groucho, Hitchcock etc. may have done a dozen or so).
I myself do two or three pipes a day, and about a dozen small cigarillos.
Moderation. Moderation is good. In moderation.

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