"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.
One can break the phonetic element 蠻 down as follows: fine silk, word, fine silk, over a bug.
BUGS AND BUGGY PEOPLE
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.
MAAN MAAN GAN
So, what does the colloquialism 'maan maan gan' actually mean?
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.
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