Bad language?
Published: Sep 12, 2012 06:55 PM
Customers crowd to buy the sixth edition of the Modern Chinese Dictionary on July 18 at a bookstore in Shangqiu, Henan Province. The bookstore sold over 100 copies of the dictionary on the first day of publication, at 95 yuan ($15) each. Photo: CFP
Customers crowd to buy the sixth edition of the Modern Chinese Dictionary on July 18 at a bookstore in Shangqiu, Henan Province. The bookstore sold over 100 copies of the dictionary on the first day of publication, at 95 yuan ($15) each. Photo: CFP

If you spend a couple of days offline in today's China, you might not understand what people are saying the next time you log on. It seems like every day new phrases or expressions are being coined by ingenious or bored Web users. Some have stood the test of time and survived offline, while others went viral overnight but dropped out of sight just as quickly.

For the baffled, there's always the dictionary. But unlike the online lexicon, dictionaries update in spates, and rapid changes have made it difficult for lexicographers to track and choose new words to add to standard dictionaries. The latest edition of the Modern Chinese Dictionary (MCD), one of the most authoritative in the country, added about 4,000 new entries. But which words were or were not included raised some controversy.

The sixth edition, published in July, contains over 69,000 entries, including both single words or characters and common expressions. It's been seven years since the last revision was made. In comparison, the Oxford English Dictionary updates its online version every three months.

The Modern Chinese Dictionary has gone through six revisions since its first official edition in 1978. Editors of the dictionary say they don't have a specific plan as to how often the dictionary should be revised, but it very much depends on the speed of change in society.

The new edition included terms such as "naked marriage," meaning getting married without owning a house or other significant possession. Some terms reflect changes or trend in social administration such as "non-government organizations," "public opinion polls," and "maintaining stability." Others describe social groups or new trends, such as "ant tribe" (young college graduates who have low incomes and live in cramped shared apartments), "substitute drivers," "backpackers" or "group purchase."

Leftover terms

But other expressions that are popular among the public or the Web users are nowhere to be found in the dictionary. It did not include shengnan or shengnü, literally "leftover men" or "leftover women," which has become a standard term in recent years to refer to people of a certain age that cannot find a spouse.

The experts in charge of compiling the dictionary debated over the inclusion of the word. "In the end we decide such words are easily understood and need no explanation, and it's also difficult to give an exact definition to what makes a 'leftover' man or woman," said Tan Jingchun, a researcher at the Linguistics Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and one of the three chief editors of the dictionary.

It's an arduous task to find, track and select new entries and to give them proper definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary relies on a number of highly sophisticated research programs to find and track new English words both from the Internet and from a variety of texts including lyrics, novels, and journals.

The Chinese lexicographers also have a database program that automatically identifies and tracks new words and phrases through electronic materials. But the nature of Chinese language makes it much more difficult to distinguish a meaningful phrase from two characters written together. Staff need to pore over the database to exclude those non-words.

Everyone from the editing team also collects new words or new meaning of old phrases in their daily life. There are no clear-cut, quantitative criteria for which new words should be included in a dictionary. The selection depends on the lexicographers' experience, said Tan, who has participated in two revisions.

Tan said they judge whether a new word should be added to the dictionary by its popularity and stability. The new word or expression should be used among different groups of people and in different contexts, he explained.

The rapid development of the Internet poses new challenges to lexicographers worldwide, as it's easier for new words to emerge and gain popularity. People often find it hard to understand why some popular words are not in the dictionary.

Wrong words

Lexicographers have traditionally been divided into descriptivists, who look to document existing usages and changes in language without judgment, and prescriptivists, who attempt to set down how the language "should" be used. Tan added that since the dictionary is also intended as an effort to standardize the use of the Chinese language and to promote Putonghua, the experts also have to evaluate whether a new expression is "proper" or necessary.

The 500 million Chinese Web users have created a large pool of some cute or goofy expressions that are usually a spin-off of the usual phrases. For instance, homonyms are used to replace the original expression, such as using "river crab" instead of "harmony," both spelled as hexie in pinyin.

"We find it unnecessary to include such words because we already have the proper way to express the same meaning, and their usage is not standard," said Tan.

From the beginning, the Modern Chinese Dictionary was intended to standardize the language. Scholars started to compile such a dictionary in 1956, the same year as the government decided to promote Putonghua across the country.

Like most aspects of modern China's history, the dictionary has a tumultuous past. Experts took almost 10 years to compile material, edit entries, solicit opinions and revise again and again. But when the Cultural Revolution hit, most of the experts were sent off to the rural areas and work on the dictionary was halted.

In the beginning, the dictionary was full of vocabulary closely related to the waves of political movements between the 1950s and 1970s. The constant campaigns created lots of confusion for lexicographers, said Han Jingti, 72, a long-term member of the linguistics institute. 

For instance, when explaining the word shengren or "sage," the dictionary gave the example of the much-revered Confucius. In 1973, this became a serious mistake when the country was caught up in a "criticize Confucius" campaign, which in 1974 became "criticize Lin, criticize Confucius," linking the Chinese philosopher with the fallen Chinese leader Lin Biao. Confucius was described as an embodiment of "feudalism" and his statues were smashed.

The dictionary, which by then has published a trial edition, was criticized for containing "feudalistic, capitalist and revisionist" sentiments. To correct the mistakes, the editorial board was required to invite dozens of workers and soldiers to help edit the dictionary.

Words and expressions linked to supposed "feudalist, capitalist or revisionist" sentiments were exorcized from the dictionary, and every word was required to reflect "class struggle," recalled Han, who has been involved in almost every revision of the dictionary to date.

Words such as love or prison were asked to be explained in the context of class. "For instance, prison was explained as 'a place to hold revolutionaries in the old days, but now a place to hold counter-revolutionaries,'" said Han.

While the workers and soldiers gave some valid suggestions, most opinions were ridiculous when viewed today. One worker suggested that they should add an explanation to the word "dog" to refer to "secret agents," as used in a popular revolutionary play at the time.

The farce ended with the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. The lexicographers then had to spend almost a year to revise the botched dictionary to rid it of the influence of that era. At long last the first Modern Chinese Dictionary was officially published in 1978.

The dictionary went through a major revision in 1993 as reform and open-up brought an influx of new expressions. The 1996 version added about 9,000 and deleted 4,000 entries, said Han.

Foreign touches

Today just as some Chinese expressions have found their way into the English speaking world, many foreign expressions are also coming into Chinese conversation.

The latest edition of the Modern Chinese Dictionary has added many expressions that originated in Hong Kong or Taiwan but have gained popularity among the mainlanders. It also included over 200 English acronyms or words and phrases that contain English letters, such as GDP, B2C, DNA or X-ray.

In late August over a hundred scholars and experts complained that the new dictionary had violated related laws and regulations that promote the use of standard Chinese. They also argued that a Chinese dictionary shouldn't contain English words. Some were concerned that the use of foreign words would contaminate the "purity" of the Chinese language.

The dictionary editors found the accusation laughable. They included their foreign words that are widely used in the media and in daily conversations so that people could easily look them up, not to encourage them, said Tan.

The dictionary used to contain phonetic translations of English words. But as time passes, some English words have found proper translations or the equivalent Chinese expressions, while some have remained in common speech. Most people are used to saying CT scan, DNA, or NBA instead of their long, complicated formal translations.

But the government is trying to regulate and promote the use of standard Chinese, at least on formal occasions. The authorities have banned the use of English words or acronyms in Chinese publications. TV sports commentators or news anchors are also not allowed to say NBA on the air but are required to use the full Chinese translation, which is frequently ridiculed by audiences. 

Overall, the dictionary editors are cautious about adding new words. Most words need to be around for a couple of years and preferably appear in mainstream media or official documents. It would seem that the dictionary is conservative in certain ways, especially when it comes to words with negative connotations or that point to aspects of society the authorities dislike.

While the Chinese word tongzhi, comrade, is now commonly used to refer to gay people, the dictionary didn't include this meaning. Many people, especially the gay community, have voiced objections.

Jiang Lansheng, a lead editor for the dictionary, told media earlier that they didn't include this meaning because they "don't want to promote or draw attention to these things." Offensive words or words reflecting corruption or wrongdoing are also included in the dictionary, but the editors admit they are more cautious with these terms.

But times are changing and there's no telling what might or might not be included in the dictionary in the future, said Tan. "The basic principle is, collect new entries aggressively, but stay safe and sound," he said.