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Random thoughts from random learning

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齋 -- find the radical

Quiz for the day: decompose 齋 into its radical and non-radical components.

Hint: The non-radical part is

. Can you even find that in 齋? I couldn't.


Did you even know that was a radical? I didn't.



靦 by itself means "bashful". No surprise then that 靦腆 also means "shy / bashful".

Pretty easy far?

So 靦臉 should mean "bashful face", right? Nope, it means "shameless / brazen", pretty much the opposite of what I would have expected.

[And while we're here, what's up with this "simplification" of 靦 -> 腼? Oh boy, removed an entire 3 strokes out of 16. 腼 does make more sense -- the phonetic half is on the right, rather than the left, as is more common. And I guess "flesh" (肉/月) doesn't make any less sense than "to see" (見).]



Another example of total failure of guessing the pronunciation based on radical / phonetic part. The radical at least makes sense -- what else do you use for a bribe if not 贝?

But the phonetic part? 有 != hui4, and 各 != lu4.

I guess if I think of 路, which also has nothing to do with 各/ge4, but at least is pronounced the same as 赂, that helps.


谚语: There's a word for it

I‘ve been vaguely aware that I misuse the term "成语" a bit. It seems that for many, a 成语 refers only to a classically derived, 4 or 8 character, saying. So other "fixed phrases" are not, strictly speaking, a "成语".

Someone was explaining "跳跳槽槽" (meaning "to change jobs frequently") to me, and was looking for the right (English) word to describe the part of speech it was. I suggested 成语. Although he was a tad impressed that I knew that word (ah, the joys of low expectations....), he didn't think it was right, and said 谚语 was better.

MDBG defines a 谚语 as "proverb". Which doesn't seem quite right. "跳跳槽槽", to me, is not really a "proverb". So "set expression" might be a better translation, or "common phrase".

But at least now I have another word I can use to describe Chinese.


螞 vs 螞 vs 螞

Found this gem the other day. According to MDBG, 螞 has three different meanings:

  1. mā​ : dragonfly
  2. mǎ​: ant
  3. mà​: grasshopper

One character, three different tones, three different meanings.

I assume the way this character is usually used is as part of words: 螞蟻 vs 螞蚱 (oh look, and there's 螞蟥!). I also assume native speakers get this wrong too, so I'm not going to worry too much.


蒙, 濛, and 矇, oh my!

蒙 is second tone (méng​) in the common meaning of "to cover / ignorant / to suffer (misfortune) / to receive (a favor) / to cheat"

蒙 is third tone (měng​​) in the also common meaning of related to Mongolia / Mongol ethnic group.

That much I can handle.

The second meaning of 蒙 is also pronounced as second tone (méng​) in Taiwan, same as the first meaning. I like Taiwan's way more, having only one pronunciation, but since the mainland doesn't do that, I need to remember both.

蒙 as second tone (méng​) is the one used for surnames.

Still OK. Now things get even more complicated

蒙 is also the simplified form of 濛, which means "drizzle / mist". Fortunately, it is also pronounced as second tone (méng​).

蒙 is also the simplified form of 矇. 矇 itself also has two pronunciations, second tone (méng​) meaning "blind / dim sighted", and first tone (yes!) (mēng​) meaning "to deceive / to cheat / to hoodwink / to make a wild guess". From what I can tell (corrections anyone?), for this character the first tone (mēng​) is the more common one, and the second tone (méng​) is seen only/mostly in the word 矇矓. And as a surname.

Ouch, my head hurts.

MDBG also lists a first tone (mēng​) meaning for 蒙, meaning "(knocked) unconscious", but I don't see any words that use it, so I have to conclude it is obscure or an error, and I will ignore it. [Taiwan MOE dictionary confirms this, and has only a single pronunciation for 蒙.]

Speaking of errors, MDBG also lists the pronunciation of 蒙嘉慧's surname as third tone (Měng​​), even though the other entries only list a second tone pronunciation as a surname. Error? Or exception? How does one find out how people pronounce their name?




Was having dinner at our local all-you-can-eat American-Chinese buffet place last night, and one of the dishes in the buffet was 芥兰几.

Fortunately they had the English there as well, or I'm not sure I could have figured out what they were serving. Is this a typo, or is this common way of writing it?

In case you can't figure it out, the English was

Broccoli Chicken. I assume the 几 was a write-o for 鸡.



Me: [looking at some weird Asian food my wife bought] What is "red "flour"

Wife: what?

Me: hong mian. Red flour.

Wife: [looking at the package] What do you think the second character is?

Me: mian. "flour" or "bread"

Wife: That's not 麵.

Me: Oh. [Looks closely.] So it's not. What is "red" "something-that-isn't-mian"

Wife: I don't know. [We look at the translation of the ingredient list.] What is Anka?

Me: I don't know.

Even wikipedia doesn't have an entry for it. Googling, I find out that it is

a strain of mold called Monascus anka and is traditionally added to steamed rice that is left to ferment. After it is dried, the end product, commonly known as anka or “red rice,” has been popularly used as a spice to give sweetness and aroma to foods, as well as to add a red color.

Not to make me worried, but the second hit on google for this are a warning out of Taiwan about "Toxic Anka". On the good side, the first hit is a scientific paper saying it might be used to used to suppress hypertriglyceridemia and hyperlipidemia.



Came across a new-to-me name for a toilet during last month's trip: 盥洗室 I don't recall ever seeing that name before, but it's quite possible I have seen it many times and just didn't know what it was.

How common is 盥洗室? Be honest, feel free to tell me that it's everywhere and I'm just an idiot.



Part 2 in my series of "why not all words in Chinese are obvious once you know the meaning of each individual character."

Let's look a various words with the character 獵. [All taken from MDBG]

  • 獵人 -- person who hunts
  • 獵犬 -- dog which hunts
  • 獵豹 -- cheetah (lit. leopard/panther which hunts)
  • 獵鷹 -- falcon
  • 獵槍 -- gun used in hunting

All pretty easy. 獵 means hunting, second characters says what object is doing the hunting.

Now let's look at 獵物 . 獵 again means hunting, 物 means "thing", or might mean animal (from 動物 ). So 獵物 is an animal that hunts, right?


It's an animal that is hunted.

One might argue that 獵物 still makes sense, 獵 means things related to hunting, and 物 means object. And I would not disagree. But my point is that you can not guess from just looking at 獵物 whether the meaning is things that hunt versus things are are hunted. Which is a pretty big difference.

Reminds me of the joke: If olive oil is made by pressing olives, how is baby oil made?


灬 is called 四點水!

I'm starting to think that Chinese do this on purpose, just because Chinese isn't hard enough to learn on its own.....

灬 is the fire radical, 火, when on the bottom. See, four dots in 灬, four strokes in 火. Not very hard.

I was trying to describe a character to someone, and tried to say it had the fire radical on the bottom, so I said "下面有火". He looked confused, so I wrote it for him, and then he laughed and said that they call it "四點水"!

So why, when describing it, do they call it "four dot water"? Would calling it 四点火 really be that hard?


河 vs 湖

Am I the only one here that is totally unable to remember which one means "river" and which one means "lake"? All I can remember is that they both have something to do with water.

At least I can easily remember the pronunciation, due to 可 and 古 being in there, and each of these have the same vowel (e vs u) as those, and in both cases the initial is "h" and the tone is second.


汁 is pronounced zhī

I doubt this is news to you. But it is news to me.

For years I've been pronouncing it jì, most likely influenced by 计. And then it appears on my ZDT flashcard list. I type in the pinyin, and get it wrong. Sure that the word list is wrong, I look further. Wow, MDBG has it wrong too :-) After searching two additional sites, I finally had to admit that I've had it wrong all these years.

And I've been wondering why I have such a hard time ordering fruit juice in China :P

As an aside, over on this thread http://www.chinese-forums.com/index.php?/topic/27660-learning-vocabulary-software/ there was a bit of a discussion about the benefit of having your flashcard program require you to type in pinyin, as opposed to just clicking on whether you know it. This is one of those reasons. If I hadn't needed to type it in, I probably would have have just clicked on "I know this well" without checking too closely and moved on.....


會 -- kuài​

This reading always throws me, as in 會計 (accounting).

I'm sure there is a perfectly good reason why 會 has two entirely different meanings with two entirely different pronunciations. But for the life of me I have no idea what it could be.

I think it's time I get a Chinese etymology dictionary.


擅長 -- shàn​cháng​

For a while I was rather despondent about ever learning the correct pronunciation for characters with multiple pronunciations. Recently, however, it's seemed much easier. Between focusing more on words rather than characters, and getting better at reading entire sentences so I understand the meaning, I can see that with some amount of further practice it won't require conscious thought to determine which reading to use.

This one, however, threw me. Since this refers to a person ("to be good at / to be expert in "), I assumed that 長 would be pronounced as zhǎng​ (as in 校長 , 董事長 , 處長 , etc).

Nope, it's cháng​.

At first I assumed it was an error on MDBG. But no, TW MOE, zdic.net, and nciku all agree.



手續 -- why?

It's commonly said [1] that one aspect of Chinese that is easy to learn is because the meaning of most words are "obvious" once you know the meaning of each individual character.

I disagree, but that is the topic of another post.

Back to the topic, anyone care to help me understand why 手續 means "formalities / procedures"? "手" by itself means hand (or, by extension, someone that does something), and "續" means "continue / replenish". I realize in China it seems that the paperwork continues to keep your hand busy, but that's hardly a derivation <_<

[1] No reference, I'm just going to say it's true because I say so.


忙 and 忘

This is embarrassing. I just realized why, after so many years of studying Chinese, I still get 忙 and 忘 confused.

It's because they are the same character.

At least they are the same character to me: 心 radical and 亡 as the mnemonic. That makes them the same to my brain.

Now that I realize this I still won't be able to keep them separate, but at least I'll understand why I keep getting this hash collision.

Oddly enough, other characters with this property (e.g 景 vs 晾) doesn't confuse me at all. Maybe 晾 is rare enough and I managed to internalize 景 before I saw 晾. Neither does 裏 vs 裡; maybe because I think 裏 is a very awkward-looking character, too tall for its own good.


屆(届) and 糾(纠)


I just can't keep these characters straight. Even in words (e.g. 纠缠 vs 届时) I can't keep them straight. Just right now, for example, I was wondering why "jiushi" was not showing up as a word.

In the past I rant here when something confuses me, and in the process of publicly ranting it becomes more clear. This time, I can just feel it, I'm still going to get them wrong the next time they come up in ZDT.


寧, 宁, and 㝉. Oh yeah, and 甯

Another confusing simplification.

寧 starts out bad, with two different pronunciations, nìng​ (rather / to prefer) and

níng​ (peaceful), with the latter more common in place names.

The simplified form of 寧 is 宁. Not too bad, just drop a couple of strokes, and the new part (丁) doesn't sound that different from 宁 (dīng vs nìng/níng​), so you got that phonetic help going for you.

Weirdly enough, 宁 is also a traditional character, although I think very rare, pronounced zhù​. For whatever reason, according to MDBG, the simplified form is 㝉! As if 丁 isn't simple enough.....

And to round out the fun, there appears to be another character 甯, also pronounced níng​ and meaning peaceful, with the simplified form of 宁. I assumed 甯 was some obscure variant of 寧, but it actually gets over 15 million hits on google.....


奸 vs 姦

[i hope I don't offend anyone with this topic.]

I was absolutely shocked to see 奸詐 used in a kids comic (in Yotsuba over here). I had no idea what 奸詐 meant, but I always thought that 奸, simplified form of 姦, was a Really Bad Word , and I couldn't image how it could be used here.

So I was very surprised to find that meant something as mild as "treachery / devious / a rogue".

Looking further, I realized that 奸 itself is not just the simplified form of 姦, but is also a traditional character in its own right.

I'm flabbergasted. What prompted them to merge 姦 in with 奸?

I realize that 奸 does have slightly negative connotations. But they are really really minor relative to 姦.

[At least one question I've had was solved, why did they think that 姦 was really that much simpler than 奸. Turns out it's a case of merging a traditional character into another existing traditional character, rather than changing one traditional character into one simplified character.]


女婿 is a male

Just a warning, in case all of the "女" confuses you into thinking that a "女婿" is female. I assumed it was, and boy did I get the wrong impression of that relationship!

"姪女婿" is male too. Just saying.

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