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Tingo Chinese

In Chinese, Language-matters, Logophilia on Wednesday 25th June, 2008 by Guy

Despite its contents’ uncanny resemblance to a geocities website circa 1996, the book “The Meaning of Tingo”, published almost 10 years later in 2005, was quite the bestseller. The book’s aim was to catalogue many of the most useful words used in non-English languages which — perhaps because the British Empire didn’t cover the whole world; perhaps because there was no need for many English speakers to refer to these concepts after all; or perhaps just because of a cosmic joke — were never re-coined as English words. Unsurprisingly, my primary interest was in non-European words of this type, particularly Hebrew and Chinese words.

Today I came across the most delightful Chinese example for a long while. There are many, many Chinese phrases, unsurprisingly, that are untranslatable into equally short English passages, including lots of obscure characters that no-one uses any more, if they even know about them. But this one struck me for its combination of specificity and conciseness: 晕针 (yùn zhēn), meaning “a fainting spell during acupuncture treatment”, or more generally “to faint during injection”. This might be just another form of 晕 (fainting or dizziness), as 晕高 (vertigo) and 晕场 (to faint from stress, e.g. stage fright) also exist. But this particular type of fainting is not so easily described in English as the other, inexplicably, and hence is enough to break another one of my long periods of meditative (or is it just lackadaisical?) silence.

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