When cultures intermingle, languages collide. “Borrowed words” are words taken from one language and used in another language to represent new things, things that didn’t exist prior to the arrival of new people, from a new culture.
Take, for example, the word “coolie” – we all know it means a Chinese labourer. That’s an example of a borrowed word that entered the English vocabulary from a Chinese term.
苦力 kǔlì simply means bitter labour. When you’ve seen the lines of men lined up in the street at certain spots in every city, each carrying placards saying things like “wood worker”, “electrician”, “general labourer”, and you see them day after day, you come to a new understanding of the term. Bitter labour indeed, waiting for a job to buy rice for the family.
Words also go the other way. The usual manner of introducing foreign words into Chinese, is to find existing words that sound someone like the foreign word
Take another ku, this one pronounced with a downward inflection, 酷 ku originally meant ruthless, or strong when referring to wine. It has come to mean something completely different, a word which also has a newer meaning in English – cool. So that handsome guy carrying the new iphone 6 might be 酷 ku
If you’re hungry, and you want to try some western fast food, you can have a
汉堡 hanbao. 汉 hàn is the word referring to the majority ethnic group in China, the Han – and by default meaning Chinese – and 堡 bǎo is a fortress. I suggest you don’t start thinking too much about etymology next time you are eating a hamburger – munching on a Chinese fortress isn’t exactly my cup of tea.
A three bright harness might do if you want something a tad more healthy – can you guess what 三明治 san ming zhi might mean?
三 san is three, 明 ming means bright, and 治 zhì is either to rule, to govern, or to harness. A three bright harness?
Any guesses ….. hint… just think of the sound, not the meaning. Remember, it’s a borrowed word, with Chinese characters used for the sound key only.
Then there’s the new social groups. Sure you know what a
雅痞 (yǎ pǐ) is – that’s right – a yuppie.
There’s another Chinese word for young urban professionals though –蚁族 (yǐ zú – the Ant Tribe.
Which one do you prefer? I’d go for the ant tribe, myself !
Oh, and 三明治 san ming zhi is a sandwich.