Thursday, February 14, 2008
Ludicrous linguistics I
Today's word of the day is 标, (biao1).
Like tons of other Chinese characters, the meaning (and appearance) of 标 has changed considerably since it was first invented and carved into a turtle shell some 6,000 years ago.
The left side of the character is the "wood" radical 木 (mu4), which gives a hint that the word is related to wood or trees.
Indeed, the original meaning was "tip of a tree," or basically the opposite of the roots of a tree.
The right side of the character is (well, was, before simplified characters were introduced in the 1950s) 票 (piao4). This character usually means "ticket" or "slip of paper." But an alternate meaning (with the pronunciation piao1) was the same as 飘 (also piao1), which means to wave around in the wind.
So you've got "wood" 木, combined with "waving around in the breeze" 票, and together they mean the tippy top of a tree, that would likely be thin and high up, and therefore blowing around. Pretty cool.
Well, since then, the word has evolved to mean many different things. Common meanings are "mark, symbol, or label." It was also used as a name for the army of the late Qing Dynasty, and later evolved to mean "regiment."
But a strange definition, which I discovered while doing a recent translation job, is that it means "bid," as in "a bid on eBay."
How did a poetic word meaning "tree top waving in the wind" come to be such a mundane word as "eBay bid?"
The answer is that I have no clue. Probably a professional linguist might be able to figure it out, but I can only guess. Here is my version. The phrase 投标 (tou2 biao1), means "to put in a bid." The first part of the phrase 投, means "to throw."
OK, I'll set it up:
It's 3,000 years ago in northern China. A merchant rolls into town carrying spices from the south. Everybody wants some, but there is only enough for 3 families. So the 6 family elders come out to the village square in the morning to face off for the spices.
"Ready, GO!" shouts the merchant.
The elders slap the hands of their youngest, most agile kids and the kids run off into the forest.
An hour later the kids come running back with tree branches from the top of the tallest tree they could find in their hands. They all throw them into the middle of the square, with their family name attached to their branch.
Then the merchant goes with each of them into the woods to see which tree they cut the top branch from. The three families with the branches from the tallest trees get to buy the spices!
It. Could. Have. Happened.
And then, a few millennia later, someone invents the Internet and the concept lives on. Except the branches are made of 1s and 0s and don't really exist.
OK, that's today's lesson!