Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The art of the Wait-For-It Phrase, or "xie hou yu"

In a previous post I described the 歇后语, xie1 hou4 yu3, or "wait-for-it phrase," (WFI) a figure of speech in Chinese that is used humorously to express an idea in an ironic or pun-like way.
Other languages have similar playful phrases.

Cockney rhyming slang, for example: "Shut yer bloomin' boat!" wherein "boat" refers to "boat race" which rhymes with "face," so it means "shut your face." Or: "Lend us a Percy, I need to make a call." Where Percy = Percy Thrower (British TV gardening personality), which rhymes with "blower,"which means "phone." ... I know.

Or American English:
(From the Fat Albert Show, courtesy of Eric, of the Internet, possibly classmate Eric Aldrich from Nanjing University)
"Man, you're like school in the summertime - no class."
"Mudbone, you're like Robinson Crusoe - all washed up."
"Your sister's like a doorknob - everybody gets a turn." (I don't think Fat Albert ever said that one)

The above examples are close to the Chinese wait-for-it phrase, but there is a slight difference. In English, the punchline says what you were trying to say about the person in the first place, e.g. "you have no class." But the xie hou yu takes it one step further. Observe:

1) "You're like an ant peeing on a book - you can't read well."
At first it doesn't make sense, but the WFI phrase is: 蚂蚁尿书上 -- 识(湿)字不多 (ma3 yi3 niao4 shu1 shang4 - shi2 (shi1) zi4 bu4 duo1). 'An ant pees on a book -- not many characters get wet' But the word 湿 (shi1, 'wet'), sounds like 识 (shi2*, 'recognize' - in this case referring to characters) so the answer sounds like 'can't recognize very many characters'. (*Even tho the tones are different, it is still a homonym in this case. I didn't know that before.)

The kicker, or second part of the phrase, is an established saying (that is the point of saying the phrase), but it is also a pun! Layers upon layers of cleverness.

Here is another one. 一百天不拉屎 - 坚持不懈 (yi1 bai2 tian1 bu4 la1 shi3 - jian1 chi2 bu4 xie4) "Not [going No. 2] for 100 days - perseverance without rest" (The kicker - 坚持不懈 - means 'perseverance without rest,' and is an established phrase sometimes used when referring to revolutionary gung-ho-ness. But here, the last character in the phrase, 懈 (xie4, 'to rest') and 泄 (xie4, 'to drain, or evacuate (the bowels)' are homonyms. Get it?

Not all are scatological of course. Those are just more immature and thus more easily understood by yours truly. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of WFI phrases. Sometimes they are fairly straightforward (and more directly translatable):

2) "You're like a dog catching mice - not minding your own business"
狗咬耗子 -- 多管闲事 (gou3 yao3 hao4 zi -- duo1 guan3 xian2 shi4) You know, because catching mice is the cat's job, so the dog is getting all up in the cat's business.

3) "A mute eating Chinese goldthread - can't express your troubles."
哑巴吃黄莲 — 有苦说不出 (ya1 ba1 chi 1 huang2 lian2 - you3 ku3 shuo1 bu4 chu1)
The plant Chinese goldthread (黄莲) is really bitter, and "eating bitterness" refers to troubles or problems in Chinese.

4) "A monk living in a cave - no problem."
老和尚住山洞 -- 没事。(没寺)(lao3 he2 shang zhu4 shan1 dong4 - mei2 shi4 (mei2 si4) )In this case, "no problem" (没事 mei2 shi4) sounds like "no temple" (没寺 mei2 si4) which is the pun. The monk lives in the cave cuz he's got no temple, but it sounds like 'no problem.'

This one is interesting too, because as we saw before, sometimes different-toned characters can be taken as homonyms (like with 'wet' and 'recognize' in #1) but here, we have what I like to call "regional consonantal elision." (Just made that up) In some parts of China phonemes like "shi" and "chi" are pronounced without the "h," so like, "si" and "ci." In Taiwan, for example, they will say "ci1 fan4," (eat) and "ci2 hui4" (vocabulary) whereas in Beijing they will say "chi1 fan4" and "ci2 hui4."

OK last one.

5) "Zhang Fei throwing a chicken feather - has great strength but difficulty implementing things"
张飞扔鸡毛--有劲难使 (Zhang1 Fei1 reng4 ji1 mao2 - you3 jing4 nan2 shi3)
This is an example of a literary/historical WFI phrase. Zhang Fei is a character in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (also a real general). He had legendary strength and skill, so him throwing a feather is like yeah, he could put all his strength into it, but it really would not accomplish much.


Susan said...

Wow, Bear, you're like a paper cut: you smart!
This was interesting and a lot to contemplate. It would be great to have audio so we could hear the homonyms in action.

I think you should collect some of your blogs, grammar-up, and send to Bard Alumni Mag.

Ben Moger-Williams said...

Ha! Good one Mom. I haven't figured out how to post audio on here, otherwise I would put up my rap song about Spam. If I turned it into a video I could post it. Haven't had the time yet tho...