On the Limitations of Characters and Dictionaries

I have a few friends who are in the very early stages of character acquisition. As a result a few questions have come up, such as “how many characters are there?” which inevitably leads to the question of whether or not someone could just go and make up their own character.

So to illustrate, I bring your attention to a character allegedly created by Du Dingyou 杜定友 in 1914. Leading up to the May Fourth Movement, it was a good time for characters, seeing the invention of 她 tā (she) by Liu Bannong 劉半農 a few years later and subsequently popularised by our old friend YR Chao 趙元任 (Zhāo Yuánrèn).

Du Dingyou, the story goes, was tired of writing out 圖書館 túshūguǎn (library). At 41 strokes it’s hard to blame him. As a result he invented 圕, pronounced tuān¹ or simply túshūguǎn. Both this and 她 happened early enough to make it into modern character encoding methods, the most common and preferable being Unicode. So to answer the question of whether anyone could just make up their own character, I say good luck repeating their success today.

What got me was a definition for the character. The method of choice for showing these things to my friend happened to be Pleco. Here’s a shot of the results page. Sorry for the ginormity.

Just in case that isn’t showing up, the definition given for 圕 is “popular written form of 圖書館 túshūguǎn”. Popular. I’ve asked people from time to time over the last year. No one I asked knew the character. Those who had a guess at all said it was 圖/图/図², and of those some were certain it was a variant of 圖, though not one they were familiar with.

It’s fair though. There’s great disagreement between dictionaries (and between native speakers) of what constitutes a widely used word or character.

Case in point. A while back I bought a copy of Paul Rouzer‘s A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese. The book is huge. 11 x 8.1 x 1.2 inches according to Amazon, and a good 2″ in the x and 4″ in the y are just white space on heavy paper. I headed to my local bookwalla where I normally get books printed and asked them to cut it down to size for me. 把它剁, I suggested: chop it up. 把它切 they countered: cut it down. I was using the wrong verb. Or, I was just using the verb they don’t use for that action.

The moral of the story: dictionaries lie, but with good intentions. You can’t expect the 1:1 ratio of words that they otherwise may seem to present. Anyone who’s spent a day with Hans Wehr will know that painfully well. This lesson seems obvious, and it should be. But even the obvious can be forgotten in a moment of linguistic confidence.

Post-post link love:
nciku.com – dictionary offering video definitions of similar verbs
plecosoft.com – mobile device based Chinese dictionaries

– – –
1. In the built-in Traditional Character IME on OS X, typing “tuan” will bring up the character.
2. The last of these three, 図, is the Shinjitai (新字体) simplified form of the character 圖 as used in Japan.

Click here for an earlier post on 圕.

2 responses to “On the Limitations of Characters and Dictionaries”

  1. 慈逢流 says:

    yeah these things are cute. a very popular (in taiwan at least) example is the 合體字 for 招財進寶 (see http://mypaper.pchome.com.tw/net58369/post/1313779747) that gets pasted to a lot of doors.

    another oddity in chinese writing is the character

  2. Kellen says:

    Alternatively it’s possible that the only source for

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