On a recent trip to Sinoglot HQ, for my annual review, I was appalled to find the chairman sitting on a large sack of unopened mail. After brief negotiation, during which my past year’s productivity was called into question, it was agreed that I would work my way through the letters. The following item was undated and I’m not sure how to respond.
Dear Auntie Sinoglot,
I write in the hope that you can help me.
I’ve developed an irrational hatred of helicopters. This is not about fear of flying. Though, I confess, I don’t much like flying. The flying thing is just about trying to pass ten hours in an airborne coffin with my body sprung into a shape even my tai chi master couldn’t master. At least when they finally lay you out you get to straighten your legs.
The helicopter thing; that’s something quite different. I’ve never even flown in one. But it all began long, long ago…
I was just a baby; but a few months old, in China years. A kindly grown-up had taken me to a big bookshop and we’d returned home with a book of “One Hundred Tang-Dynasty Poems That Every Child Should Know By Heart”, a deck of never-to-be-used flashcards and three posters of the kind that might be hung on the crèche wall to teach the alphabet by associating a picture with each letter – A Apple, B Banana…you know the ones. Except these weren’t teaching the alphabet. There was no alphabet. They were teaching Chinese words for fruit, animals and…forms of transport.
The transport one was taped to the back of the apartment door and stayed there until the door was ripped off. That is, ripped off its hinges, within hours of my departure, presumably by the same goons who’d smashed the windows, demolished the garden wall and generally tried to ‘encourage’ the residents to make way for a shiny new development.
By the time I left, the poster’s imperial yellow background had already taken on the colour of tobacco residue, its edges had curled like barbecued squid, and a top sheet of cellophane was flapping from about halfway down. But most of the forms of transport were still clearly visible: the 1930s train 火车, the 1830s horse and cart 马车, the 1950s bus 公共汽车, and a ridiculously mean looking 1970s helicopter 直升机.
I never really looked at this poster. I mean, it was there to catch my eye every day as I left the house, but I never really looked at it. I imagined that things like this around the apartment might help me to learn stuff without actually studying. But my acquisition of transportation vocabulary was seriously hampered by the bloody helicopter.
It’s the word you see: 直升机 zhíshēngjī – machine that goes straight up.
One day, a kindly old neighbour came round to see me and asked why I’d shuddered when I opened the door. When I told him the reason, he smirked, told me to fetch some tea and settled himself down on the cardboard sofa. What follows is, as well as I can remember, the story he told me:
One day a helicopter landed in a mountain pasture, rudely waking a shepherd boy from his afternoon nap. As the boy stood in awe, some guy, no doubt wearing a silly all-in-one orange suit, jumped out of the chopper, bagged a couple of sheep and loaded them aboard, probably with the intention of performing a series of cruel experiments. As the wap, wap, wap, of the blades seemed to reach a crescendo, the machine just lifted straight into the air, and the mesmerised shepherd boy, uttered the words, barely audible even to himself, “Wa! A machine that goes straight up!”
The poor boy left the rest of his sheep on the mountain and rushed down to the village to tell of what he’d seen. At first the villagers were worried. The boy’s mother was called and she rushed out to embrace him. But when he explained what had happened, to the gathered throng, they exploded with hoots and hollers, “A machine that goes straight up! A machine that goes straight up!” Soon hilarity turned to anger. The poor boy was scolded by his mother. Everyone agreed he should be on the mountain tending his flock. As he ran back into the mountains, his face burning with tears, the call rang in his ears, “A machine that goes straight up!”
There are those who believe that the boy was never seen again. Some say he was eaten by the wolf. But there are those who believe that he survived, tending his sheep and eating nothing but mutton kebabs, the cooking of which he pretty much perfected. It’s said he lived in a cave and, at night, by the light of his fire, sketched on the walls of the cave the design for his own flying machine. After years of testing and development, not to mention several injuries sustained during test flights in which wooden blades mysteriously snapped, the boy, now long since a man, took to the skies.
Though you or I might have flown straight back to the village to show how we’d been wronged, this boy was made of sterner stuff. He set a course for the capital. He was going to show his creation to the elders and ensure that the whole nation would know the name of the machine he’d seen that day on the mountain.
As he set down by the lake where he’d heard all the elders lived, several crusty old gentlemen, in the finest silk pyjamas, and carefully supported by their nurses, tottered out to see what the racket was. After a brief demonstration, during which one of the elders sons fell out of the machine at a considerable height, all agreed that it was a fine invention. The former shepherd was asked what he called this wondrous machine, and he replied, “The machine that goes straight up!” “Whaddya say?” blurted out the old man who had been tending his injured son. Unbowed, the young man responded, “The machine that goes straight up!”
There were grumbles and murmurs from all sides. One voice piped up, “You can’t call it that! What about…” But he was interrupted. An even older man, who to this point had kept a little back from the main gathering, with a voice like an angle-grinder, cut in, “The boy says it’s called, ‘The machine which goes straight up.’ It shall be called, ‘The machine that goes straight up’!” There was silence. Time seemed to swirl around the machine’s now-static blades. Then one of the several nurses attending the screech-voiced old man scuttled forward and announced, “He says you are to have the boy build more.” “Build more machines that go straight up,” the old men all muttered. The young woman returned to her master and he was nursed back to his quarters.
As the young inventor beamed with pride, a nod from one of the elderly gentlemen brought an ambulance. The inventor was bundled inside and the assembled men set about planning the opening of their aircraft factory. It would take them years, not to mention the lives of several young engineers, to work out how to build another of these machines, but once the machines went into production, the old men would all became very rich indeed. And true, as ever, to their word, the machine would be called, “The machine that goes straight up.”
Now, all of the old men are long-since dead but, sometimes, in a park, not far from where they once lived, another old man, with a pair of underpants on his head and plastic bags over his threadbare socks, can be seen staggering around and, as the police helicopters buzz overhead, he burbles, “Mine! Up! Straight! That! Machine! Goesssssss!”, whilst the ducks throw their bread at him.
You’ll see that the old neighbour’s story left a deep impression on me, and I’m sorry I can’t quite remember all the details. To be honest, I’m not sure whether I should believe it all. I think he might have embellished it a little in places. But this bloody word still haunts me.
Why couldn’t it be called something else? Why does everything have to be so damn literal? It seems such a burden. I know the English word ‘helicopter’ is longer, at four syllables. Yes, it’s derived from ‘helix’ and ‘pteron’. Sure, English stole the word from French, like so many others and, sure, the French thought it would be clever to use bits of Greek, but at least they had the sense to describe the essence of the machine, rather than just what it does.
When I hear the word helicopter, I can forget the etymology and just enjoy using the word. It’s a nice word after all. How could it not be, with all that sexy French and Greek flavour? On rare occasions, the word dances across my taste buds, and I’m reminded momentarily of the very nature of the thing; of the elegance of the design; even of the great Leonardo himself.
There was a time, before I encountered this word, when I appreciated the Lego-like nature of Chinese. As a child, I loved being able to take things apart and try, though often fail, to put them back together again. But now, as I near middle-age, I find myself constantly discombobulated by all these does-exactly-what-it-says-on-the-tin words.
To make matters worse for the helicopter, I understand there are aircraft with fixed wings which can take off and land vertically. What am I to call these in Chinese now that the helicopter has bagged the best word? VTOL飞机？I couldn’t bring myself to pollute the language in that way!
Perhaps you can advise me on how I might come to terms with such problems. How can I learn to just think, without feeling overburdened by such crude description-masquerading-as-vocabulary? I’ve searched high and low for an answer and now, in desperation, turn to you for a way out of my predicament.
Yours, in a spin,
Name and address withheld