Interview with authors of 500 Common Chinese Idioms

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Title: 500 Common Chinese Idioms (成语五百条)

I first found out about this book from Carl Gene, who gave it a ringing endorsement. When I received it for Christmas last year and started thumbing through, it wasn’t hard to see why: they have done chengyu right for the second language learner! The 500 are selected by frequency from six corpuses* of spoken and written language. For each chengyu, two example sentences are constructed – and very well constructed! And of course there is lots of detailed explanation about history and usage.

I was so smitten I wrote the authors a mash letter and asked for a Sinoglot** interview, which they were kind enough to accede to. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Liwei Jiao and Cornelius Kubler: Continue…

Stupid chéngyǔ joke

In Mandarin, chéngyǔ 成语 are idioms, though perhaps more poetic than those you’ll usually find in English. Sometimes the meanings are clear based on the words, sometimes not. For example one, dating back to a philosophical disagreement between Mencius and his contemporary Yang Zhu, goes 一毛不拔 yā máo bù bá, literally “one hair not pull,” or “won’t pull out a single hair” and it used to mean “stingy.” Some of them are also almost word-for-word identical to common English phrases.

There’s this joke that’s been making the rounds. It goes something like this:

liǎng ge luǒ nán zuò zài shítou shàng, dǎ yī chéngyǔ

Two naked guys are sitting on top of a large stone, making a chéngyǔ.

The punchline is one of those that match English pretty well: 一石二鸟, two birds with one stone. Variations include 一石双鸟, 一箭双雕, 一举两得 and certainly more.

In case you missed it, the joke is that niao 鸟 also means penis. Actually, Victor Mair posted about just that recently on Language Log. In his post he quotes a post from a Taiwanese forum, which I’ll reproduce here:

The Middle Chinese word “tieu” (鳥) meant “bird”. Then over the centuries it acquired the taboo meaning of “penis” (as a noun) or “fuck” (as a verb). Because of this taboo, the initial consonant of the word for “bird” was changed to “n” in Cantonese and Mandarin (but not in the Wu or Min dialects, or in Hakka). The original term remains a cuss word: diu in Cantonese, and diao (屌) in Mandarin.

And as the commenter mentions, despite this change in pronunciation, 鸟(鳥) is still very much used to mean ‘penis’.

It got me wondering. We have that phrase in English. It’s as common as in Chinese. In fact the only thing that doesn’t let the joke work in English is that we don’t use “bird” to mean “penis” (though if my childhood conversations with the older kid next door are any indication, we certainly have many other words that get used as substitutes). Just to try it out, I told the joke in English to a couple native English speakers who would otherwise know of the Chinese pun. Unfortunately a worse joke teller you’ll never find, so I had little success.

Still, I wonder. Could this (admittedly lame) joke work in English? What’s more, are there other chéngyǔ based jokes that might have a partner in English, and if so, would those work? Humour doesn’t translate well between languages and especially between cultures. Could this be just the pixie dust that struggling expats around the world need?

I’ll leave it to you, great Sinoglot-reading masses.