Chinese Corner

Forget-Me-Not4 min read

Invented Chinese characters, old and new – Alec Ash

Growing up in England, one of my favorite books was The Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and John Lloyd (creator of the British comedy show QI). Described as a “dictionary of things that there aren’t any words for yet,” Adams and Lloyd took place names – often those funny-sounding Welsh ones – and reassigned to them meanings for concepts that should have words but don’t. For example, “Ahenny: The way people stand when examining other people’s bookshelves;” “Flimby: The safe place you put something and then forget where it was;” or “Goole: The expression on the face of someone who has clearly forgotten your name.”

Chinese is like that too: full of ideas for which there should be a character, but isn’t. Only when it comes to inventing those characters, we can have even more fun with an ideographic writing system by mushing together two existing characters in novel ways. For example, to express how expensive China was getting, netizens came up with this portmanteau of the character for “country” (guó 国) tucked inside that for “expensive” (guì 贵), giving us the notion of guìguó, which also happens to be a pun for an outdated fashion of saying “your country” as well as a sarcastically obsequious honorific for China.

I was substitute teaching a class recently where we came up with some new invented characters. Some are portmanteaus like the one above, taking existing characters and combining them in new ways, with fresh pronunciations and meanings. For instance, “to mis-see” became wàn, a conflation in both the character and the pinyin of wùjiàn 误见: Likewise, “to mishear” became wīng, from wùtīng 误听 (N.B. there is no “wing” phoneme in Mandarin, but we made an exception):

was our conflation of kāichē 开车 (to drive) into one character, with the same meaning:

Shuòng was our offering for a napjerk, sandwiching a component from the character shuì 睡 (to sleep) in between the two halves of dòng 动 (to move):

A particularly ingenious one was zhūo 桌 (table) over 机 (from the word for “mobile phone,” shǒujī 手机), to mean “playing with your phone under the desk.”

Others were sniglets, or sheer inventions, which are only phonetic in English but can be pictographic in written Chinese. Inspired by the internet-famous jiǒng 囧 – a rare character adopted for its resemblance to a face to mean “surprised” – a student invented this simple Chinese character for iPhone by taking out jiǒng‘s “eyes”:

But my favorite is a sniglet for a concept I have always wished there was a way to express: those characters that you just forget how to write. With a writing system as complex as Chinese, this is a common phenomenon: many adults have to look up how to handwrite a word as simple as “sneeze” (pēntì 喷嚏). To create a character that conveyed this, I combined the top half of the character for “character” () with a common punctuation mark that expresses how I feel when I have forgotten how to write a particular character:

I pronounce this creation wìr, combining with the “w” of wàng (to forget) and adding an “r” for Beijing accent. Like so many Chinese characters, wìr can be either a verb (to forget how to write a character) or a noun (a character you have forgotten how to write). Everyone start using it immediately, please, I’d love for it to take off.

The two-stroke calligraphy of “?” even works, with a horizontal-and-vertical stroke followed by a dot. And it’s versatile. Try on this gender-neutral pronoun for size, getting rid of the left-hand components that visually distinguish “he” (他) from “she” ( 她). By replacing them, we can create a new character (also pronounced ) that could mean either gender or neither, very apt for our times:

At least if you forget how to write it, you’ll know what that’s called. ∎

With thanks to Andy Bao (who invented the iPhone character; all others are the author’s). Mandarin terms are transliterated in pinyin. Below is the full whiteboard:

Alec Ash

Alec Ash is a writer and editor in Beijing. He is the author of Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China (Picador, 2016), literary nonfiction about China's young generation, and Managing Editor of the China Channel.