Character reference

Updated: 2011-08-26 11:52

By Zhang Xi (China Daily)

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World's highest-circulating dictionary adds new words and expressions

Character reference
The 11th edition of the Xinhua dictionary has been released and 800 new words have been included. [Provided to China Daily]

Trendy Chinese youth have been saying "bye bye" instead of "zai jian" (farewell) for some years and over time the English expression has worked its way across the country. But now "bai bai" is officially Chinese, according to the latest edition of Xinhua dictionary. The inclusion is just one of a batch of new words and expressions that reveal how Mandarin is growing and changing to reflect modern Chinese society.

First published in 1953, more than 400 million copies of the best-known Chinese dictionary are in circulation, making it the best-selling reference book in the world. In fact, it is the fourth-highest circulating book in the world behind The Bible (5 billion copies), Quotations from Chairman Mao (900 million) and The Koran (800 million).

The current 700-page dictionary represents more than seven years research, is 30 pages thicker than the previous edition, and includes 13,000 characters and 3,300 phrases.

More than 800 new words have been added to this 11th edition, which is complied by the Commercial Press and the Institute of Linguistics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). New entries range from Internet words and rare family names to social innuendos and phrases that define new lifestyles. Slang terms, often coined by Chinese media and Internet users, also appear.

Character reference
An interesting example is xuelimen or "Diplomagate", which derives its origin from Washington's "Watergate" scandal. Xuelimen refers to using fake college degrees to obtain jobs or official positions.

The character of "shai", which means to bask or dry, now has a new meaning, "to display".

The terms "shai yin si" (displaying privacy) or "shai xing fu" (displaying happiness) are used on the Internet by young people who like to share things with others.

Another new phrase is fang nu or "house slave" referring to people whose sole goal is to buy a house in today's inflated real estate market. Nu means slave and can also be added to car or credit-card.

"The basic principle of the dictionary is practicability, so that there are three criteria to add new definitions and expressions. The first is standardization, the second is popularity and the third is stability. Only those expressions that stood the test of time can be put into the new edition," says Cheng Rong, a senior editor of the dictionary.

While more words are included in the 11th edition, older words, such as kerosene, horsepower, motor, phone and agricultural cooperatives have been removed because they are considered obsolete.

The dictionary's entries reflect not only the changes in society but underline the importance of new technology in collecting and collating them.

Cheng, who is also the vice-director of the Department of Lexicography of the Institute of Linguistics of CASS, says technology has been helpful in compiling new words.

"We use a software system to search new vocabulary from a data base of newspapers, TV programs and works of literature, and then choose proper ones for the dictionary," she says.

Not every new word gets a mention. One such is "geili", which is popularly used on the Internet to refer to "cool and exciting".

"These words are only for self-expression rather than reflecting changes in society. They do not contribute to new knowledge or new science," says Cheng, who avers the Xinhua dictionary is published to standardize the use of Chinese. "If readers want to check the newest words, they can refer to the Internet or dictionaries specifically designed for them. But Xinhua dictionary is certainly not for this purpose."

In 1956 the government simplified Chinese characters in an effort to raise literacy standards across the masses. But in the latest edition about 1,500 traditional Chinese characters have also been added to cater for reader demand, Cheng says.

"There are more and more cultural exchanges between the mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong," she says.

"The attention paid to traditional Chinese culture in recent years is another reason."

Zhou Hongbo, vice-president of the Commercial Press, says most users of the dictionary are pupils.

"Because of the dictionary's role in Chinese language education, schools are using the product to teach students how to check a Chinese dictionary at school."

Liu Hong, a Chinese language teacher at a middle school in Beijing, says the new dictionary is a helpful teaching tool.

"The latest edition reduces the confusion in daily usage," he says.

Xinhua paperback dictionaries are cheap - 12 yuan (1.3 euros) - so students in poor areas have access, according to the publisher.

In order to adapt to users' various needs and taste, Zhou says an electronic version is in the pipeline.

The 11th edition is just one of many milestones in the long history of Chinese lexicography.

The oldest dictionary is Erya (Approaching Correctness), which was compiled in the third century BC, says Cao Xianzhuo, veteran linguistist and professor of Peking University and one of the senior editors of Xinhua dictionary in the 1970s.

Another early dictionary was the Shuowen Jiezi (Explaining Simple and Analyzing Compound Characters), compiled in the early second century. It was the first to analyze the structure of the characters.

The first surviving rhyme dictionary is the 601 AD Qieyun. It became the standard of pronunciation for Chinese at that time.

Perhaps the most famous dictonary was compiled under the Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), which popularized the system of 214 radicals.

"The purpose of modern dictionaries allows people of every corner of the society to get access to a dictionary to promote the use of Mandarin," Cao says.


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