Tuesday, 30 May 2017
One of my students, Judith Morris, on the evening programme was a retired senior lady who had done a degree in Chinese at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) in the 1950s. Like Oxbridge, they only did classical Chinese in those days, so she came to my evening classes for the modern side of the language.
In one of her homework, I found a recurring word translated differently each time, so I wrote the comment: “You’re not even consistent in your mistakes!”
She said, “I was hedging my bets. If I was wrong about one particular rendition, then I’d get all of them wrong. The way I’d done it, I might at least get one of them right.”
The Chinese love taking advantage of the homophonic system to do puns, to have a laugh at the expense of the unsuspecting "victim".
I used to have a Malaysian woman in my evening class, by the name of May, who had married a Mr Yong, so she went by her married name.
For years, I called her May Yong, May Yong, before I suddenly realised it sounds just like 没用 méi yòng (shortened from 没有用 méiyǒu yòng / "not have use" = useless). I emailed her about this, and we had a good giggle over it.
After that, I'd call her 有用 (yǒu yòng / "have use" = useful) in class, which became a private joke between us.