Thursday, September 24, 2009

Lies! Lies!

Oh man, I told a big ol' lie to some students today. Real whopper. Huge boner. (Who remembers when boner just meant "stupid mistake"? Because I sure don't.)

The magic of being a teacher is that you get to stand up and tell students things and no matter what you say they will write it down and believe that it is true. Like all magic, this is a powerful tool, but sometimes you can get (mana) burned.*

*If you don't know what this means, please don't google it.

So sometimes, especially when you teach the same lesson eleven times to eleven different groups of students (welcome to my life), you start to improvise and say things that you're pretty sure are true. And most of the time, you're right. But sometimes what you're doing is the equivalent of taking the trust that they've given you and grinding it down to nothing and then rubbing it all over your naked body yelling, "Who's the teacher now? WHO'S THE TEACHER NOW?? I AM ALL POWERFUL."

Sorry, got a little carried away there. Common fantasy of mine.

Anyway, some context: I love love LOVE English words and phrases of Chinese origin but which you wouldn't expect would be from Chinese. I will share my favorite examples; I hope they blow your monkey-fighting mind. (Several of these are from Gus, who has a book about this sort of thing.)

- "to lose face": this was the first one I learned. I always thought it was sort of weird that the English idiom "to lose face" is exactly the same as the Chinese 丢脸; turns out, we get our phrase from them.

- "brainwash": literal translation of the Chinese 洗脑. Somehow unsurprising, this one.

- "ketchup": got this one from Wikipedia; possibly from Cantonese 茄汁

- "Long time no see!", "No can do", "look-see" (as in "have a look-see"): word-for-word translations of 好久不见,不能做,看见, respectively. These are the ones that blew. my. mind. because in retrospect they make total sense as Pidgin English.

So anyway, my students this week have been using the English word "canteen" for what is probably more naturally termed a "cafeteria" or "dining hall." They use it so often that I thought I'd tell one of my classes that one of the other choices is better. I thought about it for a second and realized that canteen might come from the Chinese 餐厅, cāntīng, which means "dining hall" and sort of sounds like canteen. It seemed plausible that this was a word adopted by foreign traders/soldiers in China in the 19th century, which is why I associate canteens with the military.

So that's what I told my class this afternoon, minus the part where I hedged my bets with "it seemed plausible." Obviously, this is wrong wrong wrong. Canteen looks like a good English word because it comes from a good French word (cantine), which comes from a good Italian word (cantina), which comes from a good Latin word (canto). "Canteen" is about as far from a loan word as possible, given its pedigree.

Jon is my name, misinformation is my game.

One more brief linguistic point:

Incredibly, incredibly, ping-pong is not a loan word from Chinese, even though the Chinese 乒乓 sounds almost exactly the same. (Love those reflected characters too, huh?) In fact, ping-pong is an English trademark that was loaned into Chinese. Wha-bam.

Again, blown. (My mind.)