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Lighter Fare

Abigail Lavin, writing in the Weekly Standard, reviews Oliver Lutz Radtke's Chinglish, a guide to misuses, miscues, and mutilations of the English language in China.

So far as I can tell, Chinglish falls into two categories: instrumental and ornamental. Instrumental Chinglish is actually intended to convey information to English speakers. Ornamental Chinglish is born of the fact that English is the lingua franca of coolness. Meaning aside, any combination of roman letters elevates a commodity--khaki pants, toilet paper, potato chips--to a higher plane of
chic by suggesting that the product is geared toward an international audience.

This is also a pop-cultural phenomenon in the Former Soviet Union, albeit on a much lower level of frequency. It typically involves nonsense phrases in English emblazoned on articles of
clothing, intended to convey an air of youthfulness and joie de vivre.

Such usages often aim for a certain effect, not so much of transgressiveness as of chic, though the means often veer off into the transgressive:

In Hong Kong I once saw a teenage girl wearing a red baby-doll T-shirt emblazoned with rhinestone lettering that read: "mom, i'm a lesbian." In wearing this T-shirt, the young lady probably did not intend to announce her homosexuality to her mother--or to the world, for that matter. The English on her shirt served a decorative function; the letters were intended to convey no more meaning than paisley or houndstooth.

Instrumental Chinglish can be more amusing still:

Recognizing that a good chunk of those who pass through People's Park may not speak Chinese, the Shanghai Municipality on Administration of Public Parks has thoughtfully provided the following English signage:

"Intrudaction Park People's Park built in 1952 Beginning re built on 2000FEB. And opening on July 1. Thearea of the part is 10million/mIt is keep old Haiting Park. Characteristic. It has new Yulan park.Health park and Founcain. and so on.

"  .  . public meeting or fund-raising Of any nature is inexpedient, activities of a feudalistic and superstitious nature .  .  . are not allowed

Visitors are not supposed to tease, scare, or capture bird, cricket, fish and shrimp or cicada (exceptthose for community purposes).

Ethic and moral codes should be duly honored, visitors are expected not to urinate or (defecate) .  .  ."

The salient point is not so much the information as the fact that it is being conveyed in English. I have to imagine that similar guides have been produced for 'Japanglish', which can afford similar delights. In any event, Chinglish may well prove to be an artifact of Chinese cultural history, inasmuch as the Chinese regime is determined to eradicate such malapropisms in advance of the Olympics. A sense of national pride is at stake.

Recommended companion volume: Bushisms.

PS: I should like to read John Derbyshire's thoughts on the phenomenon, which I'd imagine to be entertaining and illuminating.

Comments (5)

The mirror phenomenon happens in the US where stylish youth use Chinese and Japanese characters as decoration.

There is a story of a young woman who asked to have the Chinese characters for "free spirit" tattooed on her neck. She went happily about for months, until she met an old Chinese woman who asked her if she knew what the characters met.

"Yes, I do!" she said with pride. "They mean 'free spirit'!"

"No," said the anxious Chinawoman. "They mean 'crazy ghost'! Very bad!"

I'm floored. I never thought I'd see John Derbyshire's opinion called for in a non-ironic way on this website! Ha

Let us not forget Engrish: http://www.engrish.com/.

I've spent some time in South Korea, and there's plenty of this strange fetishization of English there too. I was most amused by the great number of sexually suggestive phrases on t-shirts. South Korea is a fairly conservative country, and no man or woman would be caught dead wearing some of these shirts if they were written in Korean.

T-shirt manufacturers are basically playing a prank on Korean consumers, much like the "crazy ghost" tattoo.

T-shirt manufacturers are basically playing a prank on Korean consumers

I suspect that there is a large element of truth in this...

I have, in my closet, a shirt I purchased last summer in the Crimea (shirt made in Turkey, of course). Printed on the shirt are the phrases, "We only rave the power over ourselves", and "You create your destiny, Let make something of it." Borderline gibberish, at best. I bought the shirt for two reasons: all of my other clothes identify me immediately as an American, and one does not always wish to be recognized as American in the FSU - and this shirt was pretty popular last year; the fabric of this shirt was lighter than anything else I had to wear, and the Crimean summer can be brutal. As for the semi-nonsensical phrases, they resulted from either rank incompetence or a desire to pull one over on Russians in the Crimea. If this were explained, however, Russians would enjoy a few laughs - at the expense of those who would think to do something so pointless.

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