Media and Advertising

Gnawing at language, biting the ankles of Chinese media

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Copyeditors beware: Someone's watching you!

Among all of the copycat urban lifestyle magazines, the paparazzi rags, and the ever-changing array of undistinguished special-interest publications that make up China's periodicals market, Yaowen-Jiaozi (咬文嚼字) stands out as one of the most delightfully peculiar magazines available. With a title variously translated as "Correct Wording," "Verbalism," and "Chewing Words," it turns a critical eye to the misuse and abuse of language in Chinese society.

Word rage it most certainly is not - column names may use common violent metaphors for public criticism like "drawing blood" (一针见血) or "target of a volley of arrows" (众矢之的), but the actual criticism itself is quite genteel. Perhaps there's a bit of guilty pleasure to be had in unmasking the usage foibles of major papers, but it's done with a wink rather than a warning of impending social breakdown. The strongest condemnation is reserved for those who should know better: copyeditors who let malapropisms slip by, sign-makers who splash typos across storefronts, and monks in TV shows who mispronounce their Sanskrit transliterations.

In 2005, the magazine featured a different evening paper's errors in each issue, while this year the scheduled targets are television stations. In addition to biting the popular media over language misuse, Yaowen-Jiaozi also chews on pressing usage questions: What's the pronunciation of 峠, which appears in names in translations of Japanese novels? What's the correct usage of · ? What are the usage differences between 三部曲 and 三步曲?

In celebration of its tenth anniversary, the magazine released a list last year of one hundred frequently misused words and phrases. But despite the popular image of the magazine being staffed by a curmudgeonly group of conservative language pedants defending the national language against the twin evils of modern slang and foreign influence, Yaowen-Jiaozi's editors and contributors tend to be fairly accomodating.

On the subject of Internet slang, for example, the magazine has no issue with its use online, although it cautions against its use in more conventional communication. Other areas of language change and development are given the same sort of consideration. After an examination of the term "since all along" (一直以来), the editors conclude:

Back in 2000, this magazine mentioned "since all along." At the time we took a position against the term, and we maintain that position now. We believe that there is a semantic contradiction between "all along" and "since."
....However,....in practice, we cannot find another term to replace "since all along." Although in many circumstances, "since all along" is used to indicate "all along" or "for a long time," they are in fact not identical. We ought to respect society's power of choice in language. As we have not found any words to replace it, this magazine will no longer criticize the use of "since all along."

Sprinkled throughout are language quizzes, peculiar signage, and interesting turns of phrase from famous writers.

An annual bound volume includes each of the previous year's issues. It's popular enough for pirate editions to circulate as well, though reading about language misuse in a volume filled with typographical errors may not be a very wise choice.

(Answers: 峠 has the provisional pronunciation shà, though some people pronounce it kǎ. The separator · should be allowed in titles - the editors conclude: "To say that if there is no rule in Punctuation Usage then it must not be used means that punctuation usage would never develop, and it would be unable to satisfy real usage needs." 三部曲 is a foreign import for "trilogy" that applies to literary works; it has been tweaked to apply to three-step processes using the homophone 三步曲.)

There are currently 7 Comments for Gnawing at language, biting the ankles of Chinese media.

Comments on Gnawing at language, biting the ankles of Chinese media

so what is the Chinese pronounciation of 峠? In Japanese it's touge, and means mountain pass.

Hope you spelled "gnaw" wrong on purpose...

You know, Eric, sometimes it's the most obvious mistakes that just pass you by. I must've looked at that headline fifty times since typing it in a few days ago, and never once did it occur to me to change it. Thanks.

What I don't get is why state newspapers (and all other media sources I have seen) use American spelling when the public school curriculum teaches British English. Anyone have an explanation? I would hesitate to say it is in error or ignorance, since the use of American spelling is so consistent.

I figured it was some self-referential tie-in to the article! I was even imagining a little prize for being the first one to spot it...

I'm going to find me a copy of Yaowen Jiaozi, thanks for the interesting article.

Re American spelling:

Just a guess Adam but do you think this might have something to do with US English being the default in MS Word?

I run into this all the time at work and always Angliciserize documents.

Sorry, the only prize I can offer is a collection of posters featuring Korean and Chinese popstars, including one real gem that has Richie Jen b/w Li Yuchun.

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