Chinese buzzwords draw attention

Updated: 2013-11-22 08:15


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BEIJING - The Chinese phrase "nihao" is familiar to  foreigners greeting Chinese; a new buzzword "tuhao" is now becoming known to many Westerners.

A BBC online news magazine loosely translated "tuhao" to "nouveau riche" and reported that there have been more than 100 million uses of the word on social media since early September.

The Consumer News and Business Channel said in its program "Inside Wealth" that in China, "tuhao" roughly translates to crass splendor and the word has quickly gone viral on blogosphere.

Literally, in Chinese, "tu" means uncultured and "hao" means wealth. In fact, "tuhao" is an old word originally referring to rural landlords who  bullied their tenants or servants. A well-known slogan "overthrow tuhao and divide up their land" was quite popular during the Agrarian Revolution in the mid of the 20th century.

The old-fashioned term is gaining popularity again. For example, Apple's newly released champagne-colored iPhone 5s, which received unexpected welcome in China, is dubbed "tuhao" golden.

Chinese buzzwords have made it into major English dictionaries in the past, such as "guanxi" and "taikonaut," said Zhang Yiwu, professor at Peking University.

"Before reform and opening up, some Chinese buzzwords which reflect characteristics of the Chinese society were material for foreign experts doing research on China," Zhang said.

He pointed out that with frequent exchanges and close relations between China and the West in various fields, more hot words in China would become known by the public of the West through media and the Internet.

"China has more influence on the world and the phenomenon will become common," Zhang said.

"Tuhao," nevertheless, is not the only Chinese word to appear in mainstream Western media.

A Wall Street Journal article in August used the term "dama," literally akin to "big mama" in Chinese, referring to those "bargain hunting" middle-aged Chinese women who "keep a tight grip on the family purse and an eagle eye on the gold prices in jewelry shops."

"Chinese buzzwords often come to our attention through media," Julie Kleeman, project manager of Bilingual Dictionaries with the Oxford University Press, told Xinhua.

"In the case of Chinese words that are gaining publicity in foreign media," Kleeman said, "obviously some terms such as 'tuhao' and 'dama' tell us something about trends and phenomena in China that mark interesting shifts in society."

Kleeman noted that they are considering including these words in the Oxford Dictionaries Online. "Our English language experts ... would need to see evidence of it in use across a range of English media, over the course of a period of time," Kleeman said.

Some Chinese netizens fear that popularity of buzzwords like "tuhao" and "dama" in Western media would overshadow China's image, as there were negative connotations behind the words and their context.

Prof. Zhang advocates an open mind towards Chinese buzzwords gaining popularity in the West. "These terms reflected a true situation in the Chinese society, which would better benefit cultural communication between China and the West," Zhang said.

However, some experts believe that even though the Chinese buzzwords are added to the online dictionary, it does not mean they would play a bigger role in intercultural communication.

Some words reflecting China's core values are not widely accepted in English, which suggested Chinese culture is still not very influential in the world, said Qiao Mu, director of the Center for International Communication Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

"As more Chinese words attract attention among speakers of English, with the Internet as an especially productive channel between languages, this will provide the West with more windows on China, its culture, and concerns," Kleeman said. "But whether or not these words will truly form part of English usage remains to be seen."