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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Swingin’ Chinese

I recently learned the word for “swing” (i.e. the one you find in a playground) in modern, simplified Chinese:

秋千, qiūqiān

The word baffled me since 秋 (qiÅ«) means “fall” or “autumn”, and 千 (qiān) means “one thousand”. I thought: What the hell kind of etymology does that entail? Do Chinese people look at swings this poetically? Like sitting on a swing is like becoming a lone leaf capable of experiencing the exhilaration of a thousand falls in autumn? For anyone out there who might have mistakenly tattooed this on his or her body for this or some other very romantic reason, I’m sorry to disappoint you. It just looks like the usual mischief we find in the difference between simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese.

The traditional characters for “swing” look like this:

鞦韆 (still pronounced, qiūqiān)

Notice the conspicuous use of radical 革 (gé) for leather in each character, as the 遷 (simplified: 迁, qiān, “move”) in the second character. Now the characters relate more clearly to what a swing actually is: a moving piece of cloth, leather hung from a tree or high pole.

You can get the whole story in all of it’s geeked out detail (including images from ancient seals and oracle bones!) at Chinese Etymology.

posted by ferret at 11:50 pm  

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