Bamboo Pole Revisited

by setohj

A few days after I posted my blog “Bamboo Pole or Earth Born” on April 29, 2016, I discovered that The Chinese Times newspaper database link on the website now offers uncompressed image files of the newspaper. Until recently, image files of The Chinese Times were offered for download in JPEG format only. The JPEG algorithm can greatly distort some Chinese characters. The new format being offered is called TIFF and the resulting image files are clearly more legible than in JPEG format. I took the opportunity to review again the article by Uncle Rock (石公) published in the March 10, 1926 issue of The Chinese Times. The article is entitled “Taboo Words” (忌諱) and it explains the origin of the word jook-sing (竹升). The JPEG image shows a character with a lexically obscure meaning and pronunciation: 㡏. On the TIFF image, it is clear the actual character is 輸, pronounced xi, meaning “to lose.” (A reminder, I use the Hoiping phonetics here.) It makes sense now that since the word for “book” (書) is pronounced exactly like “to lose” (輸), it is considered a taboo word. Also, in my original post I had completely left out the phrase 『諱劏爲順』.

I revised the section on the Uncle Rock article in my April 29, 2016 blog and uploaded the revised blog today. For the convenience of my readers I reproduce here the revised translation as follows:

『粵俗於語言上。。諸多忌諱。。如諱輸爲勝。。則名通書曰通勝。。諱降爲升  則名竹槓曰竹升。 諱劏爲順。。則名飲湯曰飲順。。諱死爲生。。則名打死人曰打生人。。姓黃者。。呼黃牛曰』

A somewhat literal translation of this passage using Hoiping phonetics is:

“In vernacular Cantonese there are various taboo words. Such as the taboo word xi’ (輸 ‘to lose’) is replaced by sen (勝 ‘to win’), then the noun hung xi (通書 ‘almanac’) is instead pronounced hung sen (通勝). The taboo word gong (降 ‘defeat’) is replaced by the word sen (升 ‘to ascend’). Thus the noun zug gong (竹槓 ‘bamboo pole’) is instead pronounced zug sen (竹升) [i.e., jook-sing]. The taboo word hong (劏 ‘to butcher’) is replaced by the word sun (順 ‘favorable’). Thus the verb phrase ngem hong (飲湯 ‘to drink soup’) is instead pronounced ngem sun (飲順). The taboo word lhei (死 ‘to die’) is replaced by the word sang (生 ‘to live’). Thus the phrase a lhei ngen (打死人 ‘to beat someone to death’) is instead pronounced a sang ngen (打生人)….”

The above literal but rather cryptic translation lacks background information for the reader who is not familiar with a Cantonese dialect. A broader interpretation that includes some background information of this passage follows:

“In the Cantonese vernacular there are various taboo words. The Cantonese don’t like saying words that suggest something negative or that calamity might ensue. The offending taboo word is replaced by a less offensive word. In the Hoiping dialect (i.e., a Cantonese dialect), the word xi meaning ‘book’ (書) shares the same pronunciation with the taboo word xi (輸) ‘to decline or wane,’ and in a certain word combination, it is exchanged for sen (勝) which means victory. The lexically correct word for ‘almanac’ in Chinese characters is 通書, pronounced hung xi, but since xi is considered taboo in common speech, the word for ‘almanac’ is instead pronounced hung sen (通勝).

“The word gong (槓) meaning pole in the compound word for “bamboo pole” zug gong (竹槓) is replaced by the word sen meaning “to ascend” (升), because the character for pole (槓) is homonymous with the character for ‘to descend’ or ‘to surrender’ (降) which suggests something negative and therefore a taboo word. Therefore, the lexically correct compound word of zug gong 竹槓 meaning “bamboo pole” is replaced by zug sen or in standard Cantonese jook-sing (竹升) which avoids saying aloud the taboo word gong (降) meaning defeat.

“Another example is the taboo word hong (劏 ‘to butcher’). The lexically accurate phrase ngem hong (飲湯) contains the word for ‘soup’ (湯) which is a homonym of the taboo word hong (劏 ‘to butcher’). It is replaced by the word sun (順 ‘favorable’). The phrase “to drink soup” ngem hong (飲湯) should be replaced by ngem sun (飲順) “to drink favorable.”[1] In the final example, the word lhei- (死) “to die” ought to be replaced with the word “to live” sang (生) in the phrase da lhei ngen (打死人) meaning ‘to beat someone to death’ and say instead da sang ngen (打生人), literally, ‘to beat someone to life.’…” [2]


[1] Why the phrase ngemhong’ (飲湯) is considered taboo is not entirely clear to me in the Hoiping dialect (also in Four Counties generally). People speaking standard Cantonese do not seem to have any problem with saying it when they want to say, “Drink soup,” except that they would say “tong” instead of “hong.” However, in my circle of Hoiping speakers in Canada, normally we use this phrase only sparingly among ourselves; we instead use the phrase ngemgang’ (飲羹). Gang’ also means soup and appears sometimes on Chinese menus, but rarely used in conversation in Cantonese or Mandarin. Is this a result of the earlier Four Counties speakers of the early twentieth century viewing the phrase ngemhong’ as taboo? My parents do not see any taboo in saying ngemhong’ (飲湯).

[2] Prior to reading this article by Uncle Rock, I have not been familiar with his examples of taboo words or phrases as he described them. I am familiar though with other taboo words such as the number four (四) pronounced lhei, a homonym of the word meaning “to die” (死). I guess the original taboo words were simply replaced with more pleasant sounding words and the origin of the change forgotten in Canada. I highly suspect this is the case with the term for “drink soup.”