Cultural note on words

I haven’t posted much lately, mostly because of laziness. Fortunately, I’ve encountered a great word that describes perfectly my situation: 懶癌 (lan3 ai2). This is a recently-created Chinese word that combines the characters for “lazy” 懶 (lan3) and “cancer” 癌 (ai2). The whole word, literally “laziness cancer,” means a complete lack of willpower to do things — “so lazy I could die.” The word is, I think, inspired by the insidious nature of laziness — just as unmanaged cancer can beget more cancer (metastasis), so can unmanaged laziness beget greater laziness (I dunno, The Dude, maybe?). Like many other new words, 懶癌 originated in the Chinese Internet and has a kind of sarcastic tongue-in-cheek feel to it. In this way, new words from the Chinese Internet bear a family resemblance to memes from Reddit.

In other news, I played badminton for the first time in my life with a coworker last week and again today. In conversation with some of the other players, I learned a bunch of interesting things about Chinese culture, which I’ve mostly forgotten already. But the things that stick with me are that (1) the Chinese Internet is a source of many new words and (2) different regions of China have different ways of playing rock-paper-scissors.

Regarding the new words thing, 懶癌 is an example of a new Chinese Internet word. Another one is 悲催 (bei1 cui1), which means something along the lines of “out of luck” and is somewhat analogous to the “fail” meme. The Chinese dictionary people are working actively to keep up with new Chinese Internet words, in an analogous development to the OED trying to keep up with English Internet words.

As for rock-paper-scissors, in China there are apparently many different phrases that go along with rock-paper-scissors. The Standard Mandarin words of invocation are “scissors, rock, cloth” (it sounds better in Mandarin), and you display your choice simultaneously with saying “cloth.” Different regions of China have their own local words, which often have nothing to do with scissors, rock, or cloth. Unfortunately, I can’t remember any specific examples. As with many other things, there is an analogy to the Chinese rock-paper-scissors phenomenon in English: We, too, have a few different words of invocation — “Rochambeau,” “rock, paper, scissors,” “rock, paper, scissors, shoot,” “one, two, three,” “one, two, three, shoot” — but so far as I know these words aren’t really regional.

Perhaps this greater diversity in rock-paper-scissors words in China has to do with the Asian origins of the game. According to the Wikipedia article, Americans weren’t generally familiar with the game as late as the 1930s (there’s an article in the New York Times from the 1932 describing the rules of rock-paper-scissors and its play in Japan in such a way that indicates that ordinary New Yorkers weren’t familiar with the game), while it appears to have been well-known in China for centuries or millennia. Maybe hundreds of years from now each part of America will have its own local words of enactment for the game. All this leads me to a crucial question — how did Americans make any decisions at all in a pre-rock-paper-scissors world?

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