woty wot hey

December 11th, 2013

Over at Public Address it’s Word of the Year time. All the nominations for WOTY are fair enough, but there’s one that I want but that doesn’t fit there, and I don’t know of any more appropriate place running a WOTY competition. So I’ll run my own. And I’ll win it, because there won’t be any other nominations accepted.

Here’s my word of the year:

And its standard English translation: Haze

Alright, so that’s two words, but it’s my competition, and I told you I’d make sure I’ll win it. But whatever, here’s why:

Back in January, when the air looked, smelled, tasted, and felt like it had been piped directly in from Hell’s chimney (and no, I don’t mean the Hell I’ve been to, that’s a nice place, at least in the summer), and the snow looked like it had been dusted with salt, pepper, and heavy fuel oil, I was taking a course in Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language. All my classmates were Chinese – well, I found out later one was Singaporean Chinese, but still, I was the only non-Chinese in the room for the whole course. I had a habit of getting up ridiculously early, making some doujiang to get me through the trip up to the Bei Da East Gate, then get some breakfast and a copy of the Beijing News from the stands up there, before heading up to the classroom. One day I was staring at yet another full-page spread on the smog crisis wondering what the second character in “雾霾” was, a character I couldn’t find in my dictionary. One of my classmates, another member of a fairly tight group of five of us who sat at the front and worked pretty solidly together, asked what that character was. Another said, yeah, I was wondering about that too. My reply was, well, if you don’t know how should I know? I was quite bemused that they’d ask me this because Chinese is a language I started learning at 23 years of age, whereas they’d all started learning Chinese by the time they were 23 months old. But another member of this group piped up and said, oh, that’s mái, it means like this dirty stuff floating in the air.

Then, of course, the question turned to how to say 雾霾 in English, so I taught them the word “smog”, explaining that just as 雾霾 is a combination of perfectly ordinary fog (雾/wù) with dirty stuff hanging in the air, “smog” is a combination of “smoke” and “fog”.

And since then, of course, 霾 has been all over the place, on Weibo, in newspapers, on TV. There’s a new system of smog alerts, with set procedures for responding to each level of alert. Basically, it seems to me that January was the point when China finally decided, right, that’s enough, we have to clean this place up. And I think that’s a pretty sweet silver lining to what was a really foul cloud.

But that brings me to the standard translation: Haze. I don’t get it. It just doesn’t seem to fit. To me, haze could be natural or artificial. It could be clean, caused by just a light mist or salt spray in coastal areas on a windy day (can you tell I’m from Wellington?), or it could be dirty, caused by fires or industry. Haze just doesn’t seem to cut it. Every Chinese-Chinese dictionary I’ve checked makes it clear that 霾 is dirty stuff hanging in the air. The possibility of a natural source is left open – and fair enough when you’re living somewhere as dry and dusty as northern or western China. But it’s clearly dirty stuff. “Smog” may be a bit too harsh a translation, referring as it does to pollution caused artificially by burning things like fossil fuels combined with natural phenomena, but “haze”, to me, just doesn’t cut it. And besides, every time I see or here 霾, it is referring to what is undeniably smog.

So there you go, there’s my Word of the Year: 霾 and haze.

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