Cer­tain ex­pres­sions in any lan­guage seem de­signed to be­fud­dle non-na­tive speak­ers, and Chi­nese is no ex­cep­tion

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI -

sion for all cor­rupt of­fi­cials.

3 — In­ti­macy, frank­ness. This is the most dif­fi­cult “mean­ing” of the bunch. The way it’s used in this joke is the boss rib­bing the em­ployee that he’s sell­ing him­self short, a tongue-in-cheek way of say­ing that they’re such good friends that the em­ployee doesn’t need to be mak­ing him re­spect­ful of­fer­ings. It also hints that the boss knows the em­ployee isn’t just hand­ing out cash for noth­ing, but they’re such good friends that the em­ployee should have just come right out and ask what he wanted. While this joke uses an ironic ver­sion of (

, “not enough mean­ing”), you can also use it the nor­mal way — for in­stance, if a friend in your group doesn’t pay their share of the bill, or if any­one be­trays your trust in any way, then they’re .

4 — Care, an ac­tion or to­ken into which some­one has put some ef­fort and con­cern. Sim­i­lar to 2, but this puts em­pha­sis on the con­cern on the giver’s part rather than the mean­ing it holds for the re­ceiver. Here, the em­ployee is protest­ing again that the gift is just small pota­toes on his part.

5 — In­ter­est, amuse­ment. To say that a person or thing “has mean­ing” is to say they in­trigue you in some way. Here, the boss is amused by his em­ployee’s protests.

6 — Mo­tive. The em­ployee protests a fi­nal time (see a pat­tern?), say­ing that he had no ul­te­rior mo­tive.

7, 8 — Part of a phrase that makes apol­ogy for your rude­ness. The two fi­nal uses of “mean­ing” both have this mean­ing, used within the phrase (

) in two dif­fer­ent ways. The phrase lit­er­ally means “it’s dif­fi­cult to mean”, and can be lit­er­ally in­ter­preted as the speaker say­ing they’ve been put (or put them­selves) in a po­si­tion where it’s hard for them to muddy their in­ten­tions, which is awk­ward and em­bar­rass­ing be­cause, hey, that’s what we’ve been try­ing to do this whole time by abus­ing the word “mean­ing” in var­i­ous ways. In this joke, the first in­stance of is the boss telling the em­ployee he’ll ac­cept the gift (“Please ex­cuse my rude­ness, I will help my­self”.) The sec­ond in­stance is the em­ployee apol­o­giz­ing (“No, it’s me who should be em­bar­rassed!”) as a way of mak­ing

You thought that was all? Ac­tu­ally, the above joke and Shaanxi do­na­tion scan­dal only grazes the sur­face of every­thing you could use “mean­ing” to mean (or not mean). For ex­am­ple, there is the phrase

( , lit­er­ally “re­ally mean­ing­less”), which is sim­i­lar to the ver­sion of

that the boss uses in the joke. It ex­presses the feel­ing that some­one didn’t con­sider you as good a friend as you con­sid­ered them, hence they’re be­ing overly po­lite or dis­tant to­ward you. It can be used ei­ther as an ac­tual com­plaint or in a com­pli­men­tary way, as in telling some­one that they don’t have to be so kind.

The ex­pres­sion ( , lit­er­ally, “easy to mean”) is es­sen­tially the op­po­site of , sig­ni­fy­ing a com­plete lack of em­bar­rass­ment. You use it to ex­press your dis­plea­sure and out­rage that some­one is crass enough to do a cer­tain im­po­lite, dis­hon­est, or just gen­er­ally shock­ing thing, such as


. “There are so many starv­ing peo­ple in the world, you’re not em­bar­rassed to waste food?”).

can also re­fer to cer­tain trends or signs that some­thing is about to hap­pen, and in this case it’s not just peo­ple who can “have mean­ing”. For ex­am­ple,


Cour­tesy of The World of Chi­nese, www.the­world­ofchi­nese.com . it

The sky has dark­ened, maybe means to rain.) Fi­nally, there’s an­other use of

( , “to have mean­ing”), only in this in­stance you don’t say that some­one else “has mean­ing” (i.e. is in­ter­est­ing), but that one person “has mean­ing” to­ward an­other person.

Just to make things more dif­fi­cult, all of th­ese phrases with “mean­ing” in them can change their mean­ing slightly de­pend­ing on who is speak­ing to whom and in what so­cial con­text — such as we saw with the dif­fer­ence between

in the joke and in the Shaanxi scan­dal. An­other way to look at it is that “mean­ing”, lit­er­ally, is the cue that forces you to look into the con­text, po­lite­ness reg­is­ter and in­ten­tions imbed­ded in your con­ver­sa­tion.

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