Puns, Puns, Puns: deciphering the Chinese language
This also makes brand names and a person’s name so vitally important and the reason why transliterations of names can be so botched. Roosevelt, for example, sounds like lucifer. You have to be careful of the character you use in the name and its homonym, as well as the meaning of the characters together, and the tones (if all of the characters have the same tone in a name, this is considered inauspicious or crude). Sprite had to change its name after first entering the Chinese market because it used a character that sounded like to die. Even more frustrating is that different regions in China pronounce characters differently, so that, for example, shi will sound like si, or zhi like zi, or vice versa! It’s incredibly convoluted.
Puns can go a little further too, whereby the pun of an answer to a quip is the meaning intended. The following are some examples:
外甥打灯笼 – 照舅. （照旧）waisheng da denglong—zhao jiu. (zhao jiu) Nephew is lighting the lamp—call uncle. (as always/usual) “Call uncle” sounds like ‘zhao jiu’, which puns what’s in the parentheses: zhao jiu, which means, ‘same as before’, or ‘as always’. So, say I have a son who always fails his exams. If he comes home one day and tells me he failed again, I could turn to my wife and say: Nephew is lighting the lamp.
孔夫子搬家 – 净是书. （输）Kong fuzi banjia—jing shi shu (shu) Confucius is moving—only books. (lose) The pun here is on shu, which means books and to lose. So if I am playing a game of poker and I (am gonna) lose, I could say: Confucius is moving.
飞机上挂暖壶 – 高水瓶. （高水平）Feiji shang gua nuanhu—gao shui ping. (gao shui ping) There is a thermos in a plane—high water container. (high level) So if I am complimenting somebody’s language level I could say: There is a thermos in a plane.
You guys get the point. Here are a couple more:
电线杆上插鸡毛 – 好大的掸子. （好大的胆子）The meaning I am not clear about, but the pun is on dan zi, which puns a duster and bravery/courage.
烂棉花 – 没法弹. （没法谈） Rotten cotton--must toss it. (must discuss). The pun here is on tan, which means to fling, or throw away, and talk/discuss.