New Words and Terrible Jokes

Some New Words

In a desperate attempt to put a positive spin on the Coronavirus situation I’m gong to say that it has at least resulted in me learning a lot of new vocabulary. Take the word Coronavirus for instance; in January I was pretty sure I knew what a both a corona and a virus was, but I’d never thought I would be putting the two together.

In Chinese it’s a similarly new combination of words I already know. The interesting thing is that the Chinese don’t refer to coronavirus as a virus, but as pneumonia (fèi yán 肺炎 – literally “lung inflammation”). Perhaps the very words we use show that English speaking countries are focused on the cause (a virus), but China is focused on the consequence (pneumonia, fèi yán 肺炎).

Obviously the coronavirus isn’t just any old fèi yán. In fact, it’s xīn guān fèi yán 新冠肺炎 (new crown pneumonia). This name confused me for a bit until I found out that “corona” is actually the Spanish word for “crown” and not just a type of beer.

Another new word that jumped out at me was yì qíng 疫情, which I still don’t really know the English for. This is because the meaning was so obvious from context when I saw it in the Chinese media that I never bothered to look it up in English (10 years ago I could only dream that my Chinese would ever reach a level where I could do that!)

many Chinese websites contain maps of the yì qíng like this one

It’s not just the context that made it easy for me to understand yì qíng 疫情, it’s also the fact that (like so many Chinese words) it can be easily understood if we break it down into it’s morphemes (i.e. smaller bits of word that make up a bigger word).

So let’s break it down. The character yì 疫 is present in the words miǎn yì 免疫 (immunity) and yì miáo 疫苗(vaccine). I know these words from the many traumatising experiences I had trying to take my son to the hospital in China when he was 2 years old. So yì 疫obviously refers to illness. The character qíng 情 is a bit more confusing because it has more than one meaning but the context made it clear to me that it was short for qíng kuàng 情况 (situation / circumstances) and not aì qíng 爱情 (love).

Basically talking about the “Coronavirus situation” seemed to make more sense than talking about the “Coronavirus love”. But yì 疫 doesn’t actually mean “Coronavirus” and it is only in the current context that the word yì qíng 疫情 means “the Coronavirus situation”. I presume that during other pandemics yì qíng 疫情 could also be used. Maybe another translation could be “the situation with the current pandemic” but I don’t think we have a word for that in English. Then again, I’ve not actually checked the dictionary so I might be wrong.

Some Terrible Jokes

There are two other words that are new to me that I particularly like because they have been the basis of two hilarious puns that I have added to my repertoire of jokes that I make up in Chinese. I say “hilarious puns” but some people might disagree with the use of the adjective “hilarious”. They are definitely puns though, so I will explain them and you can be the judge of whether or not they are actually funny.

The first word is fēng chéng 封城 (literally “block off city” or “close off city”) I overheard this when one of my Chinese students video called a friend in China during lunch break. The friend in China asked 伦敦是不是封城了? (London is or is not closed off/ has London been closed off?) In English we would probably say “under lockdown”.

The pun is on the word fēng 封 which literally means block off, like a road might be blocked off due to a crash, or the way I block off the windows in Resident Evil 2 so that zombies stop crawling into the police station (I’ve a had a lot of time to play video games under lockdown.) However, fēng 封 is also a homophone for fēng 疯 which means “crazy”. My joke goes something like this: 我听说因为新冠肺炎的缘故伦敦人都被送到神经病医院去。因为整个城市都疯了/封了 (I heard that due to the Coronavirus everyone in London was sent to the insane asylum, because the whole city has gone crazy/been closed off).

If you think that joke was bad you might want to stop reading here because it gets worse. When easing the lockdown, Chinese cities made clever use of technology to reduce the rate of infection. Basically, you use your smartphone to input your personal information and then a lot of big data number crunching is done to determine if you are a high risk of having been in contact with Coronavirus. After this your are given QR code (èr wéi mǎ 二维码 in Chinese) which is a different colour depending on the estimated level of risk that you are infected. You need to scan this èr wéi mǎ 二维码 whenever you want to use things like public transport.

Different colour QR codes

Only if you gave a green code (lǜ mǎ 绿码)are actually allowed to do things like take the subway and go shopping. And this is another new word for me lǜ mǎ 绿码. I suspect that Boris Johnson, after saying that he had been going around shaking hands with absolutely everyone, including everyone at a hospital treating Coronavirus patients, would have had a big fat red QR code (hóng mǎ 红码).

As fascinating as this new use of technology is, I’m more interested in the fact that mǎ 码 (code/number) is a homophone for mǎ 马 (horse). This means I should have no trouble travelling around China because I have a…

Green horse (lǜ mǎ, a homophone for green QR code)

I call these “jokes”. My wife calls them “annoying things my husband says that he thinks are funny but aren’t”. There is a word for that in Chinese too, lěng xiào huà 冷笑话 (literally “cold jokes”, that is “corny jokes” or “dad jokes” in English). I’m probably not the only person to have noticed these puns and made a lěng xiào huà 冷笑话 out of them. In fact, given that China has a population of 1.4 billion I think it’s statically quite likely someone else thought of them before I did. I like to think that the creation of new jokes could be another positive to try and squeeze out of an otherwise terrible situation.


If you’ve learned any new coronavirus vocabulary, or just want to troll me about how bad my jokes are, feel free to leave a comment in the comments section below.


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