August 15, 2008

Some recent homophone confusion

There aren't many potentially confusing homophones in Chinese, but yesterday I heard a really confusing one. My coworker told me that he and a couple of others were going to buy cheku, and asked if I wanted to buy cheku with them. A cheku is a garage (車庫), so I was understandably baffled. I wondered if they were buying some kind of portable carrier for putting their bikes in. But it turns out they are actually buying biking shorts (車褲). It seems as if the name for biking shorts has been perversely chosen to confuse everyone (not just foreigners) who hears the word.

Most homophones that confuse me can be distinguished by tone, but it is easy to miss the differences in tone and to think of the most familiar word with the same pronunciation. When you buy coffee, they sometimes ask you if you would like tangbao. The first time I heard this question I was very confused. Why were they asking me if I wanted dumpings? (湯包) (See below) But they were actually asking me if I wanted sugar packets (糖包). The pronunciation is the same, but the tones are different.

Another example comes from today: When I paid my phone bill, the cashier asked me if I would like to ding the receipt. I thought she asked me if I would like to subscribe to (訂) my receipt. Once again, my mind began going through a strange series of thoughts trying to make sense of my flawed interpretation of the sentence. I would have figured out what she actually meant in a few seconds, but as the wheels in my head were slowly turning, the cashier asked the same question again and luckily it clicked the second time. She was, of course, asking me if I wanted to staple (釘) my receipt (to the bill).

One last example, also from today: I heard that the doctor prescribed xianweifen. I imagined that this meant "micropowder" (顯微粉). But if I was listening carefully I should have know that it was actually fiber powder (纖維粉).


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