Friday, 31 March 2017

∞ | infinity

The lemniscate or is a mathematical symbol for infinity.

The Englishman John Wallis (1616—1703) is credited with introducing the infinity symbol to mathematical literature. One hypothesis is that is a variant form of , a Roman numeral (later replaced by ) for 1000, which was figuratively used to represent very large numbers, just like Chinese (ten thousand) may also mean “countless”. Most uses of outside of math, such as in mysticism, or as related to gender identity/sexuality, still have something to do with the infinite. For example, the infinity heart, a combination of with , is a symbol of polyamory. For me, the figure above looks like the tracks of “either Two Woozles and one, as it might be, Wizzle, or Two, as it might be, Wizzles and one, if so it is, Woozle”.

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Thursday, 30 March 2017

万 | wàn

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: wàn 🔊) is a word for “ten thousand”. It is often used figuratively, in a sense “numerous”, “countless”, “very”, “extremely”, “absolutely”, “all”, “eternity” etc. 万水千山 (wàn shuǐ qiān shān), “ten thousand rivers, a thousand mountains” is a popular idiom for the long journey.

is a simplified form of a traditional hanzi which originally meant “scorpion”. There is a great variety of historical forms of this latter character. However, and are not similar at all. According to Wiktionary, is

a simplification of the Buddhist symbol introduced when Buddhism came to China. was given the same pronunciation as meaning (many virtues); so, came to be used as a simplified form of . is simply a scribal form (script) of . The meaning ten thousand for is a borrowing.
The modern character does look more like a combination of Latin letters T and J than a left-handed swastika. Incidentally, “T.J.” is a nickname for Tijuana 🔊 — can you hear wàn there?

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Wednesday, 29 March 2017

千 | qiān

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: qiān 🔊) is a word for “thousand” as well as “many”.

is just the character with an extra stroke on top of it. Many historical forms of this character also look like capped with an extra hook, line, or sinker squiggle.

Another hanzi with the same meaning, , is mainly used for financial purposes. Like the “accounting” forms of and , it consists of its own “simple” version preceded by , which is a radical form of .

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Tuesday, 28 March 2017

百 | bǎi

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: bǎi 🔊) is a word for “hundred”. It is often used figuratively, in a sense “numerous”, “countless”, “every”, “all”, “entirely”, “at all”, etc. When they actually mean the number 100, “one hundred”, Chinese say exactly that: 一百 (yī bǎi 🔊).

There is a great variety of historical forms of this character. is a phono-semantic compound where pronunciation of seemingly unrelated word “white” (bái) is combined with meaning of . (Recall that, apart from “one”, also means “each”, “every”, “whole” and so on). A good trick to remember this character is to write the number 100 with “boxy” zeros, then rotate it 90° clockwise.

Another hanzi with the same meaning, , is mainly used for accounting purposes.

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Monday, 27 March 2017

十 | shí

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: shí 🔊) is a word for number “ten”. It also means “complete” or “topmost”, as in 十全十美 (shí quán shí měi), an idiom for “perfect in every way”. So shí is perfect, and if you happen to know a lady who is perfect in every way, that could help you to remember the pronunciation: “She is perfect”.

In contrast to “one”, the symbol for ten was historically represented by a single vertical stroke , which sometimes had a dot or a “swelling” in the middle. According to Ponte Ryūrui, the second stroke in the modern character is just “an aesthetically altered fat dot”. The similarity between the Roman numeral Ⅹ and makes this latter an easy character to remember.

There are several Chinese hand signs for “ten”. For example, the crossed index and middle fingers on one hand, or the index fingers of both hands crossed making the .

There is another hanzi with the same meaning, , which is mainly used for accounting purposes.

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Sunday, 26 March 2017

九 | jiǔ

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: jiǔ 🔊) stands for “nine”. It is considered a lucky number, maybe because it is pronounced exactly like (jiǔ) which means “long lasting”. The expression 長長久久 / 长长久久 (cháng cháng jiǔ jiǔ) “forever and ever” is often used in Chinese greetings. Historically, the number nine it was associated with the Emperor of China.

According to Wiktionary, represents a stylised hand, while Uncle Hanzi says it is “a couple of hooks”. Ponte Ryūrui offers a much more interesting explanation: “a pictograph of a dragon, or more precisely a dragon-serpent”. So what? Well, dragons, he continues, “were used by the emperors of China as symbols emphasising their power”. So here we have this dragon/nine/imperial connection.

The Chinese hand sign for “nine” is the index finger making a hook with the other fingers closed:

There is another hanzi with the same meaning, , which is mainly used for financial purposes. It is composed of the radical 𤣩 and now-familiar .

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Saturday, 25 March 2017

八 | bā

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: 🔊) is a word for “eight”. It is considered a lucky number, because its pronunciation is similar to that of / (), which means “to make a fortune”. You may have heard or seen this latter word in the traditional New Year greeting, 恭喜發財 / 恭喜发财 (gōngxǐ fācái), literally “Congratulations, (may you) become wealthy”.

The original meaning of was “to divide”. I don’t think the ancient Chinese knew much about cell division but somehow most historical forms of this character remind me of a pair of chromosomes.

The Chinese hand sign for “eight” is a hand with the thumb and index finger at a right angle and the other fingers closed:

There is another hanzi with the same meaning, , which is mainly used for financial purposes.

More photos related to numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Friday, 24 March 2017

七 | qī

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: 🔊) means “seven”. It is considered a lucky number, maybe because it is pronounced similarly to (), “life essence”.

Many historical forms of this character looked like , which currently represents “ten”. If you got accustomed to write your 7 with a line through the middle, then you’ll have no problem remembering : it’s just 7 upside down.

The Chinese hand sign for “seven” is a hand with the fingertips of the thumb and first two fingers touching:

There is another hanzi with the same meaning, , which is mainly used for financial purposes. It is composed of the very same as well as of now-familiar , a radical form of (shuǐ), and ().

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Thursday, 23 March 2017

六 | liù

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: liù 🔊) means “six”. Six is considered a lucky number. There is a Chinese saying, 六六大顺 (liù liù dà shùn), which means “everything is going smoothly”.

If to indicate “four” we needed six strokes, as in , here we have four strokes to indicate “six”. Strange, isn’t it? According to Wiktionary, is a picture of a shed or a cabin, and is used because the word for shed () sounds similar to liù. Many historical forms of this character indeed look like a shed or a hut, but the modern reminds me more of a star jump exercise.

The Chinese hand sign for “six” is a hand with the thumb and pinky extended and other fingers closed:

There are other hanzi with the same meaning, (traditional) and (simplified), mainly used for financial purposes.

More photos related to numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

五 | wǔ

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: 🔊) means “five”.

Many historical forms of this character look more like an hourglass (𠄡) than the modern . Ponte Ryūrui says that its shape follows that of “a wooden receptacle equipped with two lids”, and could even be “an allegory of Heavens and Earth”. Wiktionary suggests that

was originally written as five horizontal lines, similar to , , , and the obsolete (“four”), but in common writing the lines would blend together. Thus, two lines were turned vertical and the right one was shortened, to form one stroke with the middle horizontal line.
Whether or not this was the case, that’s how you can (remember how to) write : start with and then add rotated 90° (which could explain why two vertical strokes are unequal in length). In reality, however, the stroke order in is quite different:

The Chinese hand sign for “five” is an open hand.

There is another hanzi with the same meaning, , mainly used for financial purposes. This time it is easy to see there.

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Tuesday, 21 March 2017

四 | sì

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: 🔊) means “four”. This number is considered unlucky because its pronuciation is similar to that of ( 🔊) “death”.

You’d think that, following the logic of the first three numerals (, , ), the symbol for “four” should be written as . And you’d be absolutely right. However, nowadays this form of “four” is considered archaic. The historical forms of the character give us no clue why the (easy) four strokes got replaced by the somewhat more complicated symbol, which looks like a square window with two curtains. Unless it was invented by an elementary math teacher who wanted his pupils to remember that two (curtains) squared is four.

Naturally, the Chinese hand sign for “four” is four extended fingers.

There is another hanzi with the same meaning, , which is mainly used for financial purposes. You’d never guess.

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Monday, 20 March 2017

三 | sān

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: sān 🔊) means “three” or “third”.

To write the character , start with , that is, a shorter upper stroke and a longer lower stroke, then sandwich an even shorter stroke between them. Speaking of sandwiches: really looks like one, while 三明治 (sānmíngzhì 🔊) is just a phonetic borrowing of English word “sandwich”. Could that help to remember the pronunciation of ?

As one could expect, the Chinese hand sign for “three” is three extended fingers.

There are several other hanzi with the same meaning, such as and , mainly used for financial purposes. You can easily discern the three strokes there.

More photos related to numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

二 | èr

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: èr 🔊) means “two” or “second”. Two is considered a lucky number in Chinese culture: “good things come in pairs”.

is as (or even twice as) straightforward as . Note that the upper stroke is shorter than the lower. Rather predictably, the Chinese hand sign for “two” is two extended fingers (index and middle).

There are other hanzi with the same meaning: (traditional) and (simplified), mainly used for financial purposes. The two horizontal strokes are still there, albeit well hidden.

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Saturday, 18 March 2017

一 | yī

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: 🔊) means “one”. Also, a bunch of derived meanings such as “each”, “every”, “single”, “whole” and so on.

This is probably the easiest Chinese character to write (and remember). One theory, mentioned by Eve Kushner in one of her Radical Notes, says that in “the stroke depicts a ‘single extended finger’”. In any case, the Chinese hand sign for “one” is exactly that: a single extended finger. The index finger, to be precise.

Note, however, that there are other hanzi with the same meaning: , more common in Japan, and , more common in China (also pronounced ). Ponte Ryuurui writes that these complex characters are “used in legal documents, for the purpose of avoiding mistakes with numbers, and also for preventing document falsifications”.

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Friday, 17 March 2017

月 | yuè

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: yuè 🔊) means “moon” or “month”.

Have you ever seen the moon? The modern character does not look like the moon at all. Ponte Ryuurui writes:

Originally, was written the way we see the crescent Moon from the Earth. In the process of stylisation it was turned on its axis. It is important to remember that at that time, for a period of some 2000 years (often referred to as The Age of Bamboo Slips), many characters were written on narrow bamboo (or other wood) planks <...> Due to their oblong nature, many characters were elongated when written.
Many historical forms of the character indeed look more like a crescent moon.

More photos of moon and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

日 | rì

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: 🔊) means “Sun”, “daytime” (time between sunrise and sunset), and, by extension, “day” (i.e. twenty-four hours). It is also short for 日本 (Rìběn), “the Sun’s origin”, that is, Japan. Combining and , we get 日出 (rìchū 🔊), “sunrise”.

Just like (), can be used in a sense “to have sex”. It is not clear how this meaning originated. It could be that some of the historical forms of the character were suggestive of this vital activity. Note the similarity with the Western solar symbol, , which is also the alchemical symbol for gold.

More photos of sun and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

沙 | shā

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: shā 🔊) means “sand”.

is composed of , which is a radical form of (shuǐ), and the character we’ve just learned, (shǎo). Uncle Hanzi says that means “sand, as found in a creek” (could have been on the beach as well), hence the semantic link with water, while the connection with is phonetic.

Speaking of the beach: all three pictures in this post are made from the material collected on the beaches of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

More photos of sand and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

少 | shǎo

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: shǎo 🔊) means “few”, “less”, “not many” and such.

Uncle Hanzi says that is derived by augmentation from (xiǎo) “small”. The modern form of this character makes me think of a lonely samurai carrying a long curved sword. It’s safe to say that by now there are only a few samurai left in the world. The key word to remember is “few”.

Have you heard of Shaolin Monastery or Shaolin Kung Fu? The name 少林 (Shàolín) consists of — which, in turn, is an abbreviation for 少室山 (Shàoshìshān), “Shaoshi mountain” — and (lín) “forest”. Maybe that can help remembering the pronunciation of , although, you may have noticed, there is a tone change (shǎoshào) when is used in combination.

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Monday, 13 March 2017

a | а

Apart from being the first letter of Latin alphabet, a can constitute a whole word.

In modern English, we chiefly encounter a in a role of an indefinite article. In Spanish, a is one of the most common words that serves as a preposition. In Russian and some other Slavic languages, а (or a; Cyrillic letter а looks exactly like Latin a) is an interesting conjunction which may variably mean “and”, “and yet”, “but”, “whereas” or “while”.

In physics, a is a common symbol for acceleration. For example, Newton’s second law can be written as

F = ma
where F is the force, m is the mass.

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Sunday, 12 March 2017

☮ | peace

The peace symbol ☮, a.k.a. the nuclear disarmament symbol and the CND symbol, was designed in 1958 for the British nuclear disarmament movement by Gerald Herbert Holtom (1914—1985). The symbol is a combination of the flag semaphore signals for the letters N and D, standing for “nuclear disarmament”.

Since then, ☮ has become a universally recognised peace symbol, without losing its association with 1960s peace movement. This year, the poster for the Carnival of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria was featuring the plasticine “Flower Power” peace symbol complete with Andy Warhol, The Beatles and Yellow Submarine.

More photos related to peace, carnival and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

| shamrock

In case you are sick of Mandarin, I’ve got good news for you: I’m going to write here about some other symbols as well. Let’s start with .

Shamrock (pronounced /ʃæmrɒk/ 🔊) is the trefoil leaf of a clover, especially Trifolium repens, commonly used as a symbol of Ireland. According to the legend, St. Patrick have used the shamrock to explain the idea of the Holy Trinity to the Irish.

The word is derived from Irish seamróg, diminutive of semar ‎(“clover”).

More photos of clover, shamrock and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Friday, 10 March 2017

茶 | chá

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: chá 🔊) means “tea”.

Turkish çay and Russian чай are the variations on the theme of chá. In Min Nan, the same word is pronounced as ; thanks to the Dutch East India Company, this plant and drink is known in Europe as tea.

According to Wiktionary, is a graphical modification of archaic ():

can refer to one of several types of bitter tasting vegetables. Early Chinese texts are rather vague in their description. This makes it difficult to determine which species it originally referred to.
Whatever is real origin of the character, I prefer thinking of it as a slightly scrambled doodle of a traditional Chinese tea house.

More photos of tea and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

米 | mǐ

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: 🔊) means “rice”. Another, quite unrelated, meaning is “metre” (a base unit of length in the International System of Units), a phonetic approximation of an English loanword.

We’ve already met this symbol as a part of traditional character (). Uncle Hanzi says that originally represented a spike of rice. From the modern shape, it’s difficult to say. Given that rice was the staple food in China for millennia, one can imagine that a simple but widely recognisable symbol was in order to conduct everyday business — for example, to jot down how many portions of rice have been ordered.

More photos of rice @ Shutterstock.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

入 | rù

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: ) is a verb meaning “to enter”, “to go into”, “to arrive” and so on. Careful: in some dialects, it also means “to have sexual intercourse”.

According to Wiktionary, this hanzi represents “an arrowhead indicating ‘to enter’”, while Uncle Hanzi explains it as “an open tent door”. The latter explanation is easier to remember and clearly more inviting.

Combining with , we get 入口 (rùkǒu 🔊), a useful word that means “entrance”, “way in”. I find both characters quite erotic.

More photos of entrance and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

出 | chū

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: chū 🔊) is a verb meaning “to go out”, “to leave”, “to exit” etc.

looks like two characters piled on top of each other, but in fact its origin has nothing to do with mountains. Many historical forms of this character, especially oracle bone script, show a footprint going out of some sort of enclosure: a room, a house, a city — anything with walls. On some of the oracle bone characters, the “enclosure” part even looks like an archaic form of (that kind of toothy smile). Ponte Ryūrui mentions (and rejects) an alternative theory, where is “based on an image of rapidly growing grass”.

Combining with , we get 出口 (chūkǒu 🔊) that means “exit” or “way out” — a useful word to recognise, for example if you drive.

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Monday, 6 March 2017

口 | kǒu

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: kǒu 🔊) means “mouth”, “entrance”, “opening”, “hole” and so forth. This word is often used in combinations, for example: 火山 (huǒshān) “volcano” + = 火山口 (huǒshānkǒu) “crater”.

Historical forms of this character look more like drawings of mouth with a tongue sticking out, or a big smile, while Ponte Ryūrui points out that the original meaning of could have been “a ritual vessel or container and not a mouth”.

More photos of smile and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

山 | shān

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: shān 🔊) means “mountain”.

Why ? Easy: think of three mountain peaks. Historical forms of this character look even more like children’s drawings of mountains.

Combining (fire) with , we get a word for volcano: 火山 (huǒshān). Now recall the word for sky, (tiān). If we stick it in front of , we get 天山 (Tiānshān), “Mountain of Heaven”, the name of a great mountain range in Central Asia. That’s how I remember the pronunciation of . For Russian speakers, or indeed anybody who is familiar with Cyrillic alphabet, there is an additional mnemonic: looks very much like Ш, the first letter in the Шань.

More photos of mountains and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

天 | tiān

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: tiān 🔊) means “sky”, “heavens”, “heaven” or “day”.

OK, the sky is big, right? Much bigger than a man with outstretched arms can ever show, no matter how hard he tries. That’s why there is a line over his head. A whole new level. Some historical forms of this character show a stickman with a large head, or a line instead of a head.

More photos of sky and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Friday, 3 March 2017

大 | dà

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: ) means “big”, “large”, “great” and so on.

As we already know, stands for a person, and this person is standing on two legs. Let’s give arms to this person. Now this person is showing with wide open arms how big something is. That big! There is a variety of historical forms of this character, and most of them look like a stickman with arms and legs, drawn en face.

More photos of people and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

人 | rén

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: rén 🔊) means “a person”, “people”, or “a human being”.

There is a variety of historical forms of this character. According to Uncle Hanzi, they stand for “a person in profile”. It’s not clear whether it’s an arm or a leg sticking out. Ponte Ryūrui says that “is a pictograph of the left-hand side profile of a standing person”. He also notes that in certain forms

the shape of the character emphasises two parts of the human body, the elbow and the shin. Additionally, the entire posture of the body is curved (in some forms it even seems to be cringed), further emphasised by the bent back and knees.
The modern form of , however, is best thought of as a pictogram of a person (standing on two legs) en face. Why “best”, we’ll see tomorrow.

More photos of people and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

回 | huí

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: huí 🔊) means “to return”, “to turn around”, “to reply”, or “to decline”.

There is a variety of historical forms of this character, including concentric circles and spiral shapes. For handwriting purposes, I think it is still easier to draw a spiral than a pair of concentric squares.

More photos of spirals and sea glass @ Shutterstock.