The other day my online pal fev wrote me via gmail asking about this statement in The Economist: “THE characters for ‘Africa’ in the Mandarin language mean ‘wrong continent’”—true, or journalistic nonsense? I discovered the word for ‘Africa’ is 非洲 feizhou and went through the laborious process of looking it up in my Mathew’s; as I told fev, the first character is literally a negative that can mean ‘wrong, bad’ as well as simply ‘not’ (its usual meaning in classical Chinese). But Mathews includes this use in a separate subentry ‘used for foreign sounds’; the names of foreign places have always been rendered phonetically without much regard for actual meaning. I was just thinking that wasn’t really a sufficient answer when I got an instant message via gmail from my online pal and occasional commenter xiaolongnu, who happens to be an expert on Chinese, so I asked her. She looked it up in a Big Dictionary (Cihai [辭海 'Sea of Words'], if I recall correctly) and told me it’s short for Afeilijiazhou, which is clearly a phonetic rendering (jia being the Mandarin equivalent of what in other dialects is ka). She says “And it gets shortened to ‘fei’ rather than ‘a’ because ‘a’ is such a non-syllable.” Problem solved, thanks to the miracle of the internet and the instantaneous communication it makes possible!
[Addendum. Bill Poser has posted an interesting Language Log entry about the Classical Chinese use of the character 非 'not.']
And xiaolongnu also gave me a link to this wonderful post by Alex Golub and Kate Lingley, “Colonialism in the Pacific Rim Themed Dinner for Eight,” which she thought I might enjoy, and indeed I did: it’s entertaining and educational, and I’m sure delicious too if one had the chance to eat it! Here’s a sample:
Russian Intrusion into Central Asia Vodka Watermelon
Before the Russians could become a credible force in the North Pacific they had to reach it. Throughout the eighteenth century the Czars swept across the steppe until they reached the ocean on the other side. This recipe memorializes the coming of Russian power to central Asia.
1 Large Watermelon
1 bottle of orange flavored vodka (Van Gogh, for instance)
Purchase your watermelon from the local store (remember: hollow and heavy. Hollow and heavy). When your guests arrive tell them you got it in Tashkent. Purchase also your vodka. When at the store you will be tempted to buy shit vodka, because you already know this recipe and know that I’m about to tell you to pour the vodka into the watermelon, and you consider this a much less honorable fate for quality vodka than, say, a decent martini. Nonetheless, you must purchase quality vodka, as the taste will be quite exposed due to the delicacy of the watermelon’s flavor. Grand Marnier is typically used to compliment watermelon, but since you’re already blowing real dough on the vodka, just get one with orange flavoring. Cut the watermelon in half. Open the vodka and pour them shits all up inside the watermelon. Every three or four hours you will add more vodka to increase the deliciousness of the watermelon. It’s gotta soak, see? Shortly before your guests arrive, use a melon ball scooper to scoop out a bunch of watermelon balls (duh.) Then put them all back in the now-dimpled hollow watermelon. Serve to your guests with toothpicks so that their hands don’t get sticky. This can be served in lieu of cocktails, or you may choose to reserve some watermelon juice and make martinis out of the remaining vodka, substituting the juice for vermouth. If you do this, you must take your martini with a twist. Watermelon and olives is gross.