This week, the internet has been in meltdown about the internet being in meltdown. And it’s been the creation of a new word which has done it.
Chinese social media almost exploded with the appearance of the word ‘Duang’, according to reports. Heard initially in a shampoo commercial by film star Jackie Chan in 2004, it re-emerged recently in a remix of the ad. Shortly afterwards the word went viral to such an extent that there were reports shortly afterwards about the word which broke the internet in China.
The facts about all of this seem curiously hard to pin down. What does duang mean? Nobody knows. One of its virtues seems to be that it has no meaning. The Chinese internet has supposedly melted because people have been putting into random statements and contexts indiscriminately, with everybody making sure they have been part of the neologistic craze, without, it seems, knowing why.
And why it has taken off is the other question I can’t really find an answer to. Some reports suggest it is timed to coincide with a new session of a legislative board which advises China’s government and of which Chan is a member. The word therefore either satirises him or pays homage to him. Who knows!
What is clear is that it remains a Chinese phenomenon. While it is now surfacing with reasonable frequency on Twitter, most of those links seem to be to articles about its usage, rather than using the term in the way in which it initially appeared, or at least that is true of the citations in English. In Chinese social media of course it is completely different, and that is where the major growth has been. So I don’t think this is an internationally born word which will make a crossover into English.
But what it does demonstrate is the way that new words can explode across our new forms of communication with almost bacterial speed, and that sometimes, they don’t even need to have a tangible meaning in order to exist. Sometimes, usage of word is enough to show you belong to something, and that is why people have been using it in their droves, to ensure they are part of the trend. And I’m Duang sure I’m right about that about that.
It’s a fair bet that most readers of Wordability will not spend much time thinking about new words in Chinese. But when that word starts to become a social media phenomenon, it’s time to take notice of it and wonder whether it will cross over into the lingua Franca of the Internet as a whole.
Tuhao has appeared millions of times across Chinese social media. The word is actually more than 1,500 years old and means rich landowner. However it is now used to refer to the newly wealthy, the nouveau riche, to bring in yet another language. It has been commandeered in a derogatory way for these people, who flaunt their freshly acquired fortunes with displays of conspicuous consumption, gaudy jewellery, and the latest gadgets, especially the gold iPhone. The words Bling and Tuhao never seem to be far away from one another.
The word, comprised of ‘tu’ meaning dirt and ‘hao’ meaning splendour, got its social media kick from a joke which went viral. A young man asks a Zen master, “I’m wealthy but unhappy. What should I do?” The Zen master responds, “Define ‘wealthy.’ ” The young man answers, “I have millions in the bank and three apartments in central Beijing. Is that wealthy?” The Zen master silently holds out a hand, inspiring the young man to a realisation: “Master, are you telling me that I should be thankful and give back?” The Zen master says, “No … Tuhao, can I become your friend?”
As Buddhist jokes go, I prefer the one about the pizza. But leaving that aside the term has now become a Chinese Internet staple as a way of referring to this particular social trend.
It is very much part of a development in Chinese culture and would not necessarily apply everywhere, but its a neat and effective piece of linguistic shorthand that is perfect for modern methods of communication.
As Chinese presence increases globally, it will be interesting to watch whether linguistic developments such as this cross over into wider usage. Will a domain which has hitherto been dominated by English neologisms starts to become yet another area where Chinese influence starts to dominate?
If history teaches us anything, it is that the world order changes over time, and yesterday’s superpower is today’s underling. And as we get deeper into the 21st century, so the growing influence of China reminds us that the world in 100 years’ time may have a very different structure of influence to that which exists at present.
So it is interesting to see a linguistic nod in that direction emerging from Chinese sources. The Xinhua news agency published an opinion piece on the US Government shutdown, and posed the question of whether it was time to prepare for a “De-Americanized” world.
It’s not for Wordability to analyse the political and economic arguments surrounding this article, nor to comment on the myriad responses that the piece has garnered. Instead, I simply comment on the amount of attention this has drawn, the number of times the word de-Americanized, or de-Americanization, has now been used in response, and congratulate the Chinese author on coining a simple but effective term to really kick-start the debate and encapsulate the essence of the issue.
This demonstrates once again that in the field of political altercation, the side that comes out on top is sometimes the one that find the right term and defines the debate by controlling the language of the headlines. As the years move on, we may see de-Americanization becoming increasingly used as a term, and it may become the standard word for describing how power is shifting halfway round the world.
Americanization features in all major online dictionaries to mean making something American in character . Its newly-formed antonym will have to wait its turn to take its place. But as it gains acceptance, I wonder if a Chinese equivalent of Americanization will start to be used. Chinafication anybody?