Brush Strokes

Word of the year

‘Control’ is the word of 2011

No surprises, perhaps, that last year’s Chinese word of the year was ‘control’, or kong 控, according to the 2011 Chinese Word Inventory, an annual survey sponsored by the Commercial Press, as well as the China Linguistics Resource (a language organisation set up by the Ministry of Education), Sina.com and the Beijing Youth Daily.

Why the word ‘control’?

Two main factors lay behind the choice of this particular word. Sina.com, in its explanation, preferred to emphasise that it was because of social unrest and the desire to counter it. This is an area where Sina can claim an interest. Last year the government got increasingly spooked by the internet and the manner in which it allows citizens to publicly air their grievances on sites like Sina. Efforts to ‘control’ the web are ongoing such as recent moves to require people to use their real name on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging service (see WiC120).

The other factor for choosing it: the battle to ‘control’ inflation. And according to the report, the selection of kong has a neat twist: 2010’s top word was ‘rise’, or zhang 涨, reflecting growing inflationary pressures, especially in food prices.

But last year the government worked hard to control (kong) inflation and indeed now looks to be succeeding. Sounding positively Daoist, the report noted: “Where there is ‘rise’ there is ‘control’. The word control reflects the government’s hard work.”

“On the other hand, a series of ‘control this-or-that’ incidents shows that control has become a state of affairs,” the report continued, in an apparent reference to efforts to maintain political discipline. The failure last year of almost all independent candidates to get elected to local People’s Congresses is one example (see WiC126).

So what is the genesis of this powerful character, kong 控”?

It’s actually a very elusive customer.

A major, reliable source of etymology – or paleography, some prefer to say – is Li Leyi’s Tracing the Roots of Chinese Characters. It doesn’t include any reference to the term.

Richard Sears’ excellent online resource Chineseetymology.org explains merely that the left half of the character “手” (shown in the accompanying graphic) is the signifier meaning ‘a hand that is understood to be drawing a bow’. The meaning is pretty clear – control by force. That the hand draws back on the bow does work as a sign of control.

The right part of the character is a phonetic, and means empty.


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