Best of the buzzwords

What were the top 10 most used words of 2013?


Smog: one of the words of the year

2013 threw up a series of major events in Chinese political life. Xi Jinping took up position as head of state, completing a once-in-a-decade leadership transition; the former Party chief of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, made a defiant stand in the dock before being sentenced to life in jail; and weeks before the year drew to a close, the Communist Party agreed to push though a raft of economic and social reforms that include a partial relaxation of the decades-old one-child policy.

But were these really the events that were shaping peoples’ everyday lives?

One way of answering is to take a look at the “Top Ten Buzzwords” – lists of the most-used colloquial terms that are published annually by news organisations in late December. This year China Newsweek, CCTV, the linguistic periodical Word Quibbler and News Weekly all published rankings aided in their efforts by language monitoring organisations around the country.

In all four lists, the top slot was occupied by Zhongguo meng, or Chinese Dream, an expression adopted by Xi Jinping shortly after he got China’s top political job in November 2012.

The term – which is intended to convey strength and prosperity – has worked itself into thousands of speeches and gets regular mention on the nightly news schedules (for more, see WiC192).

But the slogan has also been appropriated by dissatisfied citizens wanting to demonstrate just how un-dreamlike their lives really are.

“Does the Chinese Dream include dying in a fire ball in your bed?” asked one netizen after a pipeline belonging to state oil refiner Sinopec exploded in a residential area of Qingdao with the loss of 62 lives.

The top 10 lists are less consistent in their rankings from this point onwards. But one term that made it onto them all was “tuhao” an older term that means something akin to kulak or ‘rich peasant.’ Today the term is used to describe anything or anyone deemed as ‘bling’ or vulgar (see WiC217).

Wumai, an expression for ‘smog’, appears on most lists too – an unsurprising debut given that the year started with period of air pollution so bad it was dubbed “airmageddon” (Beijing’s PM 2.5 scores were off the charts again this week, rising above 500 on Wednesday).

Pollution of another sort – noise – feature too. According to three of the lists, 2013 was the year of the dama – middle-aged or elderly women who became infamous for two separate activities. The first was their penchant for meeting up for a spot of communal ballroom dancing – usually outdoors, with a ghetto-blaster blaring. Recently, groups of dama have been involved in stand-offs with other members of the public over the volume of their dance music.

However, they first made the news last April for their other trait: a love of a bargain. That month they rushed out – literally en masse – to buy gold after a substantial drop in the price of the precious metal. Their enthusiasm was said to have contributed to a swift rebound for the commodity.

Younger women were also represented in the lists, thanks to the term nü hanzi or ‘manly women’. The phrase began to appear in the middle of the year after women in their twenties began posting photos of themselves online doing manual tasks such as unblocking u-bends, fixing taps and carrying heavy bags.

The women say they were spurred into action by the predominance of so-called ‘girly girls’ online who post pictures and comments that play up to a more stereotypical image of femininity.

Currently there are 38 million comments on Sina Weibo containing the term nü hanzi.

Two of the lists included the terms “Third Plenum” and “Second Child for an Only-Child Parent”, as well as Chang’ e III – China’s lunar module, which reached the moon in December.

But according to CCTV, the public’s chief concerns were ultimately a bit more earthly in scope.

As well as compiling a list of the year’s top 10 words, the state broadcaster also allowed people to vote for a single Chinese character that defined 2013. And in a year dominated by attempts to cool the real estate market ( as well as scandals involving people who circumvented the new rules) it came as little surprise that the character of the year was ‘house’ or fang.

As the Beijing Evening News put it: “Fang is both the truest wish of Chinese people and the eternal pain in their hearts. High prices mean that a lifetime of saving is still not enough to move house and new graduates have to become slaves to property. The selection of this word shows people’s hope for better policies to bring prices down.”

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