Wordcatcher Tales: 難得糊塗

I just came across a handwritten four-character Chinese phrase on a souvenir magnetic bookmark from Taiwan that leaves me uncertain about its meaning, despite many attempts to parse it.

The first character of what turned out to be 難得 (simplified 难得) nándé ‘rare(ly)’ was written with the more complicated (11-stroke) bird radical 鳥 (called tori in Japanese) on its right, rather than the simpler (9-stroke) 隹 (called furutori ‘old bird’ in Japanese). I searched and searched both the common and rare (難得!) sections of the Rikai Unicode Kanji Tables but couldn’t find a copy to cut and paste into this post. The two ‘bird’ shapes can be combined into one character (in either order, 鵻 or 䳡), but both kanji appear to be obsolete. (According to my old Canon Wordtank Kanjigen, the kanji 鵻, pronounced sui in Sino-Japanese, once named a kind of squab with a short tail.)

The second pair of characters, 糊塗 (simplified 胡涂) hútu, means ‘muddled, confused, bewildered’ or ‘stupid, foolish’ as an adjective in Chinese. But the Japanese verb 糊塗する koto suru means ‘gloss over, patch up’, literally ‘coat with glue’, from 糊 nori ‘starch, paste’ (with the ‘rice’ radical 米) and 塗 nuru ‘paint, daub’ (as in 塗物 nurimono ‘lacquerware’ or 塗工 tokou ‘painter, plasterer’).

So, the four characters on the bookmark probably intend to praise the astute reader as ‘rarely bewildered’, but they could also suggest that the reader is ‘rarely plastered’, is ‘rarely pasty’, or even perhaps ‘rarely [reads] glossy [magazines]’.

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Filed under China, education, Japan, language

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