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Visit any Chinese website and you are likely to find what are known as ‘online idioms’ (网络成语). Just the same as most traditional spoken Chinese idioms, these new phrases also consist of four characters. But unlike the traditional ones, online idioms do not use analogy or metaphor – they are a form of abbreviation, and generally shorten a long sentence into just four words.
Have you ever experienced an incident which didn’t seem abnormal at the time, but was actually quite creepy when you recalled the whole event afterwards? 细思恐极 is another ‘online idiom’ using abbreviation. The first character means ‘carefully’ or ‘thoroughly’ in this context. The other three words have more or less the same meanings as in the dictionary, which are ‘think’, ‘scary’ and ‘extremely’ respectively.
This is perhaps the most interesting one because it is commonly used in social media comments. Apart from the very first character, which is the adjective ‘hot’ or ‘popular’, the following three characters are homonyms. The second word sounds the same as the Chinese word ‘before’. The last two characters are the homonyms for ‘leaving names’, which is to sign. When you see a Facebook post or an Instagram photo that you think it will be a popularly discussed one in the foreseeable future, you can leave the comment ‘火钳刘明’ to show that you had already paid attention to it way before the topic became a hot issue.
These are just a few examples of the many newly-created online idioms. Although they are just for informal use, it becomes much easier to communicate in Chinese through the internet if you know how to use them. This would definitely help you enjoy yourself whilst learning this complex language, and most importantly, you will no longer find yourself thinking “不明觉厉”!
by Stephanie Chung 鍾斯婷
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham