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The origin of Chinese word “倒霉”

bad situations in chinese, bad luck, chinese words, learning chinese

In Chinese, "倒霉(dǎo méi)" refers to bad situations, especially those concerning with one's health, destiny or future. It is often used by people to relieve feelings after distress.

倒霉,指不良状况,尤指关于健康、命运或前途的坏状况,常被人们用于因痛苦而进行的发泄。

 

However, in ancient China, "倒霉(dǎo méi)" was not written in this way, and the meaning was different as well.

不过,在中国古代,"倒霉"这个词儿可不是这样写,也不是这个意思哦。

 

The story behind it can be traced back to China's "科举考试(kē jǔ kǎo shì, imperial exam) in the Ming Dynasty. At that time, it was rather difficult to pass the examination because the "八股取士(bā gǔ qǔ shì, eight-part essay examination) badly restricted intellectuals' full plethora of knowledge, and many of them tended to cheat on the exam. Therefore, the candidate for the imperial exam would usually erect a flagpole which was called "楣(méi, lintel over the door)" in front of the door before taking the exam. The candidate would also hang a flag with the Chinese character "捷(jié, triumph or victory)" on the flag for good luck.

这就得先从科举考试说起了。当时明朝的"八股取士"严重地限制了读书人的才智发挥,加之考场舞弊之风甚盛,所以中举是极其不易的。因此,举子们在临考之前一般都要在家门前竖起一根旗杆,称之为"楣"。杆上高悬大旗,上书一个"捷"字,装点门楣,以图吉利。

 

If the candidate passed the exam, the pole would still be standing, and another yellow pole with a yellow flag would be set up openly displayed. If the candidate failed, the pole would be put down, and that was called "倒楣(dǎo méi)", literally meaning falling lintel.

如果京试高中,那旗杆照竖不误外,还要另竖黄杆,升黄旗,高调得很。反之,名落孙山之家只好乖乖地把原来门前的旗杆放倒,这就是"倒楣"了。

 

But why does the original word "倒楣(dǎo méi)" become "倒霉(dǎo méi)"? The single character "楣" originally refers to the lintel over a door while it stands for "pole" in the phrase "倒楣(dǎo méi)". Then "倒楣(dǎo méi)" gradually developed into the dialect of Taizhou, Zhejiang, indicating disadvantage or bad luck. 

那好端端的"倒楣"怎么会变成"倒霉"了呢?楣本来是指门上的横木,此处表示的是高杆。"倒楣"一词后来就演变成了浙江省台州市的方言,用来指遇事不利或运气不好。

 

The weather is always humid and rainy across Yangtze river regions. During rainy season, the dry and salty preserved food can easily get moldy (霉变-méi biàn/发霉-fā méi). This food would be thrown away, which is called "倒霉(dǎo méi)" in Chinese. As "楣(méi)" and "霉(méi)" are pronounced exactly the same, and "霉(méi)" also indicates bad luck. In this way, "倒楣(dǎo méi)" gradually developed into "倒霉(dǎo méi)".

而江南地区多雨潮湿,要是遇上个黄梅雨的天气,那储存的干咸食品就更容易发生霉变,只能倒掉,所以也叫"倒霉"。恰好"楣"与"霉"同音,且"霉"字亦有坏运气的意思,因此"倒楣"就慢慢地变成了"倒霉"。

2016-06-22

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