This place matters

This place matters

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A word I never knew I never knew

Morgan Freeman's character in Shawshank Redemption was a cumshaw artist. On M*A*S*H, Radar O'Reilly was a cumshaw dude. I used to work with a guy who had spent a lot of time in and out of mental hospitals who was the cumshaw dude.
A cumshaw is a person who tracks down and obtains stuff through unofficial channels. We think it was first used by people in the British Navy in the 1800s. When British ships began visiting China's shores, they'd often hear beggars use the word kam sia, a dialectical word for grateful thanks. British soldiers took the word to mean handout, and they used it to refer to anything begged, borrowed, or stolen, if you will.
I think the word's neat because I'm always surprised to find English words of Chinese origin. Chinese is so intricate and cryptic (to a non-speaker's ears) that it seems hard to believe anyone could ever pick up any Chinese words at all. 
Part of the reason, I've learned, that it's so hard to pick up Mandarin, and I assume this is true in most of the other languages and dialects spoken in China, is that there are relatively few unique syllables in Chinese, so that some words have dozens of different meanings when pronounced phonetically, but the tone, inflection, pitch, volume of a word differentiates it from the other words that are phonetically the same. So chances are that there are tons of words phonetically pronounced kam sia that might totally sound the same to Western ears.
How funny is it that phonetically isn't pronounced phonetically?
Random M*A*S*H trivia for the day: Gary Burghoff, who played Radar O'Reilly, was missing several fingers on his left hand, which is why he's so often seen holding a clipboard, a stack of papers, or his teddy bear. I was just thinking it's a little weird that they chose to hide the fact that he's missing fingers, but actually, I do find that when I notice somebody with a finger stump, I get really distracted by it. Which is odd - I've spent a lot of time around people with disabilities. And it's just fingers. If somebody's missing a limb or rocking a wheelchair, I barely notice.

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