qi

A short word greatly beloved of Scrabble players – a word that can breathe new life, or at least a sigh of relief, into one’s game. How lucky we all are that the Pinyin system of transliteration was adopted in Mainland China. Before it, the Wade-Giles system was used, and the word was spelled ch’i. And before that it was the Yale system, which rendered it as k’i. So you should say it like “key”? No, actually, the closest English sound to the Pinyin q is “ch,” so the English plural of this loan word, qis, is pronounced the same as cheese.

And Scrabble isn’t the only place Anglophones can use this word to display their IQ. If you’re into natural medicine, especially (but not limited to) Chinese medicine (notably acupuncture), this is an important term. It is used to refer to life force, the flow of energy. (It’s not the same chi as in t’ai chi – that’s ji in Pinyin, a different character meaning something else.) If you have health problems, it’s because of a blockage or imbalance in your qi. Fittingly, in a serif or semi-serif font qi looks a bit like a person standing on the right massaging the head of a person on the left.

Also fittingly, this word – even more so in Mandarin than in English, because of the palatal affricate and the falling tone – sounds sternutatory: I’m sure you’ve said it many times in the act of sneezing. Why is that fitting? Just because literally qi means “breath,” “air,” “odor.” Chui yikou qi means “blow out a puff of air.” The breath is vitally important, of course; other languages and cultures have used it to designate life force: Greek pneuma and Hebrew ruah, for instance. Air is also what makes down and similar fluff so soft and warm… which is not why the fluffy underwool of the muskox is called qiviut (an Inuktitut word, and a [k]-like sound), another word you can play in Scrabble.

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