Daily Archives: December 9, 2013

xing

Every so often I will see a sign on a street, PEDESTRIAN XING or STOP PEDESTRIAN XING. To me, these seem like names of communist plays from China: the first one about a man who walks everywhere talking about the virtues of the collective, and the second one where he goes renegade and must be stopped. Of course this only makes sense if you know that xing is not only a Chinese word but also a Chinese surname.

OK, no, actually, it’s several Chinese (specifically Mandarin) words, including a surname. Actually, in total, including all four tones, there are 75 characters that can be said as xing (the x is pronounced like something between “s” and “sh,” so the sound of this word is like that of a sword being unsheathed). Many of them are uncommon and used only in combinations. But you’ll really like what the most common of them is: 行, pronounced with rising tone: xíng. It means ‘walk, go, move, OK’ – the ‘OK’ being in the same vein as French ça va, ‘it goes’. A pedestrian, in Chinese, is xíngrén; since rén means ‘person’ or ‘man’, xíngrén 行人 is translatable as ‘walkman’ (and doesn’t 行人 somehow look like someone walking past a crossing guard or gate?).

But even if the pedestrian is named Xíng – since the Chinese for ‘be named’ is xìng 姓, we would say xíngrén xìng Xíng – it doesn’t quite mean it’s like calling him Walker, because the Xíng that’s a name is a different character, 邢.

Also among the different words in different tones that are xing are ones for ‘prosper’, ‘star’, ‘shape’, ‘punishment’, ‘pleasure’, ‘awaken’, ‘luck’, and ‘nature’, and a wide variety of derived senses that come from the combination of one of those with one or more other characters (for instance, xīngqī 星期 ‘week’ uses the ‘star’ one). Hardly pedestrian in its variety, I’d say!

But you won’t connect to any of that if you’re unfamiliar with Chinese – indeed, you won’t even think of it as being said like “shing” unless you know some other language that uses x for a “sh” sound, such as Portuguese, which gives us such words as Xingu, the name of a river in Brazil (probably not so named from someone saying “River, I am crossing you!”).

No, if you’re an Anglophone, you’ll probably go with the usual sound we make when we see x at the beginning of a word: “z.” So xing would be pronounced “zing.” And PEDESTRIAN XING could be a place where you zing pedestrians. Or something else – Mercedes Durham, @drswissmiss, Tweeted, “as a child I thought xing was the word for where animals crossed road (pronounced ‘zing’).”

Or it could be pronounced “exing,” as in “exing something out” – also spelled x-ing. Because, really, x is first of all an X; it’s crossed lines, but when we talk of a cross it’s usually more like a plus sign, +. But PEDESTRIAN +ING? No, that would be confusing, wouldn’t it. On the other hand, xing looks like it could be read “multiplying” – and that would be a whole other thing.