Political correctness is a many-splendored thing. After taking charge in 1949 the communist rulers of China started simplifying and "reforming" the language. Instead of the classic and arguably-sexist Chinese words for wife and husband, a new genderless term was promoted: airen (or ai ren), built from the characters for love + person and taken to signify spouse.

Airen came to mind again recently when one of my favorite words arose in correspondence with a friend. That word is "celibate". It bears sparkling and quasi-archaic associations with holy orders, musty monasticism, cowled figures, and massive mossy stone walls. (No jokes, please, about how the best way to achieve celibacy is to marry!) A quick peek in an old out-of-copyright dictionary found, for "celibate", the Latin sources "cælibatus, fr. cælebs, unmarried, single" --- plus fortuitous entries above and below it: celiac (or cœlliac) = "relating to the abdomen, or to the cavity of the abdomen", and celidography = "description of apparent spots on the disk of the sun, or on planets". Neat terms, eh?!

But let's get back to airen, which I innocently learned ca. 1975 during my initial self-study of Chinese. I was exploring the language via some cheap Beijing Central Radio Station tapes and books that I had snagged at a store in Los Angeles' Chinatown area. A year or two later I took some evening Chinese classes at Pasadena City College, a few blocks from Caltech where I was a grad student. (I signed up at PCC in hopes of meeting some interesting women ... but fortunately or unfortunately had no such luck!) The teacher told me gently that "airen" grates on the ear of a non-mainland-Chinese person, or for that matter almost any native speaker from an older generation. To them, the word denotes "sweetheart", "mistress", or "lover" ... and brings with it a blush.

In fact, by the 1980's the linguistic tide had already begun to recede. Now "airen" is largely back to its former meaning, in the People's Republic as well as elsewhere. I happened to have learned it at precisely the wrong moment. Oops!

(see also CollegeCollage3 (29 Sep 2001), ... )

TopicLanguage - TopicPersonalHistory - Datetag20040302

(correlates: EaseOfUse, RepoMan, BillBurke, ...)