Reverse Words 颠倒词

This post is adapted from Zhou Jian's 'Diandaoci' in Zicizhongde quwei (Humorous Chinese Character and Terms), Beijing: Xinshijie chubanshe, 1999:185-186.

I will occasionally be posting articles on topics related to Chinese lexicology, a subject I'm passionate about and which should be a staple part of any Chinese language course for foreigners at the immediate and advanced levels.

Diāndăocí (reverse words) form new words like God>dog, outlook>lookout in English:

人生 rénshēng (life)
生人 shēngrén (stranger)
人工 réngōng (man-made)
工人 gōngrén (worker)
故事 gùshì (story)
事故 shìgù (accident)

Some of these are palindromes, words reads the same in both directions such as 要紧; 紧要 yàojĭn; jĭnyào (important, essential, crucial).

Diāndaocí are also found in four character expressions (chéngyŭ 成语):

不自力量; 自不量力 búzìlìliàng; zìbúlìliàng ('beyond one’s ability')
心甘情愿; 甘心情愿 xingān qíngyuàn; gānxīnqíngyuàn ('be willing to')
天翻地覆; 翻天覆地 tiānfāndìfù; fāntiān fùdì ('social and political turmoil'; 'a topsy-turvy world').

Diāndàocí are often used to obtain a strong contrasting result. A customer, for example, may take to task the coarse and rude manner of a shop assistant:

说话要客气 而不要气客
Shuōhuà yào kèqì ér bú yào qì kè.
You have to be polite [to customers] and not upset them.

There is also what we might call pseudo-anagrams. In the following example, there are three stages or degrees of spiciness:

四川人不怕辣 Sìchuānrén bú pà là
湖北人辣不怕 Húběirén là bú pà
湖南人怕不辣 Húnánrén pà bú là.

People from Sichuan are not afraid to eat spicy food
Spicy food does not bother those from Hubei
But those from Hunan fear that their [food] is not spicy enough.

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