Saturday, November 10, 2012

A common Chinese term having positive and negative connotations in different contexts

好看 (hǎo kàn) is a Chinese term whose meanings are typically learned by students of the Chinese language in the following order:

(1) good-looking; nice to look at (although in my experience, when describing people it is more common to use different Chinese terms, e.g., 漂亮 [piàoliàng] or 帥 [shuài])

(2) interesting/entertaining to read or watch, as in books and movies (of these three meanings, I feel that I hear 好看 used this way most often)

and the third meaning, which, unlike the previous two, has a negative connotation:

(3) embarrassed; (to) look bad

I learned the 3rd meaning from (Taiwanese) woman A many years ago. She related to me that woman B had done something unpleasant to her, and woman A intended to "讓他好看" (ràng tā hǎo kàn; make her [woman B] look bad).

That phrase (or, more precisely, the sound of it) came to mind recently when, at a salad bar, I saw blueberries had been placed in the hollowed-out open shells of yellow and orange sweet peppers. (Taiwanese) Woman C asked if the combination was meant to be eaten that way, or if they were just that way to "讓它好看" (ràng tā hǎo kàn; make it [the whole arrangement] look good). It was surprising to hear how switching the object from a person (他) to a thing (它) changed the meaning of 好看 from a negative to a positive one in an audibly identical phrase.

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