Saturday, May 26, 2007

每 (měi: “every, each”)

每 is one of those characters I see everywhere and had, until ten minutes ago, no idea what it meant. It also turns out that I knew the word 每 as a compound with days of the week: e.g. 每星期三 (měixīngqīsān: “every Wednesday”), but never knew how to write it.

My dictionary (a bright yellow Langenscheidt’s Pocket) is unhelpful about this character. I think the radical is 人 (rén: “person”), but I don’t seen an overhead configuration for 人 in the radical index. The sound-part is 母 (mǔ: “motherly”), which I knew already from other contexts but which is also not in the radical index.

This is one of the hardest things about learning Chinese: you can’t learn just a little. Chinese is very contextual: the meaning of a sound like mei will vary dramatically by context, as does a series of shapes like 人 and 母. It takes a long time to gain some traction in that context. If I were translating a Chinese text and encountered 每 for the first time, and didn’t already know it meant “every,” Langenscheidt wouldn’t be able to help me either, and I’d languish in ignorance. Only by using Google can I turn 每 into “daily,” and then use Langenscheidt to find měi in reverse.

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