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There are a number of Chinese words containing the 白 character that all mean "nonsense" or "speaking nonsense":

白呼

夸白

白话

What's the significance of 白 in these words? 白 usually means "white", "clear" or "plain", so how did it become associated with nonsense? And is this related at all with the word 扯淡, which also means nonsense but originally meant 淡化 (water down)?

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  • Could it be short for 白痴?
    – 杨以轩
    Oct 3, 2013 at 2:22
  • @QuestionOverflow what does the 白 in 白痴 mean? Oct 3, 2013 at 2:45
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    白呼...is this standard mandarin? I feel it more like a regional word in north china...?
    – user58955
    Oct 3, 2013 at 3:15
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    I guess its original meaning is not "nonsense" but "uneducated". Like in 谈笑有鸿儒,往来无白丁, 白丁 is a man who has no scholarly honor or official rank in the feudal age, i.e. commonly who is uneducated. 白丁 was so-called because they usually wear white coat. And in 一穷二白, similarly, 白 means the undeveloped status of culture. So, in 白呼, "uneducated talk" => "senseless chat".
    – Stan
    Oct 3, 2013 at 3:43

2 Answers 2

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One of the meanings of 白 is, roughly "in vain":

没有成就的,没有效果的:~忙。~说

I think it's easier to imagine how white/plain become "without effect" than it is to imagine how it became "nonsense".

P.S. 白话 means "plain speech" = vernacular, as far as i know.

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  • 白话 is also slang for "empty talk" Oct 3, 2013 at 3:32
  • It is common to hear people to say 说白话, meaning say it plainly or "get to the point". Never heard of it to mean empty talk congusbongus.
    – grayQuant
    Oct 3, 2013 at 3:35
  • Anyway, without context, 白话 is ambiguous.
    – Stan
    Oct 3, 2013 at 5:16
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I don't think either of 白呼 and 夸白 is used in formal text. Both 白呼 and 夸白 are phonetic notations of colloquial dialects in some parts of China. They just function like Pinyin. 白呼 is only used by people from 华北, which I've never heard before. 夸白 is commonly used by people from 湖北, which I once used in my composition and was caught by my Chinese teacher. Such kind of phonetic notations do not mean anything in written standard Chinese. I would say they are 错别字.

I've just looked up 白 in 新华词典 to make sure that none of the meanings of 白 is related to nonsense.

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  • +1 for pointing out where 夸白 is commonly used. But are you sure they're only phonetic notations? 白 as in 白丁 can be found in 康熙字典.
    – Stan
    Oct 3, 2013 at 5:17
  • @Stan As in "往来有白丁", "白丁" is very formal Chinese, which can for sure be found in dictionaries. However, I don't think 夸白 as a phrase can be found in any formal Chinese text.
    – Terry Li
    Oct 3, 2013 at 5:27
  • Hmm, it is so-called 方言本字探寻问题 (problem of character's original form for dialects). Though dialectal words may not be found in "formal Chinese text", there're some situations that they can appear naturally. For example, in novels, essays, etc., you can write some dialectal conversations using them -- Yet this is another topic. Back to the original question, it is kind of historical research work, 白呼/夸白 can indeed originate from the meaning of 白丁. And yes, it will be tough work to prove that.
    – Stan
    Oct 3, 2013 at 5:44
  • @Stan Thanks for the wikipedia page for 本字, which is very interesting. I have a feeling that 白呼/夸白 might not originate from 白丁 since the three 白 are used as adverb, noun, and adjective respectively.
    – Terry Li
    Oct 3, 2013 at 6:06
  • I'm not sure either :D But the reason from the lexical category isn't sound, because ancient Chinese didn't classify words so clearly.
    – Stan
    Oct 3, 2013 at 6:19

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