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Let's say I encounter the word 委婉 and I want to find out what it means. When I look it up in the Cross-Straits dictionary (perhaps the largest free and professionally edited dictionary out there), I run into circular definitions.

委婉 is defined as:

婉轉含蓄。

If I didn't understand 委婉 because 婉 was causing me trouble, I will not understand 婉轉 either.

婉轉 is defined as:

形容話語委婉含蓄。

In other words, dead end. If I then move on to just check if the definitions for 婉 alone is going to help me, I get:

  1. 〈書〉和順的。
  2. 〈書〉美好的。
  3. 〈書〉委婉。

Once again, 婉 is defined in (3) by the usage of the character in the definition. I can think of three explanations for this:

  1. It's a poorly edited dictionary. This would be somewhat surprising, considering its status and how extensive it is.
  2. Chinese people are supposed to be using a character dictionary, rather than a vocabulary dictionary, in cases like this. If so, is there any logic determining when which dictionary should be used? After all, 委婉 is not a character, but a word, and I wanted to understand what that word meant.
  3. I am using the dictionary in the wrong way. For example, I am meant to make use of definitions (1) and (2) in the definitions for 婉. I doubt this is the case, but it's possible.
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4 Answers 4

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Lexicography is a well-established tradition in the West because 'words' have always been the most recognible meaningful units in Indo-european languages so linguistic efforts have always gone into compiling dictionaries to define words (as opposed to a smaller unit, like morphemes, or a bigger one, like phrases).

In Chinese, due to the nature of its writing system and the slightly more monosyllabic nature of both Middle and Old Chinese, the most recognisable units of meaning have always been what are now recognised as morphemes, not words, so most scholarly effort has always gone into compiling dictionaries to define morphemes (or of 'monosyllabic & monomorphemic words', if you will), ie character dictionaries. In this tradition, what we now call Chinese 'words' are viewed as larger units, similar to what compound nouns and phrases feel like in English.

This view has of course changed in contemporary practice, as vernacular Mandarin has completely taken over and linguistic studies have spread. But lexicography is still in its infancy (just think of how rare it is to find the etymology of a word, rather than a character). That means that, in China, little effort has gone so far into trying to advance (and compete in!) the craft of working out how to define words in the most exhaustive AND succinct way possible. Absent that goal, most Chinese lexicographers just go for succint: they offer a distant synonym, some literary examples, and stop there (the fact that such jobs tend to be culturally elitist doesn't help the cause of lexicographic transparency).

So we're left with word dictionaries where most (not all, but most) 'definitions' actually look like they belong in a thesaurus and/or in a quotation dictionary instead - which incidentally may be less commonly used than dictionaries for the same reasons. This situation may change but it will take time: vernacular Chinese has only been in written use for a century or so, native knowledge of words and word boundaries has probably been around for less than that, and it usually takes a couple of decades to 'write' a definition-based dictionary. And this is a job only natives can do. So we shall have to wait for them to keep working at it. Hopefully, current dictionary definitions will in time be expanded and unpacked for the benefit of future generations.

In the meantime, what you're doing is not wrong: cross-referencing multiple word and character dictionaries, as well as sleuthing for examples and translations in different languages, should tell you all you need to know in most cases. And for the rest, there's online forums.

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  • I was just about writing a reply to @EEQ stating that my knowledge of Japanese is much lower than my knowledge of Chinese, but I still encounter circular definitions in Japanese dictionaries much less frequently. Since Japanese is made up from both Chinese loanwords and a vocabulary structure that is more reminiscent of European languages, your answer would explain why that is the case.
    – timseb
    Aug 10 at 9:21
  • Yes, I agree. Circular definitions are a bug, not a feature. A word dictionary is not supposed to be a literary thesaurus - they're different things.
    – Sanchuan
    Aug 10 at 11:48
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Intralingual dictionaries will have some level of circular definition, that's just inevitable. But to be fair, I'm not surprised if there's a lack of high quality Chinese dictionaries. In this particular case, I do think that:

  1. The dictionary is not targeted at non native speakers, it assumes too much knowledge. 委婉 definitely can be broken down into simpler words and explained further.

  2. We do use vocabulary dictionaries. The dictionary (at least the one I uesd) would first define 委,then list and define all the words that start with 委.

  3. You could look up 含蓄, which might help you. But more importantly, I don't think you should limit yourself to "dictionaries".

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If the purpose is to understand the word from the perspective of an English speaker, I would say Wiktionary is a better option which gives you synonyms, definitions, examples, and pronunciation (plus in many dialects).

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  • I am not sure wiktionary (at least for chinese) is a good resource to rely on at this stage. For example, for 委婉(zh.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E5%A7%94%E5%A9%89)wiktionary does not even give an explanation. It does give multiple pronunciations, but for beginners they could sometimes be more confusing than helping (e.g. wēiwǎn is probably even considered wrong by putonghua/standard madarin). It may help sometimes, but I doubt it could be used as a primary tool for day-to-day use.
    – ALife
    Aug 16 at 13:10
  • @ALife Apparently, the "en." one is better, even for Chinese language: en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E5%A7%94%E5%A9%89
    – MMZK1526
    Aug 16 at 13:16
  • Yes, indeed, both in the sense of pronunciation, and more importantly, the explanation. Sorry I missed that; you did emphasize it's for English speakers and certainly that implies the English version for Chinese.
    – ALife
    Aug 16 at 13:20
  • Note that while I understand English, I'm not a native English speaker. Learning to navigate a C-C dictionary would be more useful than getting definitions without context in my second language. Having read several Chinese novels and knowing about 4000 characters and god knows how many words, learning to rely on C-C dictionaries seems reasonable. I rarely open an English-Swedish dictionary, but rather jump straight to a E-E one.
    – timseb
    Aug 16 at 16:51
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I think another (better) dictionary would help.

For example, I looked up 现代汉语词典 and found the following definitions:

委婉:(言辞、声音等)婉转

婉转:1. (说话)温和而曲折(但是不失本意)2.(歌声、鸟鸣声等)抑扬动听

which look fairly accurate to me as a native speaker. The words used to explain (温和,曲折,抑扬,动听)also look more basic to me; if these words look difficult to you, you may further look them up. I assume the explanation of these words won't refer back to 委婉/婉转.


Edit: After reading again the dictionary referred to by the OP's post, I noticed the example it gives: "「有什麼話委婉說出即可,何必大聲嚷嚷」" This seems not very appropriate since 委婉 is not quite the opposite of 大聲嚷嚷, which the example somehow implies. However, as in the explanation given above (which I agree), 委婉 means both 温和 and 曲折; only 温和 is roughly the opposite of 大聲嚷嚷 while 曲折 is pretty much independent of 大聲嚷嚷 or not. This further confirms my comments at the beginning: you may want to try a better dictionary.

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  • It's funny you should say that, because the first draft of this question actually included a mention of 现代汉语词典 because I too find it to be the most accessible C-C dictionary out there. My only caveat with it has been that it sometimes oversimplifies it's definitions. For example, 呷 being defined simply as 喝.
    – timseb
    Aug 16 at 16:46
  • well, that's a separate question, right? For the question you asked as it is, are you happy with the definition 现代汉语词典 gives you (as I quoted above)? Do still consider the definitions there "looped" (or in your words "dead end") ----- I am sorry I was not able to know what your draft was...
    – ALife
    Aug 16 at 18:05
  • Also reading your post again: "It's a poorly edited dictionary. This would be somewhat surprising, considering its status and how extensive it is." From my experience, being "extensive" does not necessarily mean good, sometimes could be opposite. Relatively famous examples are some/all the dictionaries edited by 王同亿 -- correct me if I am wrong -- that's from quite a few years and my memory could have lied.
    – ALife
    Aug 16 at 18:14
  • When I said 王同亿 dictionaries above, I meant they are very extensive but of quite poor quality. I also searched the web and found a couple of references: xys.org/xys/ebooks/others/science/dajia/wenshi/wangtongyi3.txt and huayuqiao.org/articles/wanghuidi/wangxcjs41.htm Hope they help.
    – ALife
    Aug 16 at 18:25
  • "It's funny you should say that" does not imply you did something wrong. It's an idiomatic expression pointing out a coincidence of some kind. I'm sorry if you took it as critique. The Cross-Straits dictionary is a famous dictionary that was released with quite a lot of press. With state backing as well, as far as I know. Similar problems exist in other dictionaries, like the Guifan and the MoE. I'm happy with this specific definition in 现代汉语词典, but my question was not regarding the meaning of 委婉, which I already knew before starting this thread. I merely used it as an illustrative example.
    – timseb
    Aug 16 at 21:58

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