A useful verb they’ll never teach you: 摁

Lugging a one-year-old around with you is useful for language learning in any number of ways.  One of them is that people will verbalize things to a child that they wouldn’t otherwise bother to say out loud.  Not only that, but they’ll often repeat a word several times, using a short, simple phrase.  Thus it was that I learned the verb 摁 (èn) ‘to press’.

I have yet to come across this word in a textbook, and I can understand why.  After all, people don’t typically sit around talking about pressing things.  News articles aren’t written about the topic.  You don’t walk down the street and overhear someone saying “I pressed a really cool button the other day.”  No one updates their social media of choice with “Just pressed the button in the elevator.”  (Actually, they probably do.  This is why I don’t use Twitter.)

Just how uncommon is this word?  According to handy character frequency lists compiled by someone named Jun Da, it ranks number 4705 in general texts, showing up 249 times.  Other characters with the same frequency include 苁 “Boschniakia glabra” (whatever that might be), 铤 “ingot, big arrow, to walk fast”, and 涔 “overflow, rainwater, tearful”.  I don’t know how many characters were in the corpus he used, but for comparison, some higher ranked characters with their frequencies:

1 (的)- 7922684
10 (他)- 1595761
100 (实)- 368494
500 (列)-    82418
1000 (顶)- 31318
2000 (泡)-    7046
3000 (忖)-    1890
4000 (坂)-    576

Incidentally, the last one isn’t given a definition in Da’s list.  My own little pop-up dictionary defines it as a Japanese or non-standard version of another character.  And this character _still_ shows up almost twice as often as our poor little 摁. In what he terms informative texts, it fares even worse, ranking only #5907. It doesn’t make the HSK list. No wonder it’s not in my textbook.

My guess, though, is that it ranks much higher in actual spoken Chinese–just not in the type of spoken Chinese that anyone is likely to be able to collect for a corpus study.  Since I learned this word about a month ago, I’ve heard it in some number of situations:

-Press the button (in an elevator)
-Which button should I press? (on a cell phone, to take a picture)
-Do not press this button (on a remote control–the big red one that looks like it should be a power button.  I still don’t know what that button does, but I won’t press it.)
-Press the clasp to open it (on a necklace)

See?  Useful!  So … anyone want to borrow a one-year-old?


6 Responses to “A useful verb they’ll never teach you: 摁”

  1. 1 Syz July 22, 2010 at 8:02 am

    Nice example of the Great Divide between written and spoken Mandarin.

    I’ve relied a lot on Jun Da’s corpus just because it’s the most convenient thing out there, but it is seriously biased towards what you find in (I think mainland) Chinese newspapers. Relying on memory for another example, I believe that the 展 in 发展 (development, as in, usually, “economic development”) ranks ridiculously high.

    What this Mandarin-learning party really needs is a whole slew of spoken language corpuses (sic). I’m pretty sure various folks are working on these and I have some leads I’ve been meaning to look into. Maybe you’ll inspire me to dig them up and see if there’s anything there.

    • 2 Katie Tang July 26, 2010 at 8:33 pm

      I think it must be mainland Chinese since it’s simplified characters?

      Yes, please, if you can find a spoken corpus, I would love to see it. I did a bit of searching and only came up with other people looking for the same thing. Although my guess is that it will still come out pretty low. They’re often created by recording phone conversations, and unless you count automated greetings as conversations, I’m thinking ‘press’ isn’t the type of verb you’d use much over the phone.

      (Note my handy avoidance of the plural of corpus. Since we speak English and not Latin, I’m all for corpuses instead of corpora, except that I’m getting weird interference from porpoises and now I just can’t do it.)

  2. 3 Syz July 26, 2010 at 9:05 pm

    Porpoises! I almost lost a mouthful of toothpaste.

  3. 4 André August 2, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    I always thought that the word for pressing was 按, as in 按钮(push a button / push-button). I would guess you would get a much higher frequency on 按, both in written and spoken Mandarin, than 摁.

    • 5 Katie Tang August 2, 2010 at 9:40 pm

      Interesting. I didn’t previously know 按. You’re right, it’s much more frequent in written Mandarin, way up at #573 and hanging out with all sorts of characters I actually recognize. I wonder how much of this is due to its use in the sense of pushing buttons and how much is the result of its having other meanings. A quick survey of the closest Chinese speaker got different results depending on what you’re pressing: you 按 a key on the keyboard but 摁 a button on a camera or in the elevator. Now that I actually know (of) both, I’ll have to start paying more careful attention.

  4. 6 Syz August 2, 2010 at 9:08 pm

    Andre: For spoken frequency in Beijing, I doubt that àn would come anywhere close to beating èn.

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