Secret numbers

During a trip to the Sanlian bookstore yesterday I discovered a shelf of language pamphlets published by Language and Literature Press (语言出版社). The series sort of resembles those “Very Short Introductions” as limited to the language arts field, and although the writing in the two that I picked up wasn’t particularly engaging, at 3 yuan or so per volume you can’t really go wrong.

The series includes titles by Ji Xianlin and Zhou Youguang; I picked up Numerals in Chinese (汉语的数目字) by Su Jinzhi (苏金智), of whom I know nothing except that one previous publication was a critique of Y.R. Chao’s scholarly work.

Here’s an interesting bit:



Numerals in coded argot frequently use character substitutions that take the form of written transformations. In commercial transactions, people often use a separate set of numerals in the pursuit of profit. A popular code for numerals in the Ming and Qing era jade sector ran 旦 (dàn), 竺 (zhú), 清 (qīng), 罢 (bà), 语 (yǔ), 交 (jiāo), 皂 (zào), 未 (wèi), 丸 (wán), 章 (zhāng), where each of the ten digits is hidden within a written character of the code. A coded argot once used in Suzhou employed the same technique, except that the result of the written transformation was stated explicitly: one was “the bottom of 旦”, two was “工 dug out,” three was “horizontal 川,” four was “目 on its side,” five was “incomplete 丑,” six was “broken 大,” seven was “the bottom of 皂,” eight was “the top of 公,” nine was “unfinished” [完 and 丸 are homophones, and an unfinished 丸 is 九], and ten was “the heart of 田.”

Gangsters frequently used their own set of numerals in their internal activities.

The book does not provide any examples of underworld usage.

I think I prefer the jade numerals as opposed to the hand-holding Suzhou system. Baidu Baike’s entry on 隐语, provides a slightly different version: 旦底、断工、横川、倒目、扭丑、交头、皂尾、分头、未丸. Ten is left off.

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