The Last Days of Old Beijing, wrote a fun short piece in the New York Times on the character for the word zhang, which was voted "Character of the year 2010" by Chinese netizens. Meyer defined the word as "rapid price increase", and my immediate reaction was: Another word I don't really know!
So I went through the familiar motions of trying to sort out all the steps of learning a new word in Mandarin.
This is no simple task, compared to my days of learning French, where all you had to do was go to the Larousse French-English Dictionary and look it up. Oh no, it's much more complicated in Chinese.
First I dug into my favorite dictionary, Tuttle Learner's Chinese-English Dictionary. Since there was no tone mark in the NYT version of zhang, I had to search through all the entries for zhang, which included zhang with high tone, falling-rising tone, and falling tone.
I knew the first zhāng, which was the measure word for flat things, like a piece of paper or a bed. And of course I recognized Zhāng as a common family name; I knew lots of Zhāngs! I also recognized zhǎng as a verb meaning "to become", as in "Your daughter has really become a beauty!" Another entry of zhǎng was defined as "rise, go up", which looked possible but pretty general. And zhàng as part of zhàngfu, which is one of the words for husband.
Since I didn't see anything that came close to the quite specific "rapid price increase", I headed for one of my favorite websites, Chinese-tools.com, which has lots of ways to explore Chinese words. I tried keying in "zhang", but got so many results that I got lost and confused. I tried English "price rise" and "price increase" and everything else that came close, but kept getting "sorry, no matching entries....". Keying in "inflation" returned a long 4-character phrase.
Next I tried my more sophisticated Reading and Writing Chinese, by William McNaughton, for looking up great explanations of characters. There were lots of entries, and sifting through them all, I found one that looked promising. Zhǎng, with a falling-rising tone, meaning "rise, a river; a price". It was illustrated by the character above, as was an entry of zhàng with a falling tone, meaning "to swell, to rise".
I usually find it helpful to cross-check resources, especially with such confusing words, so I headed to Google and keyed in "China 2010 character of year zhang". Almost bingo! I found some articles from Chinese press that defined the word as "price rises", "inflation" and "rapid price rise". This got me closer to a real grip on the word, but no confirmation of tone marking. Then I clicked on "images" in the Google results and multiple images of the character pictured above, and bonus information that 2993 netizens had cast their vote for it as the 2010 character of the year.
Finally, seeing the character and definition together, being able to look up the different parts of the character and starting some dictionary searches over again, and a pretty good idea of the tone marker, I felt I was getting some traction with this word.
Mostly, this has been a reminder of what an arduous and humbling exercise it becomes to learn new words in Chinese, particularly when you're out of the country and getting little real-life context for the word at hand.
(character found at http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2010/12/20/and-the-chinese-character-of-the-year-goes-to)