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Creative 'Linguistics' behind the latest NBA phenomenon

Lin is a common surname in the Chinese-speaking world. According to a government count in 2005, it is the second most common surname in Taiwan after Chen. It is in the U.S., however, that Lin becomes the most popular.

Of course we are talking about Jeremy Lin, the Taiwanese-American NBA former benchwarmer who rocketed to global stardom in less than a month. The Harvard-graduate New York Knicks point guard had the world media performing some rarely seen linguistic gymnastics (at least aside from tongue-in-cheek tabloid headlines): first it was “Linsanity,” then there are “Lincredible,” “Linvincible,” “Linspiration” and pretty much the addition of “L” to any word with a positive meaning that begins with “in-.” On Feb. 14, the New York Post made its contribution: “Happy VaLINtine's Day.” Jeremy Lin also added an entry of his own by pointing out that he likes the “Super Lintendo” — a pun on the video game console by Nintendo.

Back in Taiwan, the media are also having a good time pulling off wordsmith stunts of their own, mostly by working on Lin's Chinese name Lin Shu-hao (林書豪).

To begin with, Lin's given name is an apt description of Lin's current show of strength. With “shu” meaning books or writing and “hao” leader or heroic person in Chinese, the name fits Lin's characteristics as a leader in the Knicks' recent winning form with an Ivy League education.

The Taiwanese puns start with a subtle translation of “Linsanity” by using the close homonym of Lin (林, wood): the English pun becomes “Lin Lai Feng” (林來瘋), with Lin substituting the close sounding “Ren” (人, people) from the Taiwanese idiom “人來瘋” (the three characters literally mean people, come and insane, respectively). The turn of phase originally refers to people who become excited or showy in front of others. Here it pretty much means what Linsanity means.

For local media, however, the character “hao” is a better source for puns because it happens to be the homonym of the Chinese word for “good” or “very” (好) in Mandarin. The Taiwanese press gave the world “Hao Xiao Zi” (豪小子, the great kid), “Hao Shen” (豪神, very amazing), “Hao Wei” (豪威, very mighty), and “Hao Bang Yang” (豪榜樣, good example). The track is actually quite straight forward, just add the term good or very (both Hao in Chinese) to any praise that fits the moment.

If there is an award for best pun, it should go to “Ling Shu Hao” (零輸豪), a term comprising ingenious puns on the first two characters in Lin's Chinese name: the surname becomes “Ling,” meaning zero and “Shu” has it meanings transferred from its original books (書) to lose (輸). Combined it refers to Lin as the “zero lose Hao,” which was a fitting description of his leading of the Knicks to seven straight wins a few days earlier.

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