In my recent post about Mahjong, one thing I didn’t mention – and I think it’s a good story – is the change in meaning of the three suits in Mahjong.
As well as the ‘honour tiles’ of Winds and Dragons, there are three suits that are more like what you’d see in a standard card deck. Numbered 1 – 9 they each have a symbol that denotes the suit and in Mahjong these are called Circles, Bamboo and Characters.
The interesting thing is that all three relate specifically to money, but if you only know them by their common names, you’d never guess this.
- The circles are based on traditional copper coins (round with a square hole in the middle).
- The bamboo aren’t bamboo at all, but ropes on which coins used to be strung in groups of 100 – they just look a lot like bamboo.
- The characters suit has the character ‘wan’ on each tile which refers to 10,000 coins, (100 of the strings described above).
Isn’t this a great story of how meanings can be blurred or lost? And an interesting example of how visual representations of concepts and ‘slang’ names contribute to muddy the waters and obscure or change meaning.
Then you get other, more prosaic, things like the one-bamboo is actually represented by a bird. This always mystified me, but apparently the bird was used to stop the unscrupulous from altering the one-tile look like other tiles in the suit.
Some of my favourite books play with the idea that lost / altered meanings of objects and words. I think they can make fantastic world-building detail too – though you never want to over do it.