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What does "Meaning" Mean?

Ivy is proud of the fact that his Chinese has improved by leaps and bounds since he first came to China. He has a drink with Xiao Lin and her friend Da Li; but he becomes frustrated with their conversation because he couldn't get in a word edgeways. Afterwards, Xiao Lin explains that the conversation is a classic joke used to confuse foreigners.

tīng shuō xiǎo wáng zhǎng gōng zī le ,dàn wǒ de gōng zī méi zhǎng tài méi yì sī le 
Da Li:听说小王涨工资了,但我的工资没涨,太没意思了。
            I heard that Xiao Wang's salary has gone up, but mine hasn't. It’s so frustrating.


        nà nǐ men lǎo bǎn shí me yì sī ā yào bú nǐ gěi tā yì sī yì sī 
Xiao Lin:那你们老板什么意思啊?要不你给他意思意思?
                What’s the meaning behind your boss’s actions? 
                How about giving him something to help move things along?


     nà wǒ duō bú hǎo yì sī ā
Da Li:那我多不好意思啊
            It would make me feel embarrassed.


        bú hǎo yì sī wǒ suí biàn shuō shuō
Xiao Lin:不好意思,我随便说说。
               Sorry, it was just a casual remark.

In Chinese, a word may have different meanings according to the context, and "意思"( yì sī) is one of the most difficult and widely used words for which this is the case. It carries the basic definition of “meaning”, but only when you totally comprehend all the usages can you comprehend the above conversation. 

[yì sī] 意思:meaning/idea/opinion/wish/hint
[méi yì sī] 没意思:boring/ not interesting, implying feelings of listlessness and discontent.
[yǒu yì sī] 有意思:interesting/ridiculous 
[xiǎo yì sī] 小意思:small gift or small token of ones regards/ mere trifle
[bú hǎo yì sī] 不好意思:shy/embarrassed/sorry

In the dialogue, when Da Li complains that his salary hasn't risen, he thinks this is unfair and feels a little angry and disappointed, but he is unable to do anything about it. Therefore, he says "真没意思" to express his feeling of listlessness and discontent.

Xiao Lin responds normally: What’s the meaning behind your bosses actions? so "意思" here means "opinion". Xiao Lin then suggests giving the boss some gifts or money or something to help move the promotion along. "意思意思" or "小意思" in Chinese means reward.

Da Li thinks it is inappropriate or embarrassing to do such a thing, so he says "不好意思". This phrase is repeated by Xiao Lin, but the usage has changed totally. In the last sentence, it is used as a kind of informal apology for small issues, for example, if you accidentally shove someone on a crowded metro, you can say: "不好意思".

 

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