Chinese language: the imagery in slangs


I have been thinking about the fascinating gaps in meaning for English-Chinese translations and vice versa. Meanings hidden, those creeping up your side unawares and words  paradoxical.

Some of these slangs or catch-phrases commonly used in Cantonese are highly telling, and a plain translation of its meaning is almost impossible. Yet the mere attempt of it trawls up highly creative and in some cases cryptic imageries.

Here is a selected sample and attempts to give a simplified picture of their hidden meanings.

‘Jib Mai’ – (literal translation:  folded-up / real meaning: antisocial behaviors or attitude; reclusive)

‘Sai’ – (literal translation: sun-dried or sun-dry/ real meaning: show off)

‘Gwai’ – (literal translation: ghost / real meaning: sometimes it refers to a ghost, sometimes a foreigner – you have to check the context!)

‘Ju Par’ – (literal translation: pork chop / real meaning: sometimes it refers to the pork chop that you can eat, sometimes it refers to an ugly and chubby girl / more commonly used by a guy.)

‘Qim’ – (literal translation: submarine, or to duck under the water / real meaning: antisocial behavior or attitude; reclusive; non-communicative)

‘Bak Gu’ – (literal translation: ‘Northern Chinese mushrooms’ / real meaning: can mean either those black Chinese mushrooms you use for making claypot rice with Chinese mushrooms and steamed chicken pieces, or it may refer to a prostitute from Northern China. Depends on context. Derog. However, it is becoming less used)

‘Um Chun’ – (literal translation: pheasant / real meaning: can refer to a pheasant, or to a timid person. Derog.)

‘Chau Yau Yu’ – (literal translation: stir-fried squid / real meaning: can mean stir-fried squid, or gets fired by the boss.)

‘Gum yu lo’ – (literal translation: goldfish man / real meaning: a middle aged man who seduces girls)

Published by jenniferwong

I am the author of three poetry collections including Letters Home (Nine Arches Press 2020), Goldfish (Chameleon Press 2013) and Summer Cicadas (Chameleon Press 2006), as well as a poetry pamphlet Diary of a Miu Miu Salesgirl (Bitter Melon Poetry 2019). I work as a copywriter and translator (Chinese-English).

7 thoughts on “Chinese language: the imagery in slangs

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