Saturday, September 03, 2011

List of the Month - the most useful Chinese words

At this time of daunting milestones - 9 years in China, and 5 years blogging about it - I thought I should find some positive observations about the country and its language for this quirky start-the-month feature.

And even such a determined Mandarin-recusant as myself has to acknowledge that there are some words in the language that are quite useful, quite memorable, quite fun; words that one learns in spite of oneself!

My criterion for this brief selection is: 'Chinese words most often used in English sentences by foreigners living here.' (However, I exclude the filthier language that we learn from cabbies and football supporters. This accounts for rather too high a percentage of the Chinese words that foreigners most commonly use, whether speaking in English or in Chinese.) With the growing numbers of 'Westerners' visiting, studying, or working in China, it is quite likely that this addictive adoption of key Mandarin words by foreigners who've been exposed to the language here will gradually lead to the formal acceptance of many such words into the lexis of worldwide English. Here, then, are my nominations for the words likeliest to achieve that breakthrough.

Froog's Favourite Chinese Words

laowai  -  foreigner; it's supposed to be respectful (the lao preface means 'old'; it always feels good to be called 'old', doesn't it?), but it doesn't always sound that way when used by the locals. If this makes it into wider English usage, I imagine it will serve to designate only expats in China.

gemenr  -  mate, guy; at least, in my understanding (I can't find it in any of the online dictionaries; maybe it's Beijing dialect only?).

chabuduo  -  almost, similar; though its most common use seems to imply something like near enough, when excusing or dismissing some supposedly unimportant mistake or discrepancy.  [I am tempted to use it in the title of a book about the Chinese concept of 'quality control'; where the West has Six Sigma, China has Chabuduo.]

mafan  -  trouble, hassle, vexation; such a little word for such an important concept!

bu yao  -  not want; used when declining to make a purchase from over-solicitous traders, and so on.

zuoyou - approximately; literally, left-right, maybe a little to one side or the other of what you actually want (again, this seems to be an idiomatic use unrecognised by the online dictionaries!).

meinü  -  pretty girl; hopefully, an admiring and respectful - respectable - phrase, although so much depends on circumstances and manner of use; the way some people use it, I am more reminded of slang terms like fit bird or hot mama.

shifu  -  master; most commonly used as a lightly ironic term of respectful address to a taxi driver; of course, it has now become widely familiar through its use in Kung Fu Panda, although this has encouraged people to mistakenly suppose that it is merely a name.

bu hao not good; covering the full spectrum of unsatisfactoriness, from slightly less than ideal to Orwell's doubleplusungood; probably the phrase most commonly used in English conversation by laowai here!

hao bu hao - OK? (Literally, good not good? I find this very simple construction for asking questions - a rapid-fire triplet, blurted out as a single word, almost a single sound: the key verb or adjective repeated either side of a negative - to be one of the more charming quirks of the language. you meiyou is another very common one, meaning Do you have it? - but, literally, got not got?)

hexie  -  harmonious (harmonise); the government's favoured buzzword for imposing conformity and 'right thinking' in the name of maintaining social stability; Chinese Netizens' favoured buzzword for mocking the government's insane censorship initiatives (usually punningly transposed with its homophone 河蟹, 'river crab').

chai  -  tear open, tear down, destroy, demolish; depressingly familiar because of its use, crudely daubed on walls and doors, as a notice of imminent demolition; the ominous symbol spread like wildfire through Beijing's old hutong districts over this last decade; also quite a popular word amongst young Mandarin students these days for getting wrecked on booze.

And, to make it a Baker's Dozen...

aiah!  -  which is hard to find in online dictionaries, because it doesn't really mean anything; but it is a tremendously useful all-purpose exclamation of surprise, dismay, disgust, worldweary acceptance - a sigh and a shrug and a contemptuous spit all rolled into one.


JES said...

A brilliant but laid-back nephew of mine (he finally went for a degree in information science years after he'd been hired by a giant US corporation as a Web developer straight out of high school) has been studying Mandarin, for no apparent "real" reason other than that it interests him. He's vaguely thinking of leveraging that into a year or two in China, on his employer's behalf. I shall share this with him.

Froog said...

Well, I hope we'll hear from him on here.

It would be interesting to get the perspective of someone who's only studied the language outside of the country. With only classroom experience, you probably wouldn't realise the nuances of these terms, or how really ubiquitous they are, or how easily they cross over into the English usage of the expat community. You might not have come across hexie at all.

el said...

No fuyuan? I found expats who couldn't even say 早上好 could readily belt that out.

Froog said...

Strictly speaking, it's fuwuyuan, isn't it, but it always seems to get compressed into a disyllable.

I suppose that one was bubbling under. While it is very commonly inserted into English sentences here in China, I'm not sure that it would so readily migrate into worldwide English. It does tend to connote the very Chinese phenomenon of the utterly untrained, miserably underpaid, and thus almost completely indolent member of serving staff that you find in lower-end bars and restaurants, rather than the more general concept of 'waiter'.

bao'an - the decidedly unintimidating teenage 'security guards' who slouch around at the entrances to apartment complexes - is also very common in expat English, but not likely to 'go international', I don't think.

And niubi, of course, is another leading contender, but I omitted it on grounds of decorum.