The WSJ’s China Real Time blog has a fun article on Chinese words in the English lexicon (there are few compared to other languages, such as French, Italian and Yiddish), based on a Xinhua report about Chinese buzzwords that have made it onto the great linguistic archive … Urban Dictionary. Seriously, the Chinese state media were getting excited about the influx of Chinese terms (probably submitted by Chinese users) on Urban Dictionary. Oh, China, you’re so cute.
(I just had a cynical thought: What if China, which has been trying to increase its soft power, is behind this influx of Chinese terms on Urban Dictionary and then congratulating itself on this “achievement”? In an attempt to boost the credibility of Urban Dictionary, the article notes, “Submissions by users are approved by volunteer editors, and new words or phrases can only be published with approval from more than half of the editors. Definitions are rated by site visitors once published.”)
In actuality, it appears that the Oxford Dictionary already has about 120 “Chinese-linked” words. However, besides ketchup and tea, most of them are probably relatively obscure, unlike rendezvous or capisce or shtick. Anyway, regardless of whether or not we will all be using Chinese words in English one day, all the expats here already do. There are just so many concepts that the Chinese language captures perfectly, such as 麻烦 (mafan), 没办法 (mei banfa) and 差不多 (cha bu duo), as well as others that WSJ readers have readily supplied. I agree with all of them, especially 舒服 (shu fu). I have no idea how to express the feeling of shu fu in English. “Ooh, it’s so comfortable!” Or “Ooh, it’s so nice to the touch!” No, it’s shu fu. My mind literally went blank when I once tried to translate it for Boyfriend. It might just be because I’m bad at translation, but I honestly don’t think shu fu and comfortable are always synonymous.
But the reason we use most of these words and phrases so much is probably because we are immersed in the context of China, which comes with all of its social etiquette and cultural structures, which in turn are so different than what we encountered elsewhere. A foreign term just doesn’t do justice to how we want to describe our Chinese experiences, so we opt for readily available Chinese terms. When we complain about all the hurdles and hoops we have to jump through just to complete a mundane, routine task, it’s not just a hassle, it’s mafan. But too bad, mei banfa. That’s just the way it is; there’s no solution. So, no longer having the energy for precision, we settle for cha bu duo. That’s about right.
I don’t think these short terms, even in pinyin, are necessarily non-transferable to English. Certainly, they will seem foreign at first, and they will always retain their foreign origins; but once people become more familiar with them, their spelling will no longer be an obstacle. Moreover, as the English-speaking world encounters such Chinese contexts more, they will need a term for them. And when they do, they can borrow handily from the Chinese.
The Chinese also have excellent slang words to describe certain types of people, some of whom you probably often encounter:
- 老外 (laowai): foreigner
- 土豪 (tuhao): often translated as nouveau riche, but implies much more tastelessness (or an adjective to describe the things they would like)
- 屌丝 (diaosi): the opposite of tuhao, a poor loser; once a pejorative but now increasingly worn with irony and pride
- 高富帅 (gaofushuai): a tall, rich, handsome guy; the ideal boyfriend
- 土包子 (tu bao zi): unsophisticated person, like a bumpkin
Other fun Chinese words:
- 牛 (or 牛逼) (niu (bi)): The Chinese word to describe something/one really awesome, cool and able literally means “cow (any word that sounds like the word for, to be more polite about it, vulva).” You, readers of my blog, are very niu.
- 傻逼 (shabi): The opposite of niubi, and a very, very offensive word. The bi is the same bi as above, while sha translates to stupid or foolish. Here, I note that the character I’ve used for bi is not the actual character for “vulva.” It is very rarely written using the real bi.
- 给力 (gei li): to give power to. This is a very handy expression that can be used for a lot of scenarios. For example, if you are complimenting someone, you are giving them li (power). If you are already late for work and the office elevator is taking a really long time to arrive, the elevator zhen bu gei li (is so not giving you power).
- 放屁 (fangpi): The Chinese word for “fart” also means bullshit.
- 哎呀 (aiya): Jeez! Or, oh jeez… (Google translates it as “damn!”, and I often say it when I want to say “for fuck’s sake.” But it’s not actually cursing in Chinese.)
Chinese terms that are NOT fun:
- 有关政府主管部门 (you guan zhengfu zhuguan bumen): the relevant government departments/authorities, or just you guan anything — laws, rules, accidents, management systems (all from a random labor contract I just pulled up) — whatever! Variants on this include 主管部门 (zhuguan bumen, competent authorities) and 负责人 (fuze ren, responsible person). Who has the time to be more specific? That would be too helpful, and the Chinese are all about being mafan.
- 中国特色社会主义 (zhongguo tese shehui zhuyi): socialism with Chinese characteristics
- 国情不同 (guo qing bu tong): different national situation; often used as a cop-out for why China doesn’t do things the way other countries do things
- 伤害中国人民的感情 (shanghai zhongguo renmin de ganqing): The Chinese government chooses to translate this phrase literally, into “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” For the life of me, I (and James Fallows) cannot figure out how no one in the Communist Party has realized, in 65 years of PRC history, how childish this phrase makes the “Chinese people” sound. (For an outdated tally of exactly who has hurt the Chinese people’s feelings, see this Danwei article.)