Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Time to brush up on our slang, idioms and other parts of the world’s most used language – Mandarin. First, the important bits.

ER NAISecond Milk. Well that’s pretty straightforward I guess. You have one cup, then you go back for seconds and … Oh no, not quite. What it means is one’s mistress, as in, a really lovely way of saying your wife is the first or No.1 supply/tank/urn/vessel of milk, and your mistress is the auxiliary canister. Look, it’s a charming language that goes way back, OK?

XIAO SANLittle Third. Just say a man happens to have two mistresses, this is the second one. We’re not saying this is a common occurrence or anything, but they have felt the need to come up with a name for it.

XIAO BAI LIAN Little White Face. The boot’s on the other foot here, gender-wise. If an older woman takes a young toy boy, this is him. The white face part doesn’t imply he’s kept indoors out of the sun for m’lady’s pleasure, but that he’s an innocent. Of course these mature women had better watch themselves, for fear of being called a …

LAO HUANGGUA TU LU QI – It’s mutton dressed as lamb or, an old cucumber painted green.

DAN’R TIAO’R – (pronounced da’are tee-ow). Another from the relationships family. It’s what you call the two men who have married two sisters. My Canadian brother-in-law and I use it together with glee, when our Chinese wives aren’t present. You know those cliched pictures of a Chinese man with a bamboo stick across his shoulders and two buckets dangling from the ends? The stick-and-buckets ensemble is a dan’r. To tiao’r it is to support it. Thus dan’r tiao’r is the term for we two men, bearing the burden of the sisters, or “deadweights” on either end of the stick. As a stay-at-home husband, I always think of this when I go out and blow my wife’s paycheck.

FAN TONG ­– Food bucket. You could use this to describe a bucket that holds food. But it’s also what you call someone who’s completely useless – they don’t contribute much but still have a mouth which needs feeding. Read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Mr Darcy: Oh Elizabeth - be mine! Say you will! Elizabeth: To be honest I’m torn between you and Mr Collins. I could go either way. Mr Darcy: What?! What could you possibly see in him? The man’s a complete food bucket!

WANG BA DAN – This is perhaps the worst insult you can hurl at someone. Worse even than a food bucket. You’re calling the person a turtle’s egg. Shocking, I know. As with a lot of Chinese, though, the meaning is between the lines. Turtles tend to have lots of eggs. The message here is yo mamma is a bit on the licentious side. A lot, actually. Right - enough of the smut. Let’s clean it up. Oh OK one more.

DA FEIJI – I swear I only include this not to peddle more filth and grime but because it shows linguistic imagination, even if it’s a touch bizarre. It means shoot at (da) aeroplanes (feiji). It refers to the act of male self-help, a one-in-a-bed sex romp, a menage-a-un. And it assumes the performer is lying down. It may be a touch boastful about the man’s powers, but not to worry.

YU HE XIONGJIAO BU KEYI JIAN DE – A fish and a bear’s paw can’t meet. Got it? Good.

My brother-in-law Paul, relaxing in
his backyard in Beijing, yesterday.

Hmmm ... Yes well we know what you've
been up to young lady! No wonder you
didn't want to show your face.

JUST KIDDING – That fish and bear paw thing? It’s the equivalent of “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”. You can’t have it all, expressed as “you can’t get these two things in the same place, this fish and this bear’s paw”. It’s often used in short-form. Say someone is telling a man he can’t have his wife and mistress too, they might just say “fish and bear paw” and not be looked at strangely. OK, the inventors of this phrase have never watched Discovery Channel shows about grizzlies scooping up those sex-crazed salmon in Canada, but we get what they mean. Sort of.

BU MING FEI XING WU – It flies but it’s not an aeroplane. In fact, it’s not clear (bu ming) what it is. So it’s a “not clear flying moving thing”, or as we’d say, a UFO.

WAI XING REN – The little green people in the bu ming fei xing wu. We people from a country (guo) outside (wai) of China are called wai guo ren. Beings from further afield are called wai xing ren, or “outside star people”.

ER BAI WU – Two hundred and fifty. This can be just a number. But it’s also a very common insult for someone who’s a bit strange, who seems like they’ve got a bit missing, particularly those prone to saying inappropriate things as if they’ve suffered frontal lobe damage. But why 250? Numbers feature in a lot of Chinese slang. Still, I asked many Chinese people who know the expression, but none could tell me the origin of this quirky little one. Finally an explanation arrived from my dan’r tiao’r. In the old days, Chinese copper coins were strung together through the square holes in the centre. Originally, 1000-worth was called a diao. Half this much was a ban diao zi, which also became slang for someone with inadequate skills. Now, if you’re even less sharp, or a bit loopy, you might only be worth half as much again. So bad is the connotation, superstitious vendors hate selling goods for 250 yuan in markets. It's always fun to bargain up against yourself, from 240 to 250, just to see what they'll do. They'll usually take 240.

This National Geographic photo of an
American black bear catching fish shows
the Chinese might be right. The old proverb
says nothing about beer, however. 

An old Chinese coin, a long time ago.
Put 250 of these together and you'd
be mental.

CONGMINGDE NAODAI BU ZHANG MAO – This one’s a personal favourite. A clever head can’t grow hair. Note the term for head here is “the old brain bag” – nao being “brain”, and dai referring to “bag”. 

ZOU YUE ZI – Sitting for the month. This could be used to describe what I do when the World Cup is on. But it in fact refers to the period after giving birth in which a woman, according to old but still widely-practiced Chinese beliefs, is meant to stay inside and refrain from bathing, washing her hair, brushing her teeth, reading, watching TV, and in general practise a form of austerity that makes the Jesuits look like the Rolling Stones. It’s all supposed to protect the body, ravaged as it is by childbirth. Welcome to the joys of motherhood.

Chinese has a lot of four-word sayings known as cheng yu, such as:

DUI NIU TAN QIN To play the harp for a cow. You’re playing to the wrong audience. It’s like putting pearls before swine.

JIU NIU YI MAO Nine cows, one hair. If you have one hair among nine cows – God knows why nine, and not 10 or 100 – it’s the same as a drop in the ocean. They’re obsessed with cows, these people. Seriously, you’d swear they were Indian.

NIU – Cow. We know that already. But the meaning here is ‘good’. In a previous glossary, we brought you niu bi, meaning “the cow’s vagina”, which is slang for something that’s very good. In other parts of the world you might say “the cat’s pyjamas” or “the duck’s guts”. What also happens is people now simply use “cow” for “good”. So if your child paints a painting and you think it’s great, you might say “Very cow, junior!” or “Hen niu, junior!”

I found this photo which appears to confound centuries
of Chinese wisdom.

LUAN QI BA ZAO – Chaotic sevens, rotten eights. Numbers again. Closely related to qi shang ba xia, which means the same as our “I was at sixes and sevens”, but literally translates as “I went up sevens and came down eights”. If it’s not your mental state you’re talking about but your belongings, use luan (chaotic) qi (seven) ba (eight) zao (rotten). As in “You’ll have to excuse me. My house is a bit chaotic sevens and rotten eights at the moment”.

QI LU ZHAO MA Riding a donkey while looking for a horse. You’re with someone, a lover or a spouse, who tends to remind you of a donkey. This will get you around for now, but you’re keeping an eye out for something better to upgrade to at the soonest opportunity. Again, they’ve come up with a saying for this.

* Pssst: The pic of the bear really comes from the website of williswoodencreations.com, your one-stop shop for all weird wooden bear carvings, located perversely in Granite City, Illinois.

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