Brain hole

« previous post | next post »

Neologisms pop up so fast in China that it is almost impossible to keep abreast of them.  Furthermore, it is very hard to figure out where many of them come from.  Some of them are undoubtedly borrowed from other languages, but given such a twist that it is difficult to recognize the original source.  Others are just made up by imaginative netizens.  If they are taken up by others and catch on, they become part of contemporary vocabulary.

One that I just heard for the first time last week is nǎodòng 脑洞.  It seems to be a fairly new expression, yet one which is wildly popular (9,250,000 ghits).  This literally means "brain cavity / cave / cavern / burrow / grotto".  Yet, from the contexts in which it occurs, I get the idea that nǎodòng 脑洞 actually means something like "extremely imaginative".

This interpretation is supported by adjectival uses of dòng 洞:  profound; thorough; clear; hollow; having a thorough understanding of the actual situation (as though one were seeing through to the bottom of a deep hole).  Cf. the adverbial meaning of "thoroughly".

The same sense of dòng 洞 may be seen in certain collocations into which it enters:

  • dòngchá ("see clearly; have an insight")
  • dòngchálì 洞察力 ("insight; perspicacity; discernment; intuition")

The whole idea of a "brain hole / cavity / cavern" implying imagination or insight reminds me of the depiction of some sages in myth, legend, art, and history as having a conspicuous protuberance of their skull, especially the forehead.  In my own family, we would refer to such super smart people with large bumps sticking out from their cranium as having an extra compartment to add more space for their enlarged brain.

The "standard" translation of nǎodòng 脑洞 on the internet seems to be "brain hole", which sounds weird to me.  See, for example, this Baidu encyclopedia entry, which explains it as having derived from nǎobǔ 脑补 ("brain extension / supplement").  The latter term is clearly borrowed from Japanese anime, as explained in this nice, little article in the Shenzhen Daily and elsewhere.  As for the precise nyuansu ニュアンス ("nuance") of the relevant Japanese terms, I leave it up to the Japanesewallahs to enlighten us.


  1. Anonymous Coward said,

    November 17, 2017 @ 11:40 am

    There is always 萌娘百科 for this kind of neologisms.

  2. WSM said,

    November 17, 2017 @ 3:11 pm

    Probably doesn’t hurt that it’s homophonous in standard mandarin with 脑动 “get your brain in gear”, which has more straightforward semantics, even though the Baidu explanation for 脑洞 makes sense (note that 脑洞 apparently can be used as verb as well)

  3. AntC said,

    November 17, 2017 @ 7:59 pm

    English has brainwave for an imaginative idea; lightbulb moment; brain explosion, brainfart, braino for the opposite.

    To describe somebody who's always coming up with brainwaves, brainy is not the word. brain the size of a planet? brainbox?

    P.G. Wodehouse describes Jeeves as having brains bulging out of the back of his head.

    I agree brain hole just sounds weird.

  4. MichaelHB said,

    November 17, 2017 @ 11:22 pm

    Instead of brain hole, I like the sound of brain pit.

    He's got ideas spewing from his brain pit.
    She's got theories bubbling up out her brain pit.

    More seriously, this neologism made me think of English expressions referring to the recesses of the brain/mind.

  5. liuyao said,

    November 18, 2017 @ 1:20 am

    How about "brain opening"?

    When it first gained current, the word was perhaps in the form of 脑洞大开, which would be close to 大开眼界 = eye-opening.

  6. Hiroshi said,

    November 20, 2017 @ 12:56 am

    I have always thought that the 洞 in 脑洞 refers to something like blackholes–enormous, endless, incomprehensible and has a mysterious draw that sucks you in.

RSS feed for comments on this post