Ungelivable

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The fabrication of "taikonaut" is not the first time that an attempt has been made to insert a made-up Chinglish word into English.  There have been a number of such instances in recent years.  A particularly notorious one that I recall is the case of bùgěilì 不给力 ("ungelivable", lamer variant "ungeliable").  Bùgěilì 不给力 is the antonym of gěilì 给力 ("astonishing, powerful, fantastic, cool, awesome, exciting, effective, enhancing").  The wide range of meanings and nuances for gěilì 给力 does not bode well for an easy translation of its opposite, bùgěilì 不给力, into other languages.  I shall return to the meaning and translation of bùgěilì 不给力 below.  But first let's take a closer look at gěilì 给力.

Gěilì 给力 had already been a wildly popular internet meme for some time when, on November 10, 2010, it appeared on the front page of the People's Daily — in the main headline no less.

This sent China's netizens and journalists into a frenzied search for the right English word to convey the significance of this formerly hip word which had now been sanctioned by the staid and stuffy flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party.  It would seem that no single English word was considered up to the task, so "gelivable" was concocted as a hopeful Chinglish candidate.

One could write a small treatise about the recent history of the term gěilì 给力.  For present purposes, I shall mention only that it first became au courant when it was used in the Chinese dubbing of a Japanese anime version of the late Ming (16th c.) vernacular novel, Journey to the West (Xī yóujì 西游记).

There is apparently also a Taiwanese twist to the story of gěilì 给力 that particularly endeared it to speakers of Minnan topolects.  For those who are interested, fuller accounts of the rapid ascent of gěilì 给力 in modern parlance are readily available here (in English), here (in English), and here (in Chinese).

Now we can turn to the question of how to handle bùgěilì 不给力, the antonym of gěilì 给力, in English.  For what they're worth (not much!), here are the translations given in various online resources:

Baidu Fanyi offers "it sucks"

Google Translate and Babel Fish both have "not to force"

nciku provides four definitions:  "give me strength!"; "fall (all) over oneself"; "mortmain"; "intuitionism"

mdbg presents three definitions:  "utterly disappointing"; "huge letdown"; "to not try at all"

None of these are satisfactory.  Wanting an English rendering with a little more pizzazz, some Chinglish enthusiast concocted "ungelivable".

After inventing such a breathtaking Chinglish equivalent of bùgěilì 不给力, the campaign was on to get it accepted by Western media.  As a matter of fact, I myself was approached several times and asked to help popularize this new "English" word.  Deeming "ungelivable" to be ungodly, I didn't lend a hand.  There are quite a few other words of this sort for which I have not been able to summon up any enthusiasm, e.g., "niuability" ("having the ability of a bull", i.e., "strong, expert, powerful").

In trumpeting the appearance of such Chinglish words, Chinese English-language media will generally exclaim that they represent the growing economic strength and cultural influence of China in the world, the so-called "peaceful rise" of the PRC.  Like the establishment of Confucius Institutes on our campuses or the purchasing of space in American newspapers by the New China News Agency (Xinhua), the infiltration of Chinglish words like "ungelivable" and "taikonaut" are supposed to be examples of China's soft power.  The problem is that none of these things are happening naturally as a result of their innate attractiveness.  Instead, they are forced and awkward, which makes them essentially unviable from the get-go.

Fortunately, "ungelivable" failed, as it surely should have, but unfortunately it seems as though the equally ungainly "taikonaut" has been getting a bit too much traction for comfort.  Judging from the comments on Language Log, however, "taikonaut" doesn't have much of a long-term future either.

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14 Comments »

  1. naddy said,

    June 23, 2012 @ 6:43 am

    Bùgěilì 不给力 is the antonym of gěilì 给力 ("astonishing, powerful, fantastic, cool, awesome, exciting, effective, enhancing").

    So, clearly, bùgěilì corresponds to lame.

  2. Bruce Rusk said,

    June 23, 2012 @ 7:03 am

    I would propose "kickass" as the general translation for gěilì in colloquial American English.

  3. Bob Violence said,

    June 23, 2012 @ 9:02 am

    I think the explanation of "niubility" here could use expansion. The Mandarin root isn't simply 牛 niú "bull, cattle" but 牛逼 niúbī "cow pussy/cunt," which means something like "strong, capable" in certain northern Mandarin dialects and was picked up by Chinese netizens as an all-purpose expression of praise (with 逼 or "B" replacing the original vulgar character 屄—though the second syllable is often dropped altogether, especially in phrases like 最牛 zuì niú "the most excellent/awesome/powerful/etc."). Similar coinages are "zhuangbility" (from 装逼 zhuāngbī "to act the pussy," i.e. "to boast"), "shability" (from 傻逼 shǎbī "foolish pussy"), and "erbility" (from 二逼 èrbī "stupid pussy," apparently derived from 二百五 èrbǎiwǔ). Presumably all of these -ility portmanteaus are very much old memes by now.

  4. Brendan said,

    June 23, 2012 @ 9:03 am

    "Kickass" isn't bad, but maps more closely to 牛B in my own mental model. I tend to think of 给力 as "schweet" in terms of meaning, general acceptability, and the fleeting urge it inspires in me to slap the speaker. No need to translate "bugeilivable;" saying the word is its own punishment. Fortunately the whole thing, while relatively long-lived by the mayfly standards of Chinese internet memes, should be gone and long-forgotten a year or two from now.

    "Taikonaut" may have a little more staying power, I'm afraid. The word first turned up in English right after Yang Liwei's spaceflight on the Shenzhou 5 in 2003, and as far as I know has got its roots in the international English-language press rather than Chinese sources. (As people in the other thread have mentioned, 宇航员, rather than 太空人, is the standard term on this side of the strait.) It may be an annoyance of our own creation.

  5. michael farris said,

    June 23, 2012 @ 9:06 am

    Can't help but notice the chance visual similarity of gěilì and the German adjective geil, with a similar, though weaker, meaning.

  6. Paul R. Goldin said,

    June 23, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

    All right, I'll hop in. Bu geili is "underwhelming."

    And "mortmain"? What possessed anyone to think of "mortmain"?

    All this word-engineering reminds me of the new words they were coining for Jeremy Lin nearly every day: first "linsanity," but then "linconsistent" and finally "linjured."

    "Geil," of course, basically means "horny," with usage similar to that of a nice Chinese stative verb ("Sie ist geil" could mean either "She is horny" or "She makes me horny"), though lately it's used in eyeroll-inducing fashion by native speakers encumbered by the lack of good colloquialisms in Standard High German.

  7. Paul R. Goldin said,

    June 23, 2012 @ 12:29 pm

    P.S. "Non-kickass" would convey the right idea, but I don't think I've ever heard anyone say "non-kickass." In the 90's, people were running around saying things like "awesome … not" (there's even a seen where Borat mocks it), but fortunately that one has gone the way of the dodo.

  8. Paul R. Goldin said,

    June 23, 2012 @ 12:30 pm

    LOL "scene," not "seen."

  9. Spectre-7 said,

    June 23, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

    One could write a small treatise about the recent history of the term gěilì 给力. For present purposes, I shall mention only that it first became au courant when it was used in the Chinese dubbing of a Japanese anime version of the late Ming (16th c.) vernacular novel, Journey to the West (Xī yóujì 西游记).

    Hmmm… was that anime Dragonball by any chance? I have a vague impression the main character of that (a really unusual adaptation of Monkey) used to call everything awesome in the American adaptation.

  10. Aaron Toivo said,

    June 23, 2012 @ 7:59 pm

    Ungelivable had more barriers to its adoption than taikonaut does: it appears to be made up of entirely English morphemes plus an inscrutable "ge", which neither feels foreign nor exists in English, so it's an transparent Frankenstein of a word with no possible English compositional meaning.

    Whereas from the average English monolingual's perspective, "taiko" feels clearly foreign, and is easy to pronounce, so of course we will be happy to borrow it – the glamour of foreign words, the playful feel of inserting one into an English structure, and all that. Plus the -naut, by evoking the two well-known words having that suffix, instantly tells us all the semantics we need beyond which country it is whose astronauts are thusly called. So it might very well succeed.

  11. Matt McIrvin said,

    June 27, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

    There's "uncool" and "not cool", though the latter phrase has more a connotation of moral disapproval.

  12. Ben said,

    June 27, 2012 @ 4:40 pm

    To me the suffix -able correlates to the Chinese prefix "可" as in 可持续 (sustainable), so in my book gelivable should be 可给力, and then ungelivable would be 不可给力. Not to be confused with 可不给力, which might be "so ungelivable."
    However it doesn't seem like it is used in that way, as far as I can tell.

  13. Brendan said,

    June 30, 2012 @ 4:59 am

    "Underwhelming" is a bit too formal for 不给力, I think. "Sweet/lame" is about the right register.

  14. Eric said,

    July 15, 2012 @ 10:23 pm

    I don't mind taikonaut, even if I wouldn't use it unless it were already mainstream, for the same reasons explained by Aaron Toivo. With the -naut suffix, it has to be an explorer of some kind, probably space, so a two-word explanation suffices to make it click. Context alone would probably work, too.

    Ungelivable, on the other hand, sounds like it describes something that can't be gelived, and at that point the brain stops cold without a knowledge of Chinese slang. I was trying to smash gelatin into unlivable, only to find out that neither had anything to do with the proposed meaning.

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