Chinese terms of address for single ladies

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When I started to learn Mandarin nearly half a century ago, it used to be that xiǎojiě 小姐 ("miss") was a polite way to refer to or address a young, unmarried woman. You could also extend xiǎojiě 小姐 ("miss", lit., "little elder sister") to convey other, related meanings, such as lǎo xiǎojiě 老小姐 ("old maid / miss"), xiǎojiě píqì 小姐脾气 ("petulant; flirtatious; coquettish"), and so forth. Gradually, however, xiǎojiě 小姐 ("miss") evolved to the point that it often came to be used in a jocular or facetious manner.  Furthermore, when used by itself, xiǎojiě 小姐 may be applied to prostitutes, so one must be careful when referring to someone with this word.  It seems that there is no longer a broadly accepted, relatively respectful term of address for a young, single woman.

Preceded by a surname, xiǎojiě 小姐 ("miss") is still an acceptable appellation.  For example, Zhāng xiǎojiě 张小姐 ("Miss Zhang"), Li xiǎojiě 李小姐 ("Miss Li"), Wáng xiǎojiě 王小姐 ("Miss Wang").  Huānyíng gèwèi cānjiā Li Míng xiānshēng yǔ Zhāng Hóng xiǎojiě de hūnlǐ 欢迎各位参加李明先生与张红小姐的婚礼 ("You are all welcome to attend the wedding of Mr. Li Ming and Miss Zhang Hong").

Another term that was used to refer to a young, unmarried woman is gūniang 姑娘 ("girl"), but nowadays it is employed chiefly by elders.  A derived term is xiǎo gūniang 小姑娘 ("young / little girl").  Gūniang 姑娘 ("girl") may still be used as a polite term of address:  Gūniang, qǐngwèn Běijīng dàxué zěnme zǒu? 姑娘, 请问北京大学怎么走? ("Young lady, how can I get to Peking University?").

Sometimes when one wishes to flatter a woman for her comely appearance, one may call her a měinǚ 美女 ("beauty"), but that obviously is not suitable for common use, since not every young woman is pretty, and its overuse might readily be construed as satirical.  Furthermore, měinǚ 美女 ("beauty") may also be used to refer to a married woman.  In most cases it would not be appropriate to walk up to someone on the street and say, "Měinǚ, qǐngwèn Qīnghuá dàxué zěnme zǒu?" 美女, 请问清华大学怎么走?("Beauty, how can I get to Tsinghua University?"), although a proper woman might occasionally address a pretty young lady this way and, as one of my informants put it, "a decent young man" might also do so without sounding lecherous.

An affectionate appellation is niū 妞 ("little girl; lass"), but it has only restricted application.

There are numerous terms of address that are formed by prefixing nǚ 女 ("female") to words that were traditionally restricted to males, e.g., nǚláng 女郎 ("girl", lit., "female youth; female young gentleman"), as used in the expression shíshàng nǚláng 时尚女郎 ("fashionable girl")

Another such term is nǚshēng 女生 ("girl", lit., "female student" [students in traditional society were almost always male, except in the rare instances when girls masqueraded as boys so as to gain an education]).  This Taiwanese expression, nǚshēng 女生, is becoming increasingly popular on the mainland, even for women who are long past graduation.

In China, it is very hard to tell whether a young lady is married or not.  Consequently, nǚshì 女士 (lit., "female scholar / knight / warrior / gentleman") has become quite popular in the sense of "Ms." and can be used for both married and unmarried women.  In appropriate circumstances, it may also be rendered by "lady" or "madam".

A once pejorative term, but now not as negative as before, shèngnǚ 剩女 (lit., "leftover woman"), is widely used for single and unmarried females of the age around 30 or over.  Even those women who are referred to as shèngnǚ 剩女 (lit., "leftover woman") themselves tend to accept such an appellation since, for whatever reason, it is a fact that they remain unmarried and are unable to change the situation.  Shèngnǚ 剩女 (lit., "leftover woman") is somewhat comparable to guānggùn 光棍 ("bachelor", lit., "bare branch") for males, for which see "The transcription of the name 'China' in Chinese characters" and the extensive comments thereto.

In contrast, a fair-complexioned, rich, and pretty single female in her twenties or thirties is extolled as báifùměi 白富美 (lit., "white[not ethnically]-wealthy-beautiful"). Generally such females are highly esteemed by the multitude and are avidly sought after by their male counterparts, who are said to be gāofùshuài 高富帅 (lit., "tall-wealthy-handsome").

In web language today, netizens rarely use plain, ordinary words like xiǎojiě 小姐 ("miss") and gūniang 姑娘 ("girl").  Instead, aside from fancy expressions like báifùměi 白富美 ("white-wealthy-beautiful") and gāofùshuài 高富帅 ("tall-wealthy-handsome"), which have been discussed in the previous paragraph, they have introduced sexually-derived words such as diǎosī 屌丝 (the surface signification of the constituent characters is "cock / prick threads"; also written as diàosī 吊丝 [lit., "hanging threads"]) and hēi mù'ěr 黑木耳 (lit., "black wood ear" [Auricularia auricula-judae]).

For a discussion of the origins and meaning of diǎosī 屌丝, see here and here (both in Chinese).  I think that the best translation of diǎosī 屌丝 is "loser", as in Beck's famous lament, "I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me", but it has also been rendered as "creep, nerd, dick, jerk, sucker", and so forth.

As for why hēi mù'ěr 黑木耳 ("black wood ear" [Auricularia auricula-judae]) was chosen to represent the object of diǎosī 屌丝 ("loser") lust, one need only look at pictures of this fungus to understand why lewd young men are obsessed with it as an emblem of erotic fantasy.  In essence, hēi mù'ěr 黑木耳 ("black wood ear" [Auricularia auricula-judae]) stands for unmarried females with copious experience of sexual activity.  The odd English term for this fungus, "Jew's ear", has been discussed on Language Log here, especially in the comments.

But hēi mù'ěr 黑木耳 ("black wood ear") is only one of countless unflattering terms for women.  The artist and designer, Zhang Ting 张婷, has made a short video that provides clever enactments illustrating 26 uncomplimentary words for women.  She has provided her own English translations of the Chinese terms (occasionally I add a note of explanation or amplification in square brackets):

1. jī 鸡  (prostitute, lit., "chicken")

2. huángmǐ 黄米 (secret prostitute, lit., "yellow rice")

3. yuànfù 怨妇 (bitter woman)

4. èrnǎi 二奶 (trophy mistress, lit., "two boobs")

5. biǎozi 婊子 (whore)

6. dàngfù 荡妇 (jade [, slut], lit., "swinging woman")

7. pōfù 泼妇 (shrew [, vixen, virago, scold, catamaran], lit., "pouring woman")

8. huāpíng 花瓶 ([flower] vase)

9. lànghuò 浪货 (trollop, lit., "waving goods [/wares])

10. mǎzi 马子 (girlfriend [; toilet], lit., "horse")

11. pòxié 破鞋 (loose woman, lit., "broken shoe")

12. yínwá 淫娃 (lascivious child)

13. jiànbī 贱逼 (cheap cunt)

14. huòshuǐ 祸水 (femme fatale, lit., "baneful water")

15. bāpó 八婆 (nosy woman [; bitch], lit., "eight old woman")

16. lǎo chǔnǚ 老处女 (old virgin [; spinster])

17. sāo niángmen 骚娘们 (lewd woman [; bitch], lit., "stinking woman")

18. nánrén pó 男人婆 (manly old woman [; tomboy])

19. è póniáng 恶婆娘 (ferocious old woman)

20. chángshéfù 长舌妇 (yenta [; gossip, bigmouth, loquacious woman], lit., "long-tongued woman")

21. húlíjīng 狐狸精 (seductress, lit., "fox spirit")

22. shísān diǎn 十三点 (insane woman, lit., "thirteen dots")

23. sǐ sānbā 死三八 (damned bitch, lit., "dead three eight")

24. mǔ yèchā 母夜叉 (female yaksha [/demon; dominatrix])

25. gōnggòng qìchē 公共汽车 (slut, lit., "public bus")

26. tàipíng gōngzhǔ 太平公主 (Princess Too Flat)

To sum up the vocabulary for unmarried young women, shèngnǚ 剩女 ("leftover woman"), báifùměi 白富美 ("white-wealthy-beautiful"), and hēi mù'ěr 黑木耳 ("black wood ear") are currently widely used to refer to single, unmarried females, especially in slang or on the web.  Xiǎojiě 小姐 ("miss"), gūniang 姑娘 ("girl"), měinǚ 美女 ("beauty"), and nǚshì 女士 ("Ms.") are still used more formally, but not as commonly as in the past.

Not only is the vocabulary pertaining to women (especially those who are unmarried) derogatory, it has long been recognized that the Chinese character system is biased against women, with many disparaging terms being written with characters containing the female semantic classifier (Kangxi radical no. 38). Here are just a few of the many that could be listed:

1. nú 奴 ("slave; servant; despicable yes-man")

2. jiān 奸 ("false; selfish; disloyal; crafty; wicked; evil; treacherous; villainous; cunning; traitor; illicit sexual relations; adultery; fornication; licentiousness")

3. wàng 妄 ("absurd; untrue; false; ignorant; stupid; wild; rash; fanciful; fantastical; reckless; presumptuous; preposterous")

4. dù 妒 ("jealous; envy")

5. jiān 姦 ("adultery; debauch; ravish; a crook")

6. jí 嫉 ("jealousy; envy; hate; detest")

7. yāo 妖 ("monster; demon; devil; witch; goblin; phantom; weird; unaccountable")

There are a few characters containing the graph for female that have a positive connotation (e.g., hǎo 好 ["good" -- composed of "woman and child"] and ān 安 ("safe; secure; peaceful; quiet; calm; content" — made up of a woman beneath a roof), but the overwhelming majority of characters containing the female semantic classifier and indicating negative or positive qualities are clearly on the negative end of the scale. Naturally, most characters having the female semantic classifier simply describe feminine qualities (winsomeness, beauty, agreeableness, and so forth) or female status and position (wife, sister, concubine, etc.).

David Moser has written a detailed study of other types of negative linguistic stereotyping of women in Chinese.  See his "Covert Sexism in Mandarin Chinese", Sino-Platonic Papers, 74 (January, 1997).

It would appear that terms for women, especially single ladies, are in a state of rapid transition.  This is probably a reflection of what is happening in society as a whole, where social roles and social status are highly unstable.  As is true of so many other aspects of contemporary life, the internet — with its constantly fluctuating fashions — is one of the main driving forces behind these changes in terminology.

[A tip of the hat to Arthur Waldron and thanks to Gianni Wan, Jing Wen, Jeremy Goldkorn, Eric Mu, Denis Mair, and Rebecca Fu. This post is dedicated to M. R., who is fond of single ladies, especially his friend Katherine.]

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58 Comments »

  1. Gou Tognzhi said,

    August 6, 2012 @ 5:28 pm

    This is fascinating stuff. I also was told (15 years ago, not 50) that xiǎojiě 小姐 was the proper term for "miss." That this one ostensibly innocuous term is now loaded with cultural TNT only underscores the necessity of studying a language in the country it is spoken in order to truly understand what one is saying.

    I must say, though, that while I loathe the inherent and pervasive sexism that creates so many unflattering terms for women (not to sling stones only at the Chinese, English boasting doxy, minx, slattern, madam, bluestocking, virago [a compliment that is backhanded via etymology], whore, slut, and dozens of others); I say while I loathe the practice I do find some terms such as èrnǎi 二奶 to be rather charming, at least at this distance.

  2. John said,

    August 6, 2012 @ 6:25 pm

    I didn't know that 女生 originated in Taiwan, and I remember seeing it in the works of several early Taiwanese essayists who came over in 1949. Was it something they had picked up only after coming?

    In Taiwan 小姐 remains the most neutral and common way to refer to all women, even into middle age. Travel books have to remind people not to address women that way on the mainland.

  3. arthur waldron said,

    August 6, 2012 @ 7:10 pm

    catamaran? I thought that was a two hulled ship and can't find any other usage for it on Google. But perhaps my command of the bizarre imagination needed to plumb some of this is simply inadequate. As it swirls in my mind I ask, does Victor mean "termagant"?

    All of this dates me in a way I don't like. Not only do I say "xiaojie" as trained (a report on facebook has a young woman in China so addressed blushing deeply, at this affront to her virtue), but also when I took on PRC vocabulary I learned "tongzhi." That doesn't seem to work now either, as in "tamen liangge shi nv tongzhi" means they are in a Boston marriage.

    on poxiezi, I have also heard it reversed by native speakers, xie po zi, meaning the same.

    I've decided next time in China just to say "duibuqi" or, as I am told it is GENDER NEUTRAL "fuwuyuan." I don't have it in me to address any woman as "meinv" And although old, am I old enough to say–"ah, xiao guniang"? Sounds like something out of a novel by Daniele Vare. Does "laojia" work in Taiwan?

    Victor, thank you so much for this.

  4. DG said,

    August 6, 2012 @ 7:14 pm

    If I may hijack this discussion a little, I'd like to express my dissatisfaction with the terms of address for young men in Russian. Whereas women (under some age, say, 40) are nowadays addressed as "девушка" (girl) and this is also the word for girlfriend, men get to be called "молодой человек" (young person) which is not only all of 6 syllables, but is also a very awkward construction. I can't think of another "adjective+noun" casual form of address in Russian at all. Russian usually uses morphology for this sort of thing. It can also technically mean a young woman, but never does. For some reason, the much shorter form "парень" is not favored, even though it is unambiguous, shorter, and comes from the same peasant / popular background as "девушка".

  5. Gou Tongzhi said,

    August 6, 2012 @ 7:40 pm

    Ah yes, thank you Arthur, I was also going to comment on the similar change of tongzhi 同志 to mean "gay," as this article

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-18920096

    notes. It's a sort of cultural hijacking, I suppose, but I approve anyway.

  6. arthur waldron said,

    August 6, 2012 @ 8:03 pm

    DG–if devushka is also girlfriend, what is podruga? I have had this question in my mind since lesson one of Lunt Fundamentals of Russian forty years ago in Slavic Aab at HU.

  7. DG said,

    August 6, 2012 @ 8:24 pm

    Arthur, they can both mean girlfriend, but "подруга" can also be a (female) friend, whereas "(моя) девушка" is unambiguous in this way.

  8. arthur waldron said,

    August 6, 2012 @ 8:31 pm

    Victor–er nai cannot mean lit "two boobs" because if it does, what do we make of "san nai" which is also a term for the second concubine? In Beijing I was endlessly explained to that this was "er nai che" the kind of car one gave to one's er nai while another brand was a "san nai che" &c&v/

    You have to be careful I guess not to get labeled as the cars for the trophy mistresses of second and third rank are all top of the line

    Oh the riches of the Chinese language!

  9. Paul R. Goldin said,

    August 6, 2012 @ 9:44 pm

    Yeah, ernai doesn't mean "two boobs." It means something more like "secondary bimbo."

    http://baike.baidu.com/albums/16650/16650/0/0.html#0$509b9fcb74b6ceb152664f9e

    I have NEVER heard gonggong qiche used in this sense. I love it.

  10. Dean Barrett said,

    August 6, 2012 @ 9:47 pm

    I met a young woman from Shanghai last year who did not like the word "syaujye" but I know it is used in the south and on Taiwan and if used politely I see no reason not to use it anywhere in China. Just seems like political correctness to me.

    Also, nyuwangyang is the term for dominatrix. Nyuwang being female king. So what is the "yang" part? Anyone know?

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 6, 2012 @ 9:57 pm

    @Arthur Waldron: For "catamaran" as a term of abuse for a woman, see this slang dictionary or search for "old catamaran".

    @DG: How long can it be till Russian adopts "dude" or "bro" as an address for young dudes? (Though I solve all these problems by avoiding vocatives in most situations.)

  12. Peter said,

    August 6, 2012 @ 10:44 pm

    @John At my job last year, I had a middle-aged Taiwanese coworker who had never lived on the mainland before. She loved to say:

    小姐,我跟你講… = Let me tell you missy…

    whenever she was lecturing one of my other (mainland, young female) coworkers. I always thought this was hilarious.

  13. Yuanfei Wang said,

    August 6, 2012 @ 11:01 pm

    Nai is an abbreviated word of nainai, an honorific term traditionally addressed to the patriarch's spouse. The wife is called nainai, but the concubines are not to be called ernainai or sannainai. They are called yiniang 姨娘. Wang Xifeng 王熙凤 in Dream of the Red Chamber is called Ernainai but it is because she is the wife of the second son of Jia She 贾赦. It seems that ernai is a new term coined to make fun of having one secret wife who is neither a real wife nor a concubine. In Ming dynasty, this was called liangtou da 两头大 (lit. two heads big).

  14. Mal in China said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 2:30 am

    I discovered Language Log through a reference in the Economist's Johnson blog and I'm glad I did -some amazing material on here. Stumbled on the Sino-Platonic papers some time ago, including the paper about covert (and overt) sexism in Mandarin.

    Readers might also like the glossary of words on http://www.chinasmack.com. Here they explain a little of the etymology. What is also intersting is the use of puns so that Chinese netizens can get around the censors and their contributions are not "harmonised". Correct me If I'm wrong, but 'er nai' means the third person in a marriage so 'mistress' in fine.

    Wikipedia also has a good list of categories of women, including prostitutes, with the lowest level being, in translation, " down the work shack."

    I read somewhere that the new standard Chinese/English dictionary has 3,000 new words.

  15. Liuzhou Laowai said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 2:44 am

    I realise you may not be responsible for the title of the article, but it is just as sexist as anything that you describe. "Ladies" is loaded with implications.

    "Chinese terms of address for single women" would have been much better.

  16. Dan H said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 3:14 am

    This is fascinating stuff. I also was told (15 years ago, not 50) that xiǎojiě 小姐 was the proper term for "miss."

    Presumably it still is, in a sense, it's just that calling strange women "Miss" is no longer culturally appropriate. Thinking about it, I'm not wholly sure I'd be comfortable addressing an unknown woman as "Miss" in English either.

  17. Bob said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 3:41 am

    Although "xiaojie" has become a disliked moniker by women, when addressed by strangers women seem to be fine with "dajie," which will often elicit a smile. For women whom one is relatively acquainted with, "qingaide" is also appreciated, as in the way the British throw around the word "love" when speaking to strangers. I've experimented with "qingaide" in situations with strangers, but for the most part, young women are embarrassed by this term, while elderly woman can appreciate the term.

  18. Micah S said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 4:55 am

    Another one, used not specifically for single ladies but pretty common on the net and among 剩女, is 亲爱的 or just 亲.

  19. LLoyd Mills said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 5:10 am

    To veer slightly sideways I would like to point out that the use of the word "ladies" as opposed to "women" in the headline above this article carries many different connotations as well.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 5:52 am

    from Bill Page in Thailand:

    ====

    When I was on Taiwan, I was introduced to the term "xiao yatou," "little duck-head," which seems to mean about the same as "little airhead girl." It doesn't sound flattering.

    Alarmed to hear that if you call a girl "xiaojie" on the Mainland, it's considered offensive.That's the term I would normally use. Now I'm wondering about the little Mainland girls who are waitresses in our local Chinese restaurant. Am I insulting them by addressing them as "xiaojie"? We really do need some help here. The Thais solve the problem by addressing young waiters/waitresses as "nong,"which means "younger [brother/sister]." Maybe we could call Chinese girls "xiao mei" or "da jie". Or would that be presumptuous?

  21. Victor Mair said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 6:03 am

    Arthur, Paul,

    For sānnǎi 三奶 ("three boobs") and higher powers of nǎi 奶 ("boob"), check these sites:

    http://club.china.alibaba.com/forum/thread/view/2_27450509.html (especially the second picture)

    http://www.ccred.cn/Info/View.Asp?id=2869

    Anyway, the literal translation of èrnǎi 二奶 as "two boobs" is Ms. Zhang's, not mine, but even she knows that it really means "trophy mistress".

  22. Mike said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 8:56 am

    "Public bus" wins for sheer hilarity. But what's the underlying meaning of "thirteen dots"?

  23. Victor Mair said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 11:07 am

    @Gou Tognzhi (not Tongzhi?? — you are probably aware that there's been quite a fuss over this word in recent weeks, because it used to mean "comrade", but now it has acquired the meaning of "gay lover", which was omitted from the latest version of the authoritative Xiandai Hanyu Cidian 現代漢語詞典 [Contemporary Dictionary of Mandarin], despite the fact that the dictionary prides itself on having added hundreds of new words and meanings)

    I have been a loyal customer of a "bookseller-by-post" named Bas Bleu (www.basbleu.com) since its founding in 1994. At the bottom of the front cover of its catalog, which I regularly receive and read, is the following:

    ====

    bas bleu (bä bl˜u) [VHM: tilde should be on top of the "u" -- not a very good indication of the pronunciation!)
    [Fr., blue stocking; bas, stocking, bleu, blue.] [VHM: "bas" and "bleu" should be in italics]
    A literary woman; a bluestocking

    ====

    I don't mind being associated with this kind of blue stocking.

  24. Paul R. Goldin said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 11:11 am

    Shisan dian 十三點 is Shanghainese; it's borrowed from the English word "society." (Could someone who speaks Shanghainese tell us how 十三點 is pronounced? Maybe something like "si-sa-ti"?) It was popularized in the 1960's and 70's by a Hong Kong comic series called "Miss 13 Dot."

    I'm still not buying that 三奶 means "three boobs."

  25. Mark F. said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 11:12 am

    Is vocative avoidance an acceptable strategy in Mandarin? In English you might say "ma'am", but I would only say that if someone had dropped something and was already walking away so I couldn't catch her eye.

  26. Peter said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

    @PaulRGoldin Based on what I've heard, 十三點="sa se di".

    @MarkF It's a great strategy. I use it all the time.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

    After putting up this post, I have heard the following sentiment (or something very similar) from about a dozen readers of Language Log: "I just got back from China and I was told I should call a lady 服务员, instead of xiaojie, when I order my meal, because 'xiaojie' now has negative implications…." Mind you, these are mostly either native speakers of Chinese (from the PRC, no less) or very advanced foreign students. Many of them tell me that, as late as the 90s, they were still using xiǎojiě 小姐 ("miss") as a perfectly respectful way to address a young woman.

    And what does fúwùyuán 服务员 mean? — "waiter, attendant, steward". Using the word fúwùyuán 服务员 to hail a shop clerk, sales representative, waiter or waitress, etc. makes many speakers of Chinese who haven't been in the PRC much during the past decade feel distinctly uncomfortable, since it literally means "service personnel", not to mention that its trisyllabic form is clunky in comparison with xiǎojiě 小姐 ("miss"). The verb fúwù 服务 ("serve") applied to a shop clerk, sales representative, waiter or waitress doesn't seem to sit very well with people who come from societies that strive to be egalitarian. On the other hand, the idea of fúwù 服务 ("serve") has been enshrined in Communist ideology with these deathless words of Chairman Mao: "Wèi rénmín fúwù" 为人民服务 ("serve the people"). But it wasn't until this moment, while contemplating the difference between xiǎojiě 小姐 ("miss") and fúwùyuán 服务员 ("service personnel"), that I have begun to question who the people are in "Wèi rénmín fúwù" 为人民服务 ("serve the people") and who is supposed to be serving them.

  28. arthur waldron said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 3:23 pm

    Catamaran
    A scraggy old woman, a vixen; so called by a play on the first syllable. It properly means a raft consisting of three sticks, lashed together with ropes; used on the coasts of Coromandel and Madras.

    “No, you old catamaran, though you pretend you never read novels. …” —Thackeray: Lovel the Widower, chap. i.

    Read more: Catamaran — Infoplease.com http://www.infoplease.com/dictionary/brewers/catamaran.html#ixzz22tV6guoO

  29. Yuanfei Wang said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 4:19 pm

    @ Prof. Goldin: 十三點 in Shanghainese sounds like 色塞地 (se sai di).

  30. ohwilleke said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 5:14 pm

    "nǚshì 女士 (lit., "female scholar / knight / warrior / gentleman")"

    Would a more ideomatic translation be "Sir (feminine)" rather than "Ms."? In English, "Sir" and "Esquire" have largely lost their strong gender connotation although it isn't completely absent.

    I am also curious how important it is to be gender specific in addressing someone in China. The Russian Communists made something of a point of androgynizing their speech with common forms of address like "Comrade" (the French preferred "Citizen"). Could it be that a deficit of gender specific titles that aren't old fashioned or neuter could be a result of a preference for neuter forms of address since Mao? (I have no idea what the case is and am only guessing).

  31. Skullturf said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 7:36 pm

    Is it fair to say that in English, there's no completely unproblematic word to address a female stranger whose name you don't know?

    Both "Miss" and "Ma'am" are used, but both are disliked by some people. "Miss" might sound too young to some, and "Ma'am" might sound too old.

    I'd probably say "Miss" to somebody aged about 15, and "Ma'am" to somebody aged about 70, but addressing a woman aged about 35, say, might be a little more delicate — there's a chance she'll be offended by "Ma'am", and a chance she'll be offended by "Miss".

  32. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 9:44 pm

    Skullturf, there is probably a lot of regional/class/ethnic variation in AmEng (consider the Baltimore practice of vocative "Hon"), but I personally find "Ma'am" pretty safe in most U.S. contexts for any unknown female stranger who looks to be past, say, 25. (I suppose this may to some extent depend on your own age? I can't recall if I would have drawn the line the same place in addressing customers back when I was 19 and working for minimum wage at a fast-food joint.) Taking offense at being called "Ma'am" rather than "Miss" is sort of like taking offense that the liquor store clerk doesn't ask for proof that you're over 21 – it is frankly sufficiently vanity-driven that it seems unlikely to fatally derail the sort of brief/formal social interaction in which you need a term like this anyway. My sense is that the interesting AmEng innovation of vocative "dude" for a female addressee is more typically used among people who already know one another and also more typically used when both the speaker and addressee are female.

    The Baltimore example (where by contrast in many other parts of the U.S. neither "honey" or the clipped "hon" would be a low-risk vocative to deploy in addressing a comparative stranger) suggests to me that it would be unsurprisng if what was acceptable/low-risk in one part of China was not so in another part of China.

  33. John Swindle said,

    August 8, 2012 @ 12:17 am

    The literal meaning of shísān diǎn 十三点 is "thirteen dots" or "thirteen o'clock." To get from "thirteen o'clock" to "insane woman," we have to make an intermediate stop at the similar-sounding English word "society"? Whatever.

  34. Randy Alexander said,

    August 8, 2012 @ 1:38 am

    @Bill Page in Thailand: "Xiao yatou" has nothing to do with ducks. It just sounds like it might. 丫头 means "girl".

  35. Gou Tongzhi said,

    August 8, 2012 @ 2:01 am

    @ Victor, Yes, I misspelled my own sobriquet the first time. Oh well.

    Thank you for the bluestocking citation! Ah, the richness of language.

  36. Victor Mair said,

    August 8, 2012 @ 8:00 am

    @Skullturf

    Doesn't anyone say "Ms." — even if as a sort of fudge between "Miss" and "Mrs."?

  37. Peter said,

    August 8, 2012 @ 9:10 am

    @JohnSwindle 十三点 doesn't mean "thirteen dots" or "thirteen o'clock", those are just the characters used to write it. It used to be a disparaging word meaning something like "交際花" (social butterfly). Since then, the meaning has broadened from that.

  38. Victor Mair said,

    August 8, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

    I asked three native speakers of Shanghainese who have lived in Shanghai most or all of their life whether 十三點 (lit., "thirteen dots") is a transcription of the English word "society", and they all said "no". According to these three informants, 十三點 means "fool", "idiot", or "ditz" (my interpretation of what they said in Chinese) and its etymology is unknown. However, when I pressed one of them by telling him that the origin of 十三點 (= "idiot" or "ditz") is given as English "society" at many places on the web, he responded thus:

    ====

    "That's interesting! The phrase could mean "society girls" in the pre-communist era. But after the girls disappeared when the communists came, the phrase might have survived in a slightly different sense (people with weird and abnormal behavior, etc.), and finally become what it is now."

    ====

    Incidentally, the latter informant romanized 十三點 in Shanghainese as "sa-saiy-dee" (there is still no standard romanization for the language).

  39. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 8, 2012 @ 4:37 pm

    @Skullturf:

    People don't have generally accepted terms to address women comfortably in my experience. "Ma'am" is no longer universally accepted, perhaps because at one point with a recent generation it was seen as an age marker. Older women now are frequently addressed as "young lady" in an attempt to be flattering, but the people who do that don't seem to understand that older women who are no longer young don't feel flattered, and there's no graceful way for a woman to convey that she's comfortable being "old."

    In my experience, "young woman" or "young lady" is used for middle school girls and women over 50, but is avoided for high school girls in many but not all cases because people don't want to sound patronizing to youth but will patronize older people in the guise of mistaken flattery.

    Sometimes "ma'am" is used for women in their 30s and 40s, but often there's no term used. A salesperson will say to a young mother, "How can I help you?" but to an older woman, "How can I help you, young lady?"

    In the South, speakers can use "miz," which sounds like "Ms." but traditionally was not (it was "Mrs."). I think it hangs on now because of its usefulness and resemblance to Ms. But many young women I've met interpret "Ms." to mean "single woman," not "any woman."

    Maybe "miss" is used with women in their 20s — I'll have to listen more closely when I'm out shopping.

    People I worked with — in their 20s a decade ago — loathed the term "young people" when school administrators and others used it. They found it repulsive and patronizing and belittling (all words that came up in arguments about the term).

    There are a lot of older people who also loathe the "nn years young" construction, as in "he's 75 years young."

    I wonder if the problem in Chinese and in the U.S. English I am familiar with cycles through generations, with certain terms coming to be stigmatized by certain age groups, creating gaps in what had been sets of polite terms.

    Is this a universal in languages over history and around the world, or is this an issue with languages where youth culture has become more important than traditional culture, or is there no universal trigger or pattern in which languages have these etiquette vocabulary failures?

  40. Victor Mair said,

    August 8, 2012 @ 4:45 pm

    from Rostislav Berezkin

    @DG and Victor Mair:
    It seems like the situation with addresses in modern Russian is quite complex.
    Now, There are no words frequently used that can be equivalents of “Mr” or “Ms” in English, the word for “Sir” – GOSPODIN is not often used.
    and almost nobody would use “comrade”, once officially promoted in Soviet Union; so there are some strange addresses.
    As for “young man”, I guess it comes from “Junger Mann” in German, but I don’t know for sure. Well, you also say “young man” in English, but there it seems it matters who’s speaking: when an adult addresses a young person.
    I would not agree this address is casual, it’s quite formal, and young people wouldn’t use it.
    Young man Also has the meaning of boyfriend/fiancé, same as DEVUSHKA. Compare with “kare” and “kanojo” in Japanese.
    It’s interesting to note that formal addresses used in the past such as “xiansheng” and “xiaojie” came back to Chinese, while in Russia this didn’t happen.

  41. David Moser said,

    August 9, 2012 @ 1:43 am

    I was on a Beijing bus a few months ago, and a middle-aged woman got up from her seat, leaving a scarf behind. I noticed this and was about to say something, but a young man sitting next to her beat me to it, and got the woman's attention by shouting "Ei, nei wei nv tongzhi, la le yifu!" [Hey, you female comrade, [you] left [an article of] clothing behind!] The woman turned around, confused. The man approached her with the scarf and said "Dajie, ni de weijin." [Older sister, your scarf.] One term of address shouted to get her attention from a distance, another term of address to speak to her up close. These choices are subconscious and subtle. I was at a cafeteria at Indiana University once, and the server, a middle-aged woman, said "Would you like a vegetable, sir?" When I said no, she handed me the plate and said "Watch the plate, hon, it's hot." From "sir" to "hon" [honey] in two sentences.

  42. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2012 @ 8:14 pm

    From Grace Wu:

    Greeting from Taipei! Thanks for sharing this interesting article. Btw, have you heard "熟女“, “輕熟女“? I saw a lot of spa package (or cosmetic service packages..etc) “熟女專案“ around and I am looking forward to trying them.

  43. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

    from Sanping Chen:

    Ah, Victor, on unflattering terms for women, your list misses a recent college slang 恐龙, sort of the opposite of 美女. See, e.g. http://www.douban.com/group/topic/29547749/

    Though 丫头 can be an endearing vocative for a young girl/daughter, it has/had some pretty bad connotations in the north, resulting in the curse 丫挺(的) “illegitimate child of a housemaid” (can be shortened to just 丫) . This is darn close to calling a white American the son of a black maid/slave in the south under Jim Crow laws.

    剩女 is a pun of 圣女.

    On 美女, there is this term 回头率, measuring the attractiveness of a girl to (male) passers-by. One may compare this to the attribution in the U.S. of car accidents to girl-watching.

    Somewhat related is a rather vicious wordplay of the idiom 不堪回首 by the late author 柏杨, referring to a lady who shows a very attractive figure viewed from behind, but has a homely or ugly face.

  44. Raoul said,

    August 9, 2012 @ 9:29 pm

    In the south, at least in the service industry (no, not that service industry), xiǎojiě 小姐 and fúwùyuán 服务员 is typically replaced with liàngnǚ 靓女 (liàngzǎi 靓仔 for the men).

  45. Ian Provan said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 3:04 am

    Here in Beijing, I often hear people address waitresses as 小妹 (xiao mei) as a way of avoiding 小姐.
    (Polite) Chinese friends have told me not to use the expression 十三点 under any circumstances, as it is extremely rude. I was told it is a derogatory expression for a female, or effeminate male. "13 points" refers to a female having 13 "points" while a male has only 12 (eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, nipples …)

  46. Therese said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 1:01 am

    I don't recall hearing 靓女/仔 in non-Yue family areas. Is it used in Min-family areas as well?

  47. Wolfgang Behr said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 7:59 pm

    Paul, Victor:

    the IPA citation forms for 十三点 in Shanghainese are

    [zaʔ 13] [sE 53] [tɪ 35/55]

    Here are some useful tools to look up Wu pronunciations in transcription:

    http://www.wu-chinese.com/minidict/index.php
    http://www.shanghaihua.org/

    According to Zheng Yimei 郑逸梅 (http://baike.baidu.com/view/134550.htm) the origin of 十三点 is "thirteen dots=strokes", i.e. the thirteen strokes of chi 痴 "thick, stupid", but there are many competing folk explanations, cf. for a particularly ludicrous example

    Zhang Dexin 张德鑫, "Cong 'shisandian' shuo qi" 从‘十三点’说起,Yuyan jiaoxue yu yanjiu 1991.4: 124-140 & 55.

    (available from CAJ).

    W

  48. Wolfgang Behr said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 8:12 pm

    p.s. on Miss 13 dot,

    "a tall, slender, attractive young woman who has adventures that were unusual and exciting for young female readers in the 1960s and 1970s. The name of ‘13-Dot’ was taken from the Shanghainese
    dialect referring to a modern but silly young woman."

    yorku.ca/wsywong/homepage/articlespdf/journals/hkwomencomics.pdf (DOI: 10.1080/0958923022000021269)

    W

  49. Joseph Boyle said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 10:54 am

    I've heard fúwùyuán pronounced more like fúùyuán or fûyuán, making it two syllables instead of three, with the first syllable a little longer than normal.

  50. Zesheng Chen said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 11:25 pm

    A little bit additional information:
    Besides 太平公主, Chinese has another term for a flat(speaking of breasts) female: 飞机场, alluding to the runways of an airport. And, like 公共汽车, the phrase 公厕(公共厕所) is used too, as they both contain the connotation that "人人都可以上"(everybody can get on)(i.e. 上公车 get on the bus, 上厕所 go to the toilet, 上女人 lay a woman)

    The word "女屌"(short for 女屌丝) is also widely used for a female 屌丝.

    Opposed to 黑木耳, 粉(pink)木耳 refers to a beautiful girl, usually a virgin, as the color pink indicates that the 木耳(a metaphor for vagina because of the shape) has no sexual experience. Also, although people usually associate 黑木耳 with "unmarried", it is not necessarily so; the word can also convey a sense of the English word "MILF".

    About the obsession of 屌丝, the common saying is that 屌丝 wants 女神(goddess), but 女神(who is usually a 粉木耳) almost always ends up with 高帅富, and after being turned into a 黑木耳, pregnant and abandoned by 高帅富, the now 黑木耳(once a 女神 to all, but now only to the 屌丝) turns to the 屌丝, who eventually, as the joke goes, 喜当爹 (turn out to be a "happy" father). It is commonly joked that 高帅富 gets 粉木耳, and 屌丝 only deserves 黑木耳. Another thing needed to be mentioned is that the typing of 屌丝 as 吊丝 barely has its reason in meaning; it is mostly due to the fact that the character 屌 is hard to find in some typing systems, for instance, the character cannot be found in iPhone 4's original Pinyin typing.

    屌丝 culture, namely the stories, sayings, and connotation of 屌丝,女神,木耳,高帅富,etc, mostly derives from the internet culture of 李毅吧(http://tieba.baidu.com/f?kw=liyi) , the most popular Baidu Tieba( some may argue that it is the most popular internet forum in China).

  51. Zesheng Chen said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 11:29 pm

    More on 屌丝 culture:
    木耳 can commonly refer to girls and women, but the word has a disparaging sense as calling female as something like a sex toy only.

    It can be quite comprehensively summed up by the poem(木耳辞 The Ballad of 木耳) in the link below (a parody of the famous The Ballad of MuLan.)

    http://tt.mop.com/read_11128873_1_0.html

  52. Sara Davis said,

    August 15, 2012 @ 10:44 am

    Ah Victor, always pushing the edge of the envelope…looking forward to your upcoming blog post on terms appropriate for shuai ge'er.

    Separately, I've always suspected that guniang 姑娘 is a loan word from the Thai Khon Ying (polite term for woman). 姑娘 just doesn't sound Chinese, and we do know that in the tributary exchange days border kingdoms would sometimes send women to foreign capitals. Just throwing it out there to see if anyone knows.

  53. Jef S said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 9:52 am

    Attending a Chinese university for two years (2009-2011), it was clear that 女生 (nv sheng = "female student") and 男生 (nan sheng = "male student") were used in the same way young people in the US would use "girl" and "guy": that's how college students would usually refer to each other and other people in that age range (teenagers/young adults), almost regardless of whether they were actually students or not. I don't know about the history/etymology of the term, it didn't seem to be the case that 女生 (nv sheng) was just a feminization of a historically male 学生 (xue sheng = "student"), given the fact that the word 男生 (nan sheng) exists too, and in common use.

    That's not to say that sort of kind of sexisty language situation doesn't exist in Chinese. It seems that 女儿 (nv er = "daughter") comes from "female son", and then there are constructions like 老板娘 (lao ban niang = "boss woman") where for a male shop owner we would just address him as 老板 (lao ban), no genderizing suffix necessary.

    I also want to comment that 美女 (mei nv = "beautiful girl/woman"), while relatively new on the scene and definitely informal, is becoming more and more common. In addition to being used as a term of address among friends, co-workers, fellow students, etc., I've also heard it from customers at restaurants to address the waitress, from salesgirls in shops to address customers, etc., and contrary to the assertion in VM's original post, it doesn't seem to be the case that it's necessarily connected to the physical attractiveness of the referent, or that it would be perceived as sarcastic if directed at a not-so-attractive person. Certainly it's used more for girls who are actually beautiful, but it's becoming more prevalent as just an informal and complimentary way to address young women. The male equivalent, by the way, is 帅哥 (shuai ge = "handsome older brother").

    Calling servers or other girls 小妹 (xiao mei = "little sister") is also very common in my experience. But it may work better for people around the same age range, which is where most of my experience lies. It may not be suitable for an older man to refer to a younger woman; I'm not sure. It also may in some situations invite more familiarity than, say, 美女 (mei nv).

    @Raoul, The three years I've spent in China I've been in the south, but I've never heard 靓女 (liang nv) or 靓仔 (liang zai), or at least I've never noticed them. But who knows, maybe I'll go out and hear them tomorrow. Sometimes one doesn't hear words if they don't already know them.

    I'll also second @Zesheng Chen's mention of 飞机场 (fei ji chang = "airport") for a flat-chested girl. I've heard 太平姑娘 (tai ping gu niang) also, but I've heard "airport" more).

    A folk etymology I've heard about 十三点 (shi san dian = "thirteen dots" or "thirteen o'clock") is that it means someone's crazy because after all the "o'clocks" only go up to twelve, so if you go to thirteen o'clock, that's a little bit crazy. But who knows if that's actually the source. And somewhat contradicting that, people do sometimes speak of "thirteen o'clock" or "fourteen o'clock" in China, using 24-hour time to mean 1pm or 2pm, etc.

  54. Gpa said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 11:33 am

    三奶/三奶奶 does not mean third boob, but rather the 3th woman(a wife who's legally married to the man, the rest are either translated as "mistresses" or "or concubines" in English) in a set marriage, where the first wife is called 大太太 by others of the same rank but called by servants, butlers, etc… as 大太太, etc… 三奶奶 is what butlers, servants, maids call them.

    But 三奶奶 can also be a child's way of saying "Third grandma", if the child was born into a family where the grandfather was born prior to 1911, then his grandfather's second concubine or mistress will be this child's 三奶奶.

    A 奶奶 is a woman's mother-in-law in Cantonese. Don't know how that came to be. Neither do I know how the same term came to be "grandmother" in Mandarin.

    As for the bus, in Cantonese it might be called a 二奶車 (the guy's 2nd mode of transportation, besides his car {something which he treasures much like a wife, if he's still a bachelor), that is.).

  55. Gpa said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 11:41 am

    輕熟女 is short for "年輕, 熟手, 女按摩(治療) 師"

  56. Gpa said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

    @ Jeff S:
    via post about 靓女 or 靓仔

    These terms are not used in Mandarin, but is used in Cantonese, Hokkien/Min/Taiwanese/Hoklo-e, etc….

    靓 = jing in Mandarin whereas it's either Leng, etc… in Cantonese, Hokkien/Min/Taiwanese/ Hoklo-e, etc… As in the name 张靓颖, 靓 , the simplified form of 靓 is rather borrowing the pronunciation from Cantonese, Min, or other non-Mandarin dialects, and pronounced as "liang", which is eerily close to "leng" in Cantonese, instead of using the existing Mandarin pronunciation of "jing". So instead of Zhang Liang Ying, her name should be pronounced "Zhang Jing Ying" with correct pronunciations in Mandarin.

    In Mandarin, 靓, jing = bright. In Cantonese, Min, etc…, 靓, leng = beautiful.

  57. Gpa said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 4:10 pm

    Here in Beijing, I often hear people address waitresses as 小妹 (xiao mei) as a way of avoiding 小姐.

    Hmmm… I wonder how they would address those girls from rich families called "小姐." or "大小姐". I don't think they'll be addressed as "大小妹". Just because Communists don't like stuff doesn't mean they're correct. Go to Taiwan, Hong Kong or any other Chinese community outside of China: If you are referring to these rich girls whose parents lived in China before the Communist takeover, guess what they were called? 大小姐. That's right. Not 大小妹. Waiters in Cantonese are called 侍應 or 侍應生 whereas waitresses are called 女侍應, or 小姐 for short. 服務員, literally "staff/personnel who services others" is gender neutral and can be used to call either a waiter or waitress.

    People on the mainland always make things so damn complicated, like 愛人 which is gender neutral and means "lover(s)". But no, Mainlanders have to add a nonsensical meaning of "husband & wife / spouse", which makes no sense and is no where to be found after the Communist takeover..

    @ Sara Davis:
    姑娘 has been used since ancient times, and has been in Chinese vocabulary to mean "unmarried ladies" for a long long time. 姑 from 姑姑 = father's sister, and 娘 is from 娘親, meaning mother. Or it's most likely from 娘娘, a term for the one of the many Manchu emperor's concubines when addressed by servants, eunuchs, maids, etc…. Whereas in this aspect, 姑姑 is a female servant / maid whose got seniority and is called that due to respect for her. So from the above, I'd say the terms would most likely be derived from Manchu more than from Thai.

    老板娘: 老板 does not mean boss, it means "old board". Only 老闆 means "boss", so the boss's wife = 老闆娘, where her 娘 is only used to designate her gender.

    娘 is Chinese but the same word becomes 孃 or 嬢 in Japanese used to be have the same meaning but now in Chinese means "娘" is an older term for one's own mother, whereas 孃/嬢 has a meaning of "prostitute" in Chinese, where as 嬢 means "girl" in Japanese.

  58. Gpa said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 4:15 pm

    老板娘: 老板 does not mean boss, it means "old board". Only 老闆 means "boss", so the boss's wife = 老闆娘, where her 娘 is only used to designate her gender.

    Correction: where here 娘 is only used to designate her gender.

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