Archive for Slang

Coronavirus slang and the rapid evolution of English

People describe the experience of living through COVID-19 lockdowns and extreme social distancing as being "weird", "strange", "unsettling", "disturbing", and so on.  As such, the current circumstances give rise to all sorts of new expressions to express their feelings and activities which are so different from "normal" times, one of the most common terms for what we're going through often being called "the new normal".

Jason Kottke, meister of one of the most venerable blogs, kottke.org, has written about these changes in "Covid-19 Slang and How Language Evolves Quickly in Stressful Times" (5/13/20). He draws on two other articles.  From Tony Thorne's "#CORONASPEAK – the language of Covid-19 goes viral – 2", language and innovation (4/15/20), he garners the following:

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Sia suay (or xia suay): a Hokkien expression in Singapore English

Here at Language Log, we are quite familiar with Singapore English, which comes in two registers:  Singapore Standard English (SSE) and Singapore Colloquial English (Singlish).  The term we are discussing today can be used in either register.

This multipurpose expression is featured in connection with the COVID-19 crisis in two recent articles in The Independent:

I

"'Sia suay should be the word of the year…' Netizens take a dig at Chan Chun Sing now that panic buying is happening in many countries

Many netizens went online to say that those words had become a kind of catch phrase. It implies something that is a disgrace or an embarrassment", by Anna Maria Romero (3/5/20)

II

"'Let’s not xia suay again, Singaporeans.' Netizens respond to Chan Chun Sing’s assurance that the country has enough food supplies

Many people commented thanking him for issuing the reassuring update in such a quick manner and called for Singaporeans to stand united at this time", by Anna Maria Romero (3/17/20)

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Spoofing the "crisis" meme

Language Log has been blogging on the "crisis = danger + opportunity" trope since at least 2005.  Our latest iteration is "'Crisis = danger + opportunity' redux" (2/19/20), with a list of references to earlier posts in the series.  By now, the "crisis" meme has become so dull and hackneyed that Tianyu M. Fang has subjected it to a withering deconstruction / reconstruction:

 

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"Popo" in Hong Kong

Article in SCMP Magazine:

"How Hong Kong slang terms for ‘police’ have evolved over time", by Lisa Lim (9/28/19):

Back in the day, Hong Kong policemen were referred to in Cantonese as luhky ī  [sic; VHM: luk6ji1 綠衣]  (“green clothing”), for the green uniforms they had worn since the 19th century. Khaki drill became the summer uniform around 1920 while the current get-up of light-blue shirt and black trousers, worn year-round, was adopted in December 2004.

In addition to the green uniforms, headgear worn by policemen – the turbans of Sikhs and the conical bamboo hats of the Chinese – were also part of the personification.

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Hong Kong protesters' argot

The whole world is transfixed by the gutsy rebellion of Hong Kong citizens against the militarily powerful PRC imposed government under which they live.  Language — spoken, written, and gestural (see the "Readings" below for examples of all three types) — plays an important role in maintaining their solidarity and camaraderie and in emphasizing their identity as Cantonese citizens.  Their common mother tongue of Cantonese already sets them off from Mandarin speakers from the north, but their development of a unique jargon further distinguishes them from Cantonese speakers who are not part of their movement:

"Hong Kong's Protestors Have Their Own Special Slang. Here's a Glossary of Some Common Terms", Hillary Leung, Time (9/6/19):

Although many would accuse the protesters of making light of violent unrest, the use of slang “keeps people sane,” argues Wee Lian Hee, a language professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. “If [protestors] talk formally all the time, I suspect the movement would soon become tiresome,” he tells TIME.

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"Big girl's blouse"

Americans following recent U.K. political antics have been able to learn a piece of British slang that's probably new to them — Martin Belam, "'You great big girl’s blouse' – Johnson appears to insult Corbyn during PMQs", The Guardian 9/4/2019:

Boris Johnson’s first Prime Minister’s Questions was immediately embroiled in controversy after footage appeared to show him gesticulating towards Jeremy Corbyn, saying: “Call an election, you great big girl’s blouse.” […]

Johnson has form for previously using the phrase. In June 2017 he called Labour’s election campaign chief a “big girl’s blouse”. And in 2007, when Gordon Brown was tipped to be on the verge of calling a general election in an era before the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, he reportedly told a fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference in Blackpool that if Brown didn’t act: “We will say he’s wimped out, we will say he’s a big girl’s blouse.”

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The Cantonese slang term for "gas mask"

In case you were wondering, it's "zyu1 zeoi2 豬嘴" (lit. "pig snout").  You can see pictures of them here and here.

Since the police have fired thousands of canisters of tear gas at the protesters, "zyu1 zeoi2 豬嘴" ("pig snout [gas masks]") — not to mention yellow helmets to protect your skull from being cracked by the police and hired thugs — have become almost essential items of apparel if you wish to venture on the streets these days.

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"Loser" in Taiwan and in China

From Don Keyser:

Perhaps you are familiar with the Taiwan slang word lǔshé 魯蛇 — I was not, and needed to look it up.  Cute.  Picking evocative characters pronounced lu3she2 — for "loser."  This usage is sufficiently common to have found its way into Pleco, though it befuddled Google Translate when I first tried there.

Those who write for Sīxiǎng tǎnkè 思想坦克 [Voicettank] often identify themselves in witty ways.  This author, Ke Fanxi 柯汎禧, informs the reader that he is a loser at the lowest rung of academia, currently a doctoral student at the Institute of Political Science of Sun Yat-Sen University: "Zuòzhě mùqián shì jiùdú yú Zhōngshān dàxué zhèngzhì xué yánjiū suǒ de bóshì shēng, xuéshù zuì dǐcéng de lǔshé 作者目前是就讀於中山大學政治學研究所的博士生,學術最底層的魯蛇.

Having occupied that rung myself in the long ago, I appreciate both the sardonic wit and the accuracy.  Well, there ARE lower rungs, to be sure, but mere doctoral candidates can certainly be made to feel like creepy, crawly losers.

The article "Hán fěn de xìnxīn dào nǎlǐ qùle 韓粉的信心到哪裡去了?" ("What has happened to the confidence of Han [Kuo-yu's] fans?") referred to above is found here.

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Nicknames for foreign cars in China

"Porsche and BMW are known as 'broken shoes' and 'don’t touch me' in China", by Echo Huang

Many of these names are off-color and some even quite vulgar, but they are all affectionate:

Audi’s RS series:  xīzhuāng bàotú 西装暴徒 (“a gangster in a suit”), inspired by the car’s smooth look and impressive horsepower (some links in Chinese).

Bugatti’s Veyron: féi lóng 肥龙 (“fat dragon”).  The French car manufacturer’s high-performance Veyron sports car earned the moniker for its round-front face design, and because “ron” in Veyron sounds like “lóng" ("dragon"), just as "Vey" sounds like féi ("fat").

BMW: bié mō wǒ 别摸我 (“don’t touch / rub me”).  The German acronym for Bayerische Motoren Werke forms the basis to create a Mandarin phrase that expresses how precious people consider the car to be.

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Military slang

On a large discussion list, I said something that involved a lot of close, careful reasoning and marshalling of evidence to come to a precise conclusion, and another member of the list approved what I wrote with a hearty "Shack!"

I was dumbfounded.

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Baffling propaganda: "black" and "evil" in contemporary Chinese society

Mandy Chan saw this sign on Weibo (a major Chinese microblogging website) and challenged me to translate it:

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"Gweilo" as a racially charged term

Article by the Tibetan writer, Yonden Lhatoo, in the South China Morning Post (9/8/18):

"Is ‘gweilo’ really a racist word? Hong Kong just can’t decide:  Yonden Lhatoo shakes his head at the on-again, off-again debate over the use of the word that is obviously racist in its roots, but has become benign due to widespread acceptance among Caucasians themselves"

I will come right out and say it:  "gweilo" is overtly, inherently, intentionally racist.  It stigmatizes an entire race as inferior beings.  If any white person tells you that it is not racist, they are being self-effacing / deprecating or ironic (shuō fǎnhuà 說反話).  If a Chinese person says that it is a neutral or positive appellation for a Caucasian, they are either being disingenuous or evidently do not know the meanings of the constituent morphemes (see below).

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Bovine / friggin' toilet

One corner of a gigantic public toilet at the Yangren Street theme park in Chongqing, Southwest China:

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