New Cantonese word

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Simon Pettersson called my attention to a new and popular Hong Kong word that's spreading fast:  gau1wu1 鳩嗚 ("shopping").  It's a rendering of the Mandarin word gòuwù 購物 in Cantonese created by picking characters that sound like the Mandarin word when read in Cantonese.  Additionally, gau1 鳩 (jiū in Mandarin) officially means "dove", but is mostly used in Hong Kong to write the homonym that is a vulgar word for penis, which is also written 尻 and several other ways, too:

gau1 [門+九], sometimes wrongly (or perhaps I should say euphemistically) written as gau1 / hou1 / haau1 尻 (" end of spine; buttocks, sacrum"), is a vulgar Cantonese word that means "a cock" or "cocky".

The second syllable, wu1 嗚, when not being used for punning purposes as in the case of gau1wu1 鳩嗚 ("shopping"), where it stands for the sound of Mandarin wù 物 ("thing; object; substance; matter"), normally functions in the following ways:

[1] [onomatopeia] toot; hoot; zoom
[2] [interjection] alas

What we have, then, is a double pun:

a. Cantonese gau1wu1 鳩嗚 ("dove hoot") standing in for Mandarin gòuwù 購物 ("shopping")

b. Cantonese gau1 鳩 ("dove") standing in for Cantonese gau1 [門+九] ("cock; penis")

The origin of the term gau1wu1 鳩嗚 ("penis / cock shopping") is apparently an interview on Hong Kong TV.  See this CantoDict thread for a link to a video and more.

It is especially poignant that this colorful new expression arose as mockery of the Mandarin pronunciation for "shopping" on the part of Occupy Mongkok protesters.

Mong Kok is a Mecca for shoppers from all over the world, but in recent years has especially been flooded with mainlanders looking for bargains.

Notes from Bob Bauer:

This expression has now become a so-called 'trendy word' 潮語 in Cantonese. It appeared in an Apple Daily headline this past Saturday.

While this word operates on several curious/interesting levels. I think the main one is the Cantonese speakers' sardonically mimicking Putonghua pronunciation; gau1 wu1 is deliberately inaccurate, puns with a naughty word, and is intended to mock the HK govt. leader"s advising Hongkongers to go to Mong Kok to shop.

Standard Chinese 購物 gou4 wu4 'shopping' should be pronounced in standard Cantonese as gau3 mat6, so representing it as 鳩嗚 gau1 wu1 is obviously inaccurate, and so much more is going on here than merely imitating/mimicking the Putonghua pronunciation.

More notes from Bob Bauer:

Hong Kong Protest Expressions
2 December 2014

1. 暗角打鑊 am3 gok3 daa2 wok6 ‘to beat (someone) up in a dark

暗角 am3 gok3 literally means ‘dark corner’; daa2 wok6 literally means ‘to hit or beat the cooking pan’, but colloquially ‘to beat someone up’. The full expression refers to the incident in which seven police officers took Ken Tsang 曾健超, a protester whose hands were already in restraints, into a dark corner and then beat him up for several minutes. The incident was filmed by a television news crew and the video was later uploaded to the Internet.

"Hong Kong police beat protester in violent crackdown on demonstrations" (10/15/14)

2. 鳩嗚 gau1 wu1 ‘to go shopping; shopping’

The combination 鳩嗚 gau1 wu1 which literally means ‘turtledove whistling sound’ did not exist until Hong Kong Cantonese speakers recently created it. The standard Chinese expression 購物 gòu wù 'to go shopping; shopping' is pronounced in standard Cantonese as gau3 mat6 (and also kau3 mat6). Cantonese speakers have created the expression gau1 wu1 鳩嗚 to sardonically mimic the Putonghua expression as a form of political protest. Over the past several days it has appeared in Apple Daily headlines, and it is also becoming productive by forming other expressions, e.g., 鳩嗚袋 gau1 wu1 doi6/2 ‘shopping bag’, 鳩嗚團友 gau1 wu1 tyun4 jau5 ‘person who has joined up with a group of people to go shopping’. However, the pronunciation of the first syllable as gau1 instead of gou3 has been made deliberately changed so as to be homophonous with a vulgar colloquial Cantonese word for penis (which is sometimes written as 鳩), and in this way it is intended to mock the Hong Kong government’s leader who advised Hongkongers to go to Mong Kok to shop (and also the throngs of mainlanders who come to Hong Kong to shop). At the same time, however, 鳩嗚 gau1 wu1 doesn’t really mean ‘shopping’ but rather for people to congregate in Mong Kok as a form of political protest against the government and the police

Here are a few recent posts that are relevant to this one:

And Emily Ford just published this nice article:

See also here, here, and here.

Yours truly quoted at length.

Finally, I wish to introduce Language Log readers to a wonderful site called "Umbrella Terms" being constructed by students involved with the civil rights movement in Hong Kong.

Eventually, it will give extended explanations of dozens of relevant terms in Chinese and in English, and will have recordings of each item in Cantonese.


  1. lokbi said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 9:35 pm

    Hi Professor Mair! I am the initiator of Umbrella Terms and I'd like to thank you for introducing our project. Apart from students, we have researchers, creative practitioners and even a civil servant.

    Thanks for the wonderful explanation of gau wu too. There is another interesting (but perhaps less well-known) word play:

    The former HK Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa started a think tank called "Our Hong Kong Foundation", with a melon-shaped logo and the slogan "攜手做好香港 / We are one". People changed the slogan to 攜手做瓜香港 / We are done. 瓜 (melon) is the Cantonese slang of "die" and 做瓜 means killing somebody. Some people jokingly ask Mr Tung "做melon野啊?". This is another interesting euphemism of 做咩撚野 (jo meh lun yeh / what the x are you doing).

    There is definitely a lot of language magic going on here!

  2. Simon P said,

    December 9, 2014 @ 1:57 am

    Am I blind or is there still no link to the Umbrella Terms dictionary?

    @lokbi: I'm contuniously awestruck by the ability of HKers to create and spread new expressions. The Cantonese linguistic creativity is astounding. I hadn't seen that "melon" pun before; that's so clever! It also sort of references the old "This city is dying" meme:

    For those who are interested, the jyutping of lokbis phrase is "zou6 me1 lan2 je5 aa3". The "lan2" is usually written 撚, probably because of difficulties writing the "proper" character

  3. Victor Mair said,

    December 9, 2014 @ 6:57 am

    @Simon P

    Very sorry. Forgot to include this link:

  4. SYeung said,

    December 9, 2014 @ 7:29 am

    I'm surprised there's no discussion of the actual meaning of the slang as it is used.

    It's correct that 鳩 stands in for the word whose literal translation is cock, but the applications of this vulgar word is much more like the English word "fuck", in that it adds a strong emphasis or negative tone to a certain exclamation, e.g. "Jesus Fucking Christ" in English.

    The 鳩嗚 construction is a little unusual grammatically (even for a vulgar term) but it should translate to something as "hooting like a dumbass" in its original application. There are of course political symbolisms with this term now that goes far beyond its semantics.

  5. SYeung said,

    December 9, 2014 @ 7:38 am

    side note: I'll add also that the inspiration for the newly coined term is probably a grammatically analogous term that's been popularly used in Cantonese for decades, "鳩噏" (gau ngap, the second is a Hakka pronunciation), literally “cock talk” , meaning “talking like a dumbass/talking without making sense".

  6. Victor Mair said,

    December 9, 2014 @ 8:02 am

    Still more notes from Bob Bauer:

    Origin of 鳩嗚 gau1 wu1

    As for the origin of 鳩嗚 gau1 wu1, one important point to keep in mind is that it started from the inadvertent mixing of Cantonese with Putonghua, i.e. the mainland visitor who first uttered this expression knew that Putonghua 購 gòu equals Cantonese gau3, but not that Putonghua 物 wù equals Cantonese mat6, a more complicated phonetic correspondence. Cantonese-speakers then came along and characterified (assigned characters to) the phonetic form thereby giving it its provocatively risque frisson.

    鳩嗚 gau1 wu1 can mean ‘to shop, window-shop” but in an ironic sense, i.e., ‘walk around a shopping district without buying anything as a form of political protest’ as indicated by enclosing its romanized form in brackets as has been done in the following two texts from the South China Morning Post:

    “So, Occupy Central protesters in Mong Kok have been “shopping” – or gau wu – on the streets in the last few nights since police and bailiffs removed barricades and reopened the roads this week. In theory, police cannot arrest them as they are simply wandering along “window-shopping”. Why has the term gau wu become a buzzword? It is a Cantonese transliteration of gou wu, the Putonghua pronunciation of “shopping” that translates as “buy objects”. Gou is distorted into gau in Cantonese – tricky, because it means “bird” in a classic Chinese poem but has become a staple in Cantonese foul language. Occupy supporters mockingly use gau wu after a mainland tourist, when asked on the television why she was taking part in an anti-Occupy rally, replied: Gau wu! Gau wu! (Joyce Ng, All Around Town, Page C2, December 4, 2014)

    “Traffic may have returned to the Mong Kok protest zone, but last week’s clearance of the encampment has given rise to a new form of protest known as the “shopping tour”, with activists taking to the crowded footpaths to convey their political message. . . [protestors] roam the footpaths, obstructing commerce while evading police. . . Before the “tour” starts, the air fills with cries of gau wu, a Cantonese transliteration of Putonghua’s gou wu, which means “to shop”. The expression became popular after a mainland tourist who joined an early anti-Occupy rally told a reporter in Putonghua that she was there to shop. . . Police have taken dozens of people into custody since the gau wu tour started last week. But that has not scared away those determined to “shop”.” (Samuel Chan, “Protestors ‘shop’ ‘til they’re stopped”, Page C3, December 5, 2014)

    However, 鳩嗚 can also really mean ‘to shop, window-shop’ as shown by enclosing it in brackets as in the following text from Apple Daily (《蘋果日報》2014年12月7日C2頁):

    “[二人]又不時孖住行街濕平,. . . 上周三又見二人到銅鑼灣「鳩嗚」。”
    ‘The two people occasionally go out on the street together shopping, . . . last Wednesday the two were seen again going shopping in Causeway Bay.’

    We may note in this Cantonese text that the English loanword shopping has been transliterated as 濕平 sop1 ping4 (in this context the standard Cantonese pronunciation 濕 sap1 changes to sop1).

  7. cameron said,

    December 9, 2014 @ 9:34 am

    So, if gau1wu1 means walking around without buying anything, i.e. window shopping, but the first syllable makes it somewhat vulgar, can we translate the phrase as "window fucking shopping"?

  8. Christina said,

    December 9, 2014 @ 5:35 pm

    In Cantonse daily conversation, to go window shopping in colloquial term is 去行街, it literally means to walk the street, in written form is 逛街. To go with the purpose of buying something is 去行街買嘢. But in traditional Chinese, whether shopping or window shopping is expressed as 往購物. The play on words this time shows Chinese language. same as the people of Hong Kong, is very lively and witty.

  9. DMT said,

    December 9, 2014 @ 7:15 pm

    Bob Bauer's further comment suggests that the phrase originated from an actual mainland visitor to HK trying to say 購物 in Cantonese. I haven't read through all the links, but isn't it more likely that this is pure invention on the part of HKers? Most non-Cantonese speakers coming to HK to shop don't bother to attempt Cantonese at all and just speak Putonghua – and shop assistants are happy to talk back to them using the same (although perhaps a little less so in Mong Kok than in more expensive shopping areas). Moreover, 購物 would be an unusual choice of phrase to indicate "shopping" in spoken Mandarin (買東西 would be much more natural), although I suppose a hypothetical Cantonese-attempting Putonghua speaker might try something like "gauwu" after finding that local HKers proved unable (or more likely, deliberately refused) to understand "mai dongsai."

  10. Simon P said,

    December 10, 2014 @ 1:58 am

    @DMT: The origin is pretty clear, since it comes from a viral video. The mainland visitor is not a non-Cantonese speaker. Many of the mainlanders who come to HK are from the south and thus speak Cantonese, but the Cantonese levels of young people are dropping in many places. They become heritage speakers without emigrating, since Cantonese is only spoken at home. So it's possible that the person in question, faced with an unfamiliar situation, reverted to Mandarin for a while. Or maybe she's used to code-switching. Anyway, the video in question can be seen at the end of the CantoDict thread linked in the post.

    It's a video from a protest march against the Occupy Central movement, and it clearly shows that a lot of the people in the march don't know what the protest is against. It's "for peace" or "against something, I'm not sure". The girl in question is at the anti-Umbrella protest, yet she's clearly not a HKer and she's there to "go shopping", thus provoking the ire of the HKers since the protest allegedly shows that a lot of HKers are against the Umbrella movement.

    She doesn't say "gau wu", by the way, she clearly says "gou wu". The "gau" distorsion was added by HKers themselves.

  11. JQ said,

    December 10, 2014 @ 2:25 am

    I've always pronounced 購 as kau3 in Cantonese rather than gau3, as do my HK acquaintances here in England.

  12. DMT said,

    December 10, 2014 @ 8:18 am

    @Simon P: Thanks for pointing that out – watching the video makes it much clearer. You are obviously right that the speaker is switching into Putonghua and saying "gou wu" for that phrase rather than trying and failing to speak Cantonese. Immediately after saying "gou wu," she seems to recall the appropriate Cantonese phrase and says "mai ye".

  13. Bathrobe said,

    December 10, 2014 @ 9:35 am

    I had been under the impression that 购物 itself is a neologism on the Mainland, possibly an import from Taiwan. No self-respecting Beijinger would have said 购物 30 years ago.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 12:14 am

    Note from Bob Bauer:

    After reading through the comments on the Languagelog and checking the video, I see that Simon Pettersson is right that the mainland visitor had quite clearly said in Putonghua that she was in HK to "gou4 wu4" and then she said the Cantonese semantic equivalent "買嘢 maai5 je5". Since my source for what she had said was wrong, I want to correct my "inadvertent mixing" to Hongkongers' "deliberate" mixing of Cantonese and Putonghua syllables in the same word; that is, gau1 is deliberately used for its homophony with the vulgar Cantonese word for 'penis', while wu1 is used to mimic the pronunciation of the original Putonghua word.

    As for the use of the High Level tones, this is because some Hongkongers cannot hear the difference between the Putonghua High Level and High Falling tones because this distinction does not occur in Hong Kong Cantonese.

    By the way, there are two Cantonese pronunciations for 購: standard, literary, formal "gau3" and colloquial "kau3".

  15. Simon P said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 1:54 am

    Many Cantonese characters have changed their pronunciation to avoid sounding like the dreaded "gau1". While g/k is a common literary/colloquial distinction, there are characters like 勾 which has changed from "gau1" (literary/conservative) to "ngau1" (colloquial/common). I suspect this is to avoid homophony with 鳩, since the 'ng' initial normally cannot occur in the high tones in Cantonese. most other examples of it, like 啱 "ngaam1", correct, and 噏 "ngap1", babble, are loan words.

    Anecdote: When I was first learning Cantonese, I had a lot of trouble with the "au" vs "ou" thing, since most sylables that end with "ou" in Mandarin end with "au" in Cantonese and vice versa. Not only did it cause confusion with "ou3 zau1" vs "ao4 zhou1" (Australia) and "au1 zau1" vs "ou1 zhou1" (Europe), it also, on more than one occasion, caused me to call ice cream "syut3 gau1" (snow cock) rather than "syut3 gou1" (snow cake).

    (Interesting that the English words "cake" and "cock" are also very similar!)

  16. Simon P said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 2:17 am

    Note: There's a lot of profanity in this post, but you should expect that, given the nature of the subject!

    By the way, the usage of "gau1" rather than one of the many characters pronounced "gou1" in Cantonese might seem strange, but it's a common thing in, uh, colorful Cantonese to replace syllables with "gau1" to make them into swears. For example:

    戇居 ngong6 geoi1 "absurd; ridiculous; stupid", becomes 戇

  17. Simon P said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 4:35 am

    In a clear demonstration of why HK people use 鳩 rather than [門+九], the blog cut off my post when it encountered the vulgar character. I will repost what I wrote but using 鳩 instead.

    戇居 ngong6 geoi1 "absurd; ridiculous; stupid", becomes 戇鳩 ngong6 gau1 "stupid cock"

    搞事 gaau2 si6 "stir up trouble" becomes 搞屎 "gaau2 si2" "stir up shit", becomes 鳩屎 "gau1 si2", at this point so distorted it literally means "cock shit", yet thanks to the wonders of punning the meaning is still conveyed, even though every syllable has been replaced with profanity.

    打交 daa2 gaau1 "to fight (physically)" becomes 打鳩 daa2 gau1 "beat the cock".

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