Niubi ("awesome") revisited

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In recent years, this has been one of the most common modifiers and exclamations in Chinese.  You can say just "niu" by itself, where "niu" actually means niú 牛 ("cow"), but that's an elision of "niuB" or "niubi", which in turn means "cow pussy".  Although "niu(B/bi)" is used so frequently, in mixed company, on packaging, and so forth that it has lost much of its original shock value, it now means not much more than "awesome".  Nonetheless, I would recommend scrupulously avoiding it in situations where you are expected to be polite and formal.

Although "niu(B/bi)" may amount to "awesome", it is far more colorful and crude.  The origin of this usage is quite vulgar; for explanations, see here, here (with links to other posts in which the term is treated), also here and here.

Since "niu(B/bi)" has already been covered so well, I would not have brought it up again were it not for the fact that, following up a link in a recent post that led to several earlier links, Sergey has put forward a striking new suggestion about where the Chinese expression may have come from.

A discussion of "meat floss donuts" in this post, "Walmart China talk " (9/16/15), led Sergey to an earlier post, "Where's the bull?" (6/2/15), and from there he found still earlier references (the ones that are also cited two paragraphs above.

Rather than let Sergey's suggestion languish in a comment where few will realize what he's talking about, I'm presenting it here for discussion:

Speaking of the "essentially awesome" word, I've read the links and noticed that the use of this word and of its variations pretty much mirrors the use of the Russian word for "cunt" and its derivatives (though the Russian word is considered very rude and certainly wouldn't be used on the product packaging). I wonder if this meaning has been picked up from Russian during the times when Chinese were learning Russian and studying in the Soviet Union, or is it the result of a parallel evolution.

In case if you're interested, the Russian words are "пизда" – "cunt", "пиздатый" – "awesome", "пиздеть" stressed on the second syllable – "to bullshit" (in the meaning of either lie or just talk a lot), "пиздить" stressed on the first syllable – "to beat" or "to steal", "пиздюк" – "asshole" in the sense of an annoying person.

I'm grateful to Sergey for bringing this up as a comment to the Walmart post, since the comments sections to all the earlier discussions of "niu(B/bi)" have long since closed.

Before we accept Sergey's suggestion at face value, however, it may be necessary to do additional research.  I say this because the late Qing author, Li Baojia (1867-1906) had already used the expression chuīniú 吹牛 (lit., "blow cow" –> "brag; boast", and in some topolects "chat").  This chuīniú 吹牛 was quite popular in the succeeding Republican period.  I've been told by several Chinese scholars that chuīniú 吹牛 ("blow cow") is short for chuīniúB 吹牛B, where "B" stands for you know what.  Whether the latter claim is true, I do not know.  Indeed, chuīniú 吹牛 is said to be short for chuī niúpí 吹牛皮 (lit., "blow cow skin / hide"), which we could also write as chuīniúP 吹牛P, but I suspect that may simply be a euphemism for chuīniúB 吹牛B.  So far as I am aware, chuī niúpí 吹牛皮 (lit., "blow cow skin / hide") was used initially and primarily by left-wing writers during the 30s.

Still and all, there really was a practice of chuī niúpí 吹牛皮 (lit., "blow cow skin / hide"), actually two different practices:

a. used by butchers to separate the skin from the rest of the carcass

b. used to make inflated rafts for crossing or travelling on water

See this Baidu encyclopedia article for both.  However, because cow hides are so much bigger, thicker, and more difficult to inflate (with human breath), both practices were far more usual for sheep.  The yángpí fá 羊皮筏 ("sheepskin raft") was actually a common form of transportation on the Yellow River.  The great teacher and scholar of Chinese language, John DeFrancis, in fact, after travelling a thousand miles across the Gobi Desert by camel, went 1,200 miles down the Yellow River on a raft of inflated sheepskins.  (See here and here [Kirkus Reviews]).

Only an awesome person can chuīniúB/P 吹牛B/P.


  1. Hiroshi said,

    September 17, 2015 @ 5:56 pm

    But when I read the Baidu encyclopedia article, my impression is that the difficulty of the practices is what gives rise to the meaning of 吹牛皮 — because inflating cow hides with human breath is extremely difficult, hence whoever claims to be able to do that must be exaggerating/boasting. And to me that seems to be distinct from the implied awesomeness of 牛B.

    In fact, I'm having a bit of trouble grasping the possible connection between 牛B and 吹牛皮(B). Say if 吹牛皮 is indeed an euphemism for 吹牛B, then why is the act of blowing 牛B(awesomeness) considered bragging/boasting?

  2. Gene Anderson said,

    September 17, 2015 @ 6:34 pm

    For the record, the Cantonese would be ngau hai, but I never heard it used as a cuss or to mean "awesome." I have run into various meanings for niubi. Maybe indeed a Russian connection.

  3. hanmeng said,

    September 17, 2015 @ 10:08 pm

    吹牛 always reminds me of Aesop's fable of The Frog and The Ox. That fable also involves a 皮, but no 屄.

  4. JB said,

    September 17, 2015 @ 10:35 pm

    Compare with the dog's bollocks, the bees knees, or even, the cat's pyjamas…

  5. Sybil said,

    September 18, 2015 @ 1:34 am

    Sergey's comment is very intriguing. I'd love to know more about how references to female genetalia become words of approbation (if that's what happened here) – it's rare in English, as far as I can tell, to the vanishing point, with respect to either male or female naughty bits. All I've managed to come up with is "it's the balls", which I take to refer to the usual.

  6. K Chang said,

    September 18, 2015 @ 4:00 am

    Baike's explanation does have some alternate explanations, probably post-hoc'ed though

    alt meaning: ACG term (anime / comic / game) "Nice Boat" supposed based on manga "School Days"

    alt meaning: ACG term, "New Bird" 菜鳥 (noob fodder)

    But the really hilarious bits is how they're making up English words for this… "niubility / newbility"… hahahahaha.

    Back to the original… I seem to recall the euphemisms for fellatio in Chinese is "blowing the flute". Don't recall what's the euphemism for cunnilingus in Chinese.

    Bi was referring to female naughty parts. The male naughty party is "diu", which is, of course, a very bad Cantonese insult, usually used as " yo mama!" Never realized that was also a term from Northeastern China.

  7. K Chang said,

    September 18, 2015 @ 4:03 am

    Given that northeastern China, i.e. Liaoning, Jiling, and Heilongjiang are all on the border of Russia, it would not surprise me at all how Russian vulgarities migrated over. Vulgarities tend to travel first, right?

  8. Jim said,

    September 18, 2015 @ 11:15 am


    "it's rare in English, as far as I can tell, to the vanishing point, with respect to either male or female naughty bits."

    That's true pretty much, but I once was in a unit where there was an expression "tits" to mean something was wonderful. (Obvious connection). Those may not quite qualify as "naughty bits" but it was considered a little bad-boy rude.

  9. Eidolon said,

    September 18, 2015 @ 11:41 am

    Do the Russian terms "пизда" and "пиздатый" have "cow" semantics? My Russian is poor.

  10. BobW said,

    September 18, 2015 @ 12:37 pm


    "Tits" was in use in Detroit at about the same time "groovy" was in use on the West Coast – I don't recall anyone using "groovy" in real life, unless it was sarcastically.

  11. Sergey said,

    September 18, 2015 @ 12:53 pm

    Answering some questions:

    Eidolon: No, the Russian words have no cow semantics at all. They're generally used for human body parts, although in general would apply to any animal as well.

    Sybil: I don't know how the semantics of the Russian swear words came to be, but there are great many swear words derived from the body parts designations or sex activities that have meaning synonymous to the non-swear words, so you literally can build the meaningful phrases consisting of only the swear words (and some prepositions). They do a lot of that in the army :-) Interestingly, the parallel meaning of the word derived from the male genitalia is the opposite: "хуй" – penis (in a very rude form), "хуёвый" – bad. However "охуенный" or "охуительный" is awesome again. This one certainly comes from the verb "охуеть" that means "to be awestruck" or "to become insolent" depending on the context (the literal meaning is "become like a dick").

    An interesting thing is that this expressive swear language in Russian might be relatively new (or maybe not, such words are probably hard to find in the historical documents). There is a story from somewhere in 1920s in the book "Sea stories" of how the political commissar in the navy had stopped the old bosun swearing by outswearing him, and it looks like they were swearing very differently (mind you, the book is suitable for children and doesn't list the swearwords themselves but you can get the general shape of how they've been doing it). They held a contest of who can swear longer without repeating himself. And basically it seems like they've been just repeating the same phrase but with different objects and persons involved. I wouldn't say that this is "without repeating", I'd say it's just a repetition of the same. The author went through the strategy of the contest like "don't say 'twelve apostles', list them all out individually by name to get a longer time out of them". Interestingly, they traditionally invoked the tsar and tsar's family but none of them invoked the communist party heads or ministers which gives you an idea of the difference of the freedoms during the tsar's and communists' times. From this example, it looks like they've been swearing very differently then. But then again, maybe it's just the matter of re-telling the story in a form suitable for children that lost a lot of the original context.

  12. K Chang said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 7:44 am

    Speaking of vulgarities…

    The lady bits was "bi", but the manly bits was "diao", 屌, which was also written as

    Which is basically a door 門 (signifying the lady bits) and small 小 (signifying the manly bits)

    No such alternate word exists for "bi".

    At least, that's what baike said.

  13. languagehat said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 9:16 am

    I like Sergey's suggestion a lot (though I don't know how it works on the Chinese end), but I feel that for the sake of completeness I should add an important member of the пизда family that he omitted: пиздец [pizdets]; it's formally a noun but often used in the quasi-adjectival sense ‘fucking great/awful!’ (depending on context: Жизнь — пиздец как хороша! ‘Life is fucking great!’ but Погода сегодня — просто пиздец! ‘The weather today fucking sucks!’). It can mean 'the end' [of everything, of us all] (нам пиздец 'we're fucked') or 'that's enough' (Ну, пиздец, пора кончать пить 'OK, enough, time to stop drinking'), and Ой (or Понлый, or Просто) пиздец! is 'Oh fuck!' A protean word.

  14. January First-of-May said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 5:01 pm

    @ the latest languagehat comment:

    A few years back, Leonid Kaganov (a relatively popular Russian blogger) made up a letter that would symbolize the word "пиздец", and imagined it being inserted into Unicode under the name "Cyrillic Capital Unhappy End".
    Commenters noted that a letter of this shape already existed in Unicode, as U+0524 Cyrillic Pe With Descender (Ԥ). It's apparently used in an obsolete Abkhazian orthography.

    On everyone else: no, the Russian swear words have no relation to cows. About the closest that does is "тёлка", which is historically "female cow", but in the modern language is just a very informal word for "woman".

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