Heavy traffic jam

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An anonymous correspondent sent in this photograph of a fake vehicle license plate in the window of a truck parked in an industrial area in the New Territories, Hong Kong that he took a couple of years ago:

MSM: sāi dào bǔ jiē / Cant. sak1 dou3 buk1 gaai1 塞到卜街

For the moment, I will not attempt to translate the Chinese. I also have to confess that I'm not entirely confident that I transcribed the Cantonese correctly; the first two characters could also conceivably be read coi3 and dou2.  I'll come back to the translation and transcription later, after some consideration of the background and context of this rather mystifying wording.

I also found the same sign on the dashboard of a car as pictured on flickrHere it's affixed to the back of a heavy truck.

The meaning of the sign is discussed on reddit under the subject heading "Which Cantonese phrase do you think is pretty much untranslatable into English?", with some commenters saying it's untranslatable, or doesn't make sense even in Cantonese.  The last comment, by biggreencat, is:  "the english translation should be 'fucking jammed'".  We'll return to that momentarily.

塞到卜街 only yields around 300 ghits (so it's probably not a fixed phrase), including a couple of short YouTube videos, but it's all enigmatic and inconclusive.  In web citations, the expression often occurs in the context of this phrase:  懶得理話知你塞到卜街.  That leaves me even more stupefied.  I know all the characters, and I have a vague sense of what it's about, but my Cantonese is obviously not nearly good enough to grasp the precise meaning of these locutions, much less all their nuances.

Because a full explication and appreciation of 塞到卜街 and 懶得理話知你塞到卜街 will require the quotation of a considerable amount of Cantonese, I will depart from my customary practice on Language Log of providing Romanization for all characters cited.  Instead, I suggest that readers who want to know how a particular string of characters is pronounced in Cantonese copy them into this handy tool.

Our first order of business is to translate each of the four characters in 塞到卜街 into English:  "stuffed to / arrive / reach divine / foretell street".  Naturally, that doesn't make any sense, so something else Cantonesey must be going on.  My suspicion is that is centered in 卜街 ("divine / foretell street") which, to a person who is unfamiliar with Cantonese, is baffling.

Looking around, I find that there's a discussion of this expression in the Wikipedia article on "Cantonese profanity", though written differently, with 仆 ("servant, henchman; fall prostrate") instead of 卜 ("divine / foretell").  At this point, I'm guessing that 仆街 might mean something like "fall on the street", but that still doesn't enlighten me on the meaning of the whole phrase:  塞到卜街 ("stuffed to / arrive / reach fall on the street").  Anyway, I was lucky to find the Wikipedia entry on , and here is what it says:

Puk gai (踣街, usually idiomatically written as Chinese: 仆街; Cantonese Yale: puk1 gaai1) literally means "falling onto street", which is a common curse phrase in Cantonese that may be translated into English as "drop dead". It is sometimes used as a noun to refer to an annoying person that roughly means a "prick". The phrase can also be used in daily life under a variety of situations to express annoyance, disgrace or other emotions. Since the phrase does not involve any sexual organs or reference to sex, some argue that it should not be considered as profanity. Nevertheless, "PK" is often used as a euphemism for the phrase. The written form can be seen on graffiti in Hong Kong and in Guangdong, China.

In Southeast Asia, the meaning of the phrase has evolved so that it is no longer a profanity, and is usually taken to mean "epic fail". In Taiwan, it is commonly used to refer to planking. The term is even used in a colloquial sense by Malaysian Malays, in which case it is usually rendered as "pokai".

What's fascinating about this expression, which literally seems to mean "fall face down on the street", is considered by many people to be so vulgar that it requires a much more colorful translation in English (for some suggestions, see below).  I wonder, though, when it is written as "PK", whether this is for the purpose of euphemism.  In my estimation, this is just another example of the countless terms in colloquial Sinitic topolects that are often written with letters of the alphabet, especially when people are uncertain how to write them in characters or when there are variant forms of the expression in characters.

Now, to show how widely native Cantonese speakers vary in their interpretation of 塞到卜街 and 懶得理話知你塞到卜街, I will quote the explanations that were sent to me by a number of respondents.

From a journalist long resident in Hong Kong:

卜街 is pronounced Pook Gai, means something like "falling/tripping and hitting your nose against the street", and is used as a general expletive.

From a Cantonese-American college student who just returned from Hong Kong:

In Cantonese, we say '塞車' for traffic jam instead of what I think is '交通堵塞' in Mandarin. As for '卜街', this is a common profanity and colloquial Cantonese at its best. It literally means 'fall (dead) on the street' and in Cantonese it's something like a stronger way of saying "drop dead". So really, I think the phrase '塞到卜街' is a pun, as it refers both to the act of being blocked (塞) to the point of (到) stopping dead in the street (卜街), as well as a common curse used for an annoying person or situation. In Hong Kong, it seems it's more acceptable to use profanity in public when you hide it in a pun, like those 'delay no more' shirts.

(See: "Delay no more," 1/12/16.)

From a Cantonese-American who works in finance and is a recent college graduate:

Hahaha…it's a little stronger than heavy traffic jam.

In Cantonese:

塞車 is traffic jam

卜街 is pretty impolite

So basically it's "traffic is bad as hell"

From a Cantonese-American professor of Chinese literature:

You might be surprised to learn that I spoke Cantonese almost exclusively until I was ten years old, and never learned any romanization system for it.  But I think I can answer your question.  卜街 is a phrase meaning something like "falling on your face in public."  Yes, there is a connotation of shame and disgrace for losing control out on the street.

[VHM:  Even though it is not directly related to the topic of this post, I included the first sentence of this correspondent's note to point out how lamentable it is that students growing up in Hong Kong are not encouraged to write their mother tongue in Romanization and in schools are forbidden from writing it in Chinese characters.]

From a Hong Kong reporter:

Neither of these, 塞到卜街 or 懶得理話知你塞到卜街, are set phrases, as far as I know. 塞到卜街 is just a short form of 塞(車塞)到卜街, which specifically refers to traffic jam ("塞車" = "堵車"). You can form numerous phrases out of "X到卜街", such as 餓到卜街,攰(=累)到卜街, etc. "X到卜街" means "extremely", "to the max".

As for 懶得理話知你塞到卜街 — it probably means 懶得理(你), 話知你(塞車)塞到卜街 。 "話知你"= 隨便你/我懶得理你了。

From a Hong Kong barrister:

The phrases are not so much Cantonese as they are Hong Kong slang.  I am not sure people in Canton would understand them.

The shorter one of 塞到卜街 can be translated as follows:

塞 – jam (implied to be of the traffic kind)
到 – to the extent
卜街 – (informal, some may consider this profane) literally, falling flat on one's face; generally used to express annoyance or frustration; also used to mean "epic fail" (in the internet sense)

So put together, it means something like "stuck in an 'epic' traffic jam"

The longer one seems more like a string of different phrases than an actual sentence.

懶得理 – I don't care

話知你 – You do what you want

塞到卜街 – (I am / We are) stuck in an "epic" traffic jam (anyway)

[VHM:  It's very interesting that he refers to these expressions as "slang", not as "colloquial", and that he is uncertain whether people in Guangzhou (Canton) would understand them.  This prompts me to mention that the gulf between usage of Cantonese in Hong Kong and in Guangzhou is enormous and growing wider by the day.  This is not only a function of different lexicon, it is also a matter of the people in Hong Kong still using (speaking, hearing, writing — including in public media) Cantonese a lot more than in Guangzhou.]

From a British Sinologist long resident in Hong Kong, who supplied the following after consulting with a Hong Kong University tutor who is a a native speaker:

We know that "仆街" or "PK" is semantically very flexible. I've heard it used literally as "fall down (on the street)." It can be used in a way similar to how "epic fail!" has come to be used. But usually it's vulgar for, roughly, "jerk/ass/bitch!" or "Drop dead / go to hell!"

X 到 Y is similar to the Mandarin "X 到 Y 的程度" ("X to the degree of Y"). In Cantonese, we could have 好食到爆 / "so delicious you feel like you'll explode" or 難食到死 / "so unpalatable you feel like you'll die."

So "塞到仆街" is "traffic is congested to a 仆街 degree," which I'd surmise is comparable to the English "Traffic is damn congested" or "Heavy damn traffic jam" or perhaps "traffic is jammed to the point that we're all failing to get anywhere / falling awkwardly on the street." (At first, I said "fucking congested" or "fucking heavy," but my colleague argues that "仆街" is not nearly as offensive as "fuck.")

My colleague offered other examples: 跌到仆街 for a severe stock plunge and 難食到仆街 for food that's really awful.

A relatively non-vulgar alternative slang construction is to add 鬼 (lit., "ghost; horrible; terrible") before adjectives. "好鬼正" / really damn great, cool; "好鬼難食" / really damn unpalatable. The deeply vulgar, offensive alternative is to put lan/lun / "dick" in the same position as 鬼.

The meaning of "懶得理" is more-or-less as a Mandarin speaker would interpret the graphs: "I can't be bothered to attend to…."

"話知你 X" is "I'm telling/warning you that X [might/will happen or has happened, and I won't be responsible, it's your concern]."

So according to my colleague, "我懶得理你,話知你考試唔合格" might be something an exasperated parent would say to a lazy teenager who after many warnings still isn't studying for exams. "I can't be bothered with you, I'm just telling you, you'll fail the exam." The sentence expresses an exasperated but helpless attitude.

An angry driver who feels the police or transportation authorities are doing nothing to reduce traffic jams could say, "懶得理,話知你塞到仆街" / "Damn! [The authorities] can't be bothered to deal with this! I'm telling you, the traffic is so heavy that we drivers are all failing to get anywhere / falling over in the street."

To sum up, the English on the sign in the truck conveys the gist of the Chinese wording, but it is a bowdlerized, sanitized version of the Cantonese.

[Thanks to Chris Fraser, Frank Chong, Carmen Lee, Erling Hoh, Mandy Chan, Timothy Wong, Justin Wong, and Norman Leung]



8 Comments

  1. Luis Morales Knight said,

    July 22, 2016 @ 4:01 am

    "Traffic is fucked [up]", perhaps? From college friends who were native speakers of Cantonese, I never had the immersion that 'pok gaai' was vulgar, but it did certainly include the meaning of 'to make a mistake'. If it's vulgar that would open up glossing it as 'to fuck up'. And in U.S. English we would certainly say 'Traffic is fucked' to get at the idea of a heavy traffic jam.

  2. Kevin Yeung said,

    July 22, 2016 @ 6:10 am

    I'm a native, Hongkong-born Cantonese speaker since birth. I lived in HK for 18 years before I left so I can offer some perspective.

    I think the interpretation of "traffic is congested to a 卜街 degree" is correct. But I also think something is missing in the entire conversation, that the plate is not a vanity car plate like those you find in the US. It's actually a street sign, like this: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/39/Hong_Kong_To_Kwa_Wan_Tsun_Fat_Street_Road_Sign.JPG

    You'll find that the last Chinese character in 塞到卜街 and that in the wikimedia site are the same. It means street. So, the sign is a pun. I imagine the following conversation on the phone:

    Girlfriend: "You're supposed to pick me up 30 minutes ago. Where are you?"

    Boyfriend, driving: "I'm turing into 塞到卜街. It's going to be another 15 minutes."

  3. ahkow said,

    July 22, 2016 @ 7:54 am

    Strictly speaking, the sign seems to be a parody of Hong Kong road signs (black border, English text above Chinese text), not a vehicle license plate.

    Example of a real street sign: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Road_signs_in_Hong_Kong#/media/File:Boundary_Street_Road_sign_2015.jpg

    The joke here is that street names are XYZ街 (XYZ Street). 塞到卜街 is intended to be parsed as [塞到卜]街.

  4. APOLLO WU said,

    July 22, 2016 @ 8:38 am

    塞到卜街 should sound like sek1 dou2pok1 gaai1 n Cantonese.

    which means that the traffic jam is as awful as if one fall flat on the street.

    卜街 is a idiomatic expression with the image of one being unfortunately tripped and hurt oneself by falling flat on the street. It is a curse on person one hates and thus wishes the person hurts oneself badly by falling flat on the street.

  5. Apollo Wu said,

    July 22, 2016 @ 9:59 am

    The character 卜 should be 扑 instead. The latter means falling forward.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 22, 2016 @ 11:23 am

    I wanted to thank those who identified the sign under discussion as a parody of a street sign. As a matter of fact, when I wrote "fake vehicle license plate" at the beginning of the post, I felt uncomfortable with that, but was just following what the anonymous correspondent who sent the photograph to me referred to it as. Identifying it as a street sign adds a whole other dimension to the cleverness of the Chinese wording.

  7. Daniel Barkalow said,

    July 22, 2016 @ 3:56 pm

    Maybe "Traffic Jam Gr. Ave."?

  8. Movenon said,

    July 23, 2016 @ 11:14 pm

    I would translate this as:
    CONGESTED AF

    af is the recently popularized (last couple years?) English abbreviation for "as fuck," but with the benefit of not having to explicitly write out the entire f word, and therefore not perceived to be as crass.

    The 到 here is indeed dou3, rather than dou2. For this character Cantonese uses the pronunciation dou3 when indicating that something is reaching an extent, such as this sak1 dou3 X.
    Example 佢食到肚都大晒 keoi5 sik6 dou3 tou5 dou1 daai6 saai3 'He ate till his belly was engorged'.
    It is also used when linking to 不得了, whereas Mandarin uses 得, for example 佢嬲到 (dou3) 不得了 = 他生氣得不得了.

    The pronunciation dou2 (sometimes written by people as 倒 for the different tone) is used to indicate ability to do something. Example: 佢食到咁多嘢真係好喇 keoi5 sik6 dou2 gam3 do1 ye5 zan1 hai6 hou2 la3 'It's great that he's able to eat so much.'

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