Two new words in Mandarin

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At least they're new for me.

I'm always learning new expressions, constructions, usages, etc. in Chinese.  The Sinitic languages are changing so rapidly that it is a heady experience trying to keep up with them.  The two new Mandarin words I just learned are good examples of the kinds of transformations that are constantly taking place in Chinese.

This morning somebody in China said that I am a dàkā 大咖 and defined that as "big icon" (I thought that was pretty funny).  What?  How / Why does dàkā 大咖 mean "big icon"?  Is it from "big cast"?  If so, what's the full form of 咖 in Chinese?

So I did a Google search on 大咖, and one of the first websites that popped up is, which gives the following example usages of the expression as rendered in English:

1. "He is a high profile asset to the university due to the advanced research he's conducted."

2. "He is a big deal at the university now."

3. "a big shot"

All right, I got the basic idea of what dàkā 大咖 means (the bolded items in the sample sentences), but I wanted to know how and why it means that.  The second character, 咖, is often used in transcriptions of foreign words (e.g., kāfēi 咖啡 ["coffee"]; gālí 咖喱 ["curry"], here with a different initial).  The mouth radical on the left side is a clear signal that it is being used to convey sound rather than meaning.  "Character"?  "Casting"?

Since this usage seems to have arisen fairly recently (within about ten years) in Taiwan and first in the entertainment industry, some have speculated that it came from English "cast" (can also be transcribed as kǎsī 卡司) or "character", perhaps through a Japanese intermediary (kyasuto キャスト; kyarakutā キャラクター).  Digging a bit deeper and asking around among a wider circle of informants, however, it appears that the notion of dàkā 大咖 ("big shot / deal") originated more directly from within Taiwanese.

Tōakha is pretty common in Taiwanese. It means "somebody important", a "big shot".  The fact that it is also written 大腳 (lit., "big foot"), gives us a hint as to its derivation, viz., kaksek 脚色 / 角色 ("character; role").  So 咖 is being used to convey the approximate sound of Taiwanese kaksek 脚色 / 角色 ("character; role").  Hence dàkā 大咖 signifies the main or leading role in a particular circle / group / field.  Taiwan media divide entertainers into several levels:  A咖 ("A-list"), B咖 ("B-list"), C咖 ("C-list"). etc.  There is also xiǎokā 小咖 ("minor role" — that would be something like "D-list") and guàikā 怪咖 ("strange character").  You can even have an interesting sentence like this:  zài yǎnyì jiè, tā suànshì ge kā 在演艺界,他算是个咖 ("in show biz, he is considered somebody").  In certain instances, xiǎokā 小咖 might be thought of as a "nobody".

This usage of as "level of stardom / influence / significance" appears to have become popular in Taiwan and Hong Kong first and then moved to the Mainland.

So what's the second new Chinese term that I learned this morning?  Actually, it's a word that I encountered long ago in Japanese (monogatari 物語 ["story; tale; legend"]), but I wasn't aware that it is also used in Mandarin, namely wùyǔ 物語 ("tale; story"), the Chinese name of the website from which I got the three example usages cited above:

Zhōng-Yīng wùyǔ 中英物語 ("Tales of Chinese and English")

Michael Cannings recalls:

In my days in the Taiwanese tech industry, the sales team at my company used to classify potential customer companies as A, B, or C (pronounced xī) děng 等 ("class; grade; rank"), with individual representatives from those companies identified as tōakha ("big fish") or siókha ("small fry") and offered varying levels of hospitality accordingly. So an A大 got the fancy meals, personal appearances from our CEO and various VPs, chauffeured around town, evening entertainment, etc. The C小s got a cup of tea and a chat with a junior salesperson. When referred to as A大 or other combined ranks the 大 and 小 were pronounced in Mandarin ( and xiǎo).

If I can indulge myself in an entirely unrelated reminiscence, my favourite Taiwanese phrase I picked up at that company was sí ti-á kè 死豬仔價 ("dead pig price"). Apparently at livestock markets live pigs were sold via a bidding process, but pigs already slaughtered commanded a fixed (and lower) price. It was used by our thâu-ke 頭家 ("boss") to describe competitors' products that were so cheap we couldn't compete.

Commanding constantly shifting and expanding vocabulary, especially when it spreads across several languages in different geographical regions, keeps one on one's toes.  And now I'm trying to think how to say that in Taiwanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and so on.

[Thanks to Mark Swofford, Michael Cannings, Liwei Jiao, Jing Wen, Melvin Lee, Grace Wu, Sophie Wei, Chia-hui Lu, Fangyi Cheng, Bo Xie, and Li Fuluowa]


  1. Simon P said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 1:55 am

    In Cantonese, to say you're very alert (i.e. on your toes) you could colloquially say 打醒精神 (daa2 seng2 zing1 san4, literally "beat awake the mind"). According to CantoDict, there's also the longer phrase 打醒十二個精神 (daa2 seng2 sap6 ji6 go3 zing1 san4, "to beat awake twelve spirits"), translated as "120% awake".

    Also, I started a thread on the CantoDict regarding 大咖, as it's not in the dictionary. I'm guessing the Cantonese pronunciation would be "daai6 kaa1" to go along with the Taiwanese and Mandarin, but the 咖 character isn't read the same in cantonese, so I'm not sure. Notably, "coffe", 咖啡, is read as "gaa3 fe1" in Cantonese.,138514

  2. liuyao said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 10:27 am

    It's still strange, if not disrespectful, to use dàkā on a university professor.

    An older expression in Pekingnese would be dàná 大拿, which appears in the movie Farewell My Concubine to refer to a "big shot" dexterous in both Peking Opera and Kunqu. Another term, 角儿 (pronounced jue instead of jiao), also originated from Peking Opera circle and now is used for movie stars.

    Mostly Taiwanese Mandarin tried to retain the old Peking pronunciation, but not in the case of 角 when it comes to mean actor/actress. You only hear zhujiao (leading actor/actress) peijiao (supporting actor/actress) in Taiwan (which is what led to "foot" in the discussion in the o.p.) but both pronunciations are prevalent in the Mainland.

    I've never seen wuyu other than in a Japanese context, and it's not clear what or if it means anything.

  3. liuyao said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 11:32 am

    I should've also mentioned 大腕儿, so we have big wrist along with big foot.

  4. Jacob said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 12:27 pm

    I imagine that 物语 would be familiar to many speakers under 40 via Japanese anime or video games. I first saw it in the video game 牧场物语 "Harvest moon."

    My first thoughts on "to be on one's toes" was 提高警惕 tigaojingti, (and that's what comes up in Baidu translate) but I'm sure there's a better way to translsate that.

  5. Bathrobe said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 6:38 pm

    I seem to recall seeing 物语 in commercial contexts. For instance, there is the bakery business 面包物语集团 miànbāo wùyǔ jítuán.

  6. Smith said,

    November 8, 2016 @ 11:29 am

    For what it's worth, I can attest that 物語 was used in 1991 in a Taiwan advertising campaign for … Nescafé? Estée Lauder? Always? as I was tasked with translating the storyboard for the foreign client and it was the first time I had encountered the phrase. Had it explained to me generously and quite incomprehensibly by a copywriter who was clearly worried that this weird foreigner lacked the deep culture to grasp the concepts at issue. Fortunately an account manager stepped in to say, "故事嘛!" (story!) and we were back on track.

  7. Richard W said,

    November 8, 2016 @ 6:56 pm

    "Since this usage seems to have arisen fairly recently (within about ten years) in Taiwan …"

    The word 大咖 appeared in a Taiwanese publication (Taiwan Panorama) as early as March 2009. There was no explanation of the meaning and it was not enclosed in quote marks. In other words, it appears to have been a term that was fairly familiar to readers at that time, so I think it may well date back to a couple of years or more before that.

    Here is the example from March 2009:
    徐立功、張家振等大咖投資人和製作人, "major investors and producers like Xu Ligong and Terence Chang,"

  8. Bruce Humes said,

    November 14, 2016 @ 7:15 pm

    I am frankly surprised that Professor Mair would not previously have noted the use of 物语. This term has been widely used in Taiwan for at least two decades, if I remember correctly. And it is quite mainstream, not limited to video or animé.

    Translating it as 故事 doesn't really do it justice, though. Its use in literature suggests that the story has a dreamy, fairy-tale quality and it often appears in titles re: romantic episodes.

    It has indeed been widely appropriated for commercial use, particularly in names for restaurants and cafés (咖啡物语), for instance. I have done no research on this whatsoever. But my impression is the use of 物语 here doesn't refer to anything as grand as "legendary." Rather, it suggests that there is a subtle ambience in such venues that lends itself to interaction that may allow you, the little person, to quietly weave a tale that is of great import to you and someone special.

  9. Richard W said,

    November 15, 2016 @ 12:21 am

    Some famous Japanese titles of works of fiction are
    – "Genji Monogatari" (The Tale of Genji, c. 1010)
    – "Heike Monogatari" (The Tale of the Heike, c. 1240)
    – "Tokyo Monogatari" (movie, "Tokyo Story", 1953)

    Similarly, in Chinese, 物語 is often used as the last word in a title.
    A Taiwan example from 1987 is the title of a play by Stan Lai, 《圓環物語》, which has been translated variously as "Circle Story" and "Chatting in the Traffic Circle". It "dealt with the decline of Taipei's famed 'Circle' area of food stalls and the government's haphazard policies toward it as a metaphor for the vicious cycle of relationships in modern Taipei life."

    An example where 物語 appears in the title of a nonfiction magazine article is 男性照顧者物語. The article is described as "a report on male caregivers who devote their lives to caring for a disabled or severely ill parent, spouse or child". I suppose the use of 物語 in the title may possibly be a reference to Ozu's movie "Tokyo Story", which is also about family members caring for each other (or not).

    Other nonfiction usages of 物語 in Chinese:
    1) 尋米稻足跡 溯蓬萊物語
    (This was the title of a magazine article translated by the magazine as "Tracing the Roots of Taiwanese Rice". The second part of the Chinese title could perhaps be rendered more literally as "story of seeking out the origins of Taiwan's 'penglai' rice varieties".)

    2) A magazine article subheading: 「星砂」物語 Research into foraminifera
    (星砂 refers to the fossilized remains of foraminifera, a kind of plankton)

    Some fiction titles:
    1) 但2005年接下了導演吳念真製作的連續劇《偵探物語》,
    "in 2005 he began working on the Wu Nien-jen-directed PTS series A..S..T.."

    2) 之後貓夫人出版她的第一本書《猴硐貓城物語》,
    "In the wake of her success in Japan, she published a book, Houdong Cat Talk,"

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