Words for anger

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Lisa Feldman Barrett has an article on "The Varieties of Anger" in last Sunday's NYT.  Most of it consists of reflections on pre- and post-election anger in our society.  But Barrett has one paragraph in which she makes some rather dubious claims about the number of words for “anger” in several languages:

The Russian language has two distinct concepts within what Americans call “anger” — one that’s directed at a person, called “serditsia,” and another that’s felt for more abstract reasons such as the political situation, known as “zlitsia.” The ancient Greeks distinguished quick bursts of temper from long-lasting wrath. German has three distinct angers, Mandarin has five and biblical Hebrew has seven.

I'll leave it to colleagues familiar with the relevant languages to discuss the words for different kinds of anger in Russian, Greek, German, and Hebrew.  As for Mandarin, which I know a little bit about, I would be hard pressed to identify precisely five different words for types of anger.  In fact, I can easily think of more than a dozen Mandarin words for different kinds of anger.

My favorite, and the most common one, is shēngqì 生气 (lit. "generate qi"; "get mad, take offense, become enraged, be pissed off [now that's an interesting English expression for 'get angry']").  I have left qi untranslated in the literal English definition because it is one of the most elusive and multivalent terms in Chinese chemistry, cosmology, physiology, medicine, etc.:  "gas; vapor; odor; air; breath; spirit; vital energy; energy of life; material energy").  Qi / ch'i is comparable to pneuma πνεῦμα in the Greek tradition, prāṇa प्राण in Sanskrit, and Hebrew ruach / rûaħ רוּחַAs such, it is often simply transcribed in translations from Chinese texts, thus qi (or as we used to write it in Wade-Giles romanization, ch'i), ki in Japanese, gi in Korean, and khí in Vietnamese. It is the qi in qigong, the ki in aikido, the ki in hankido, the khi of Tam Qui Khi-Kong, and so forth.

By sheer coincidence, a colleague of mine brought to my office yesterday a Chinese banner that had been stored in a closet in his home for decades.  He wanted to know what was written on it.  The title of the inscription was "Mò shēngqì 莫生氣" ("don't get angry") — more colloquially that would be bùyào shēngqì 不要生气.  The text consisted of advice about how to remain calm, to avoid getting upset, to deal with insults, and so on.

Another colorful Chinese expression for getting really angry is "huǒ dàle 火大了", which literally means "the fire became big"; in other words, "inflamed".

Here and for the other Mandarin words for varieties of anger listed below, I give more than one English word in the definitions.  This shows that the different words for types of anger in English and in Mandarin do not correlate one for one, but that they have fuzzy, overlapping boundaries.

fènnù 愤怒    anger, rage, wrath, fury, outrage, indignation

fèn 愤    anger, indignation

nù 怒   anger, fury, rage, wrath

nùqì 怒气    anger, rage, fury, ire

nùhuǒ 怒火    anger, rage, fury

huǒqì 火气    anger, temper, internal heat

fènnù 忿怒    anger, rage, ire, peeve

kài 忾    anger, irritation

fú 怫    angry, gloomy

huìhèn 恚恨    anger, hatred, abhorrence, detestation, spite

jīnù 激怒    anger, enrage, infuriate, pique, nettle

qiānnù 迁怒    vent one's anger on somebody who's not to blame; transfer / shift one's anger to others

And that's just the beginning for Mandarin.  To catalog the types of anger in the Sinosphere and the words to designate them would keep me busy for the next few days, and that would likely cause me to blow a gasket (fāpíqi 发脾气 [lit., "release spleen qi / ch'i", i.e., "lose my temper; become angry; cut up rough; let myself go; grizzle; ruffle"] — another of my favorite Mandarin expressions from the time I began studying the language) , so I won't do it.

[Thanks to Gene Buckley]


  1. Julian said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 8:01 pm

    A quick look at an online thesaurus says English has over 40 synonyms for anger. You could easily argue that they each have different meanings and connotations.

    It always seems to me that these sorts of supposedly exhaustive catalogs of related meanings in a language are a failure of imagination. Do they forget that poets exist? People want to express subtle variations in meaning, and where their language hasn't forged road they'll blaze a trail through the underbrush.

  2. Cervantes said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 8:13 pm

    Barrett is Canadian. What does she know about anger?

  3. Sergey said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 8:45 pm

    I wouldn't say that these two words in Russian represent two types of anger. I would say that they are essentially synonyms, with "serditsia" being the more archaic or formal word (which can be found in the books from 100 years ago but rarely used now in the real life). Both can be directed at someone or at oneself or at something or just in general. The more interesting thing about Russian is that the word "zloi" is used depending on the context for both "angry" and "evil" (but the verb "zlitsia" means only "get angry", never "get evil"). Though there is also the word "zlobnyi" that means only "angry" or "ill-tempered", never "evil". The nouns are "zlo" for "evil" and "zloba" for "anger"/"ill temper".

  4. Quodlibet said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 8:50 pm

    @Cervantes – what do Canadians know about anger? Do you have any idea how many words the Eskimos have for it?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 9:07 pm

    I neglected to mention another of my favorite Mandarin expressions from the first year of studying the language: qìsǐ 气死 ("angry to death") — that is, one fā/shēng 发/生 ("releases / generates" qì 气 to the degree that one sǐ 死 ("dies"). I remember reading a newspaper article during my third or fourth year of studying Mandarin that described a father who was so upset by his daughter marrying a foreigner that he "zhēnde qìsǐle 真的气死了" ("really died from anger"), as the report put it.

  6. Bathrobe said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 9:19 pm


  7. David Moser said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 10:23 pm

    Brian King has a Ph.D. dissertation from 1989 entitled "The Conceptual Structure of Emotional Experience in Chinese" (Ohio State University), in which he analyzes the many terms for anger, using George Lakoff's "metaphor theory".

  8. FM said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 10:58 pm

    @Sergey — that's not how I would characterize the difference between cердиться and злиться. First of all, I wouldn't characterize one as old-fashioned (though I've lived essentially my whole life outside Russia, so my instincts may be off on this.) To me, сердиться is milder, more rational and goal-oriented; злиться, more like impotent raging — somewhat similar to Barrett's distinction. Also, I would translate злобный as "spiteful".

    But then English also has the words "rage" and "spite" so…

  9. GH said,

    November 19, 2016 @ 12:59 am


    German also has the same overlap between "angry" and "evil" with the word böse.

  10. Fionnbharr Ó Duinnín said,

    November 19, 2016 @ 5:16 am

    This t-shirt pretty much covers the rising stages of anger for UK residents: http://ujitas.com/14908225_1167651709949382_2222922719422064518_n/

  11. Richard W said,

    November 19, 2016 @ 5:57 am

    动火 and 动肝火
    I suppose those are, respectively, "stir up (one's) fire" and "stir up (one's) liver fire", if translated literally.

  12. Jichang Lulu said,

    November 19, 2016 @ 6:49 am

    For the record, the NYT has very good China coverage. Too good for the GFW, actually.

    Stuff like this post-factual word counting or Jing Tsu's recent post-doing-your-homework op-ed, on the other hand, remind us that quality standards aren't contagious, even within one publication. To look at it half-full, you should be grateful such dollops of bollocques emerge from time to time to remind you not to buy books by Barrett or Tsu, which can have alluring titles sometimes.

  13. Guy A said,

    November 19, 2016 @ 7:22 am

    I’m pretty sure that biblical Hebrew has more than just seven words for anger and its variants. Here are eight of them:
    כַּעַס, רֹגֶז, חָרוֹן, זַעַם, עֶבְרָה, זַעַף, חֵמָה, קֶצֶף,
    There are probably a few more…
    As for Modern Hebrew, it has many more words and idioms to relate to types of anger.
    Regarding 生气 and ruach / rûaħ רוּחַ:
    Actually, Hebrew has the idiom חֲמַת רוּחַ (also from the bible), which is somewhat like 生气 (though not as common nowadays)…
    If I talk about “חמת רוחי”, for instance, it can roughly be translated to “the wrath of my spirit” (i.e., of my “Qi”).

  14. Robert Coren said,

    November 19, 2016 @ 12:16 pm

    @GH: yes, and met understanding is that böse in its "evil" sense actually has a wide range of connotations — it can be applied both to the Devil and to naughty children.

  15. Hans Adler said,

    November 19, 2016 @ 2:18 pm

    The main difference between this instance of counting words for anger in major languages and the more popular practice of counting Eskimo words for snow is that the estimates are too small rather than inflated. But ultimately it's exactly the same principle: Making bullshit claims about languages , involving essentially random numbers, as a hook for a discussion that is not about language.

    In case it's not clear, I am referring to bullshit in the technical sense of Harry Frankfurt's little monograph. My impression is that bullshit about language is among the most popular means for faking a multidisciplinary view on a matter.

  16. hector said,

    November 19, 2016 @ 5:22 pm

    What do Canadians know about anger?

    Oh, there was plenty of anger when Stephen friggin' Harper was PM, believe me. And he won a majority with less than 40 % of the popular vote.

  17. TR said,

    November 19, 2016 @ 6:12 pm

    I'm guessing the Greek words in question are μῆνις (for "long-lasting wrath" — the first word of the Iliad) and ὀργή (for "quick burst of anger"), but of course there are others.

  18. Chris Alderton said,

    November 19, 2016 @ 11:09 pm

    Perhaps my favourite such expression is "七窍生烟 qī qiào shēng yān"; "to spout smoke through the seven holes".

  19. Victor Mair said,

    November 20, 2016 @ 12:27 pm

    From Ralph Rosen:

    You can rest assured that there are plenty of words for anger in Greek (and Latin!).


    Ralph called my attention to this book:

    Susanna Braund, Glenn W. Most, Ancient Anger. Perspectives from Homer to Galen. Yale Classical Studies 32. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. 325. ISBN 0-521-82625-X. $65.00.

    In case you want to do some targeted poking around in it, I have a searchable pdf.

  20. Craig said,

    November 20, 2016 @ 9:54 pm

    For German, the author probably meant Zorn, Wut, and Ärger (maybe Verärgerung?).

  21. BZ said,

    November 21, 2016 @ 9:33 am

    Re: Russian, I should add that "zloi" never means angry, only evil. I should also say that "evil" does not precisely correspond to "zloi". I feel like the latter is a subset of the former, something like "prone to do bad things" (which does including getting angry for no reason). For example, while in English it would be common to say that Hitler was evil, I feel like in Russian, calling him "zloi" is an understatement, though, I can't think of a better translation right now.

  22. Christopher said,

    November 21, 2016 @ 8:33 pm

    Am I right in thinking that whereas "mad" as an adjective can be interpreted as either angry or insane, as in "he's mad", the noun madness doesn't have the connotation of anger, but only the connotation of insanity?

    P.S. I understand that the wording of my question will confound descriptivists.

  23. David Marjanović said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 7:42 pm

    For German, the author probably meant Zorn, Wut, and Ärger

    I'm a native speaker and was going to bring them up. :-) Ärger goes all the way down to irritation; Wut & Zorn extend in the other direction and also cover rage and wrath (including heiliger Zorn "holy wrath", Zorn Gottes "Wrath of God"). Etymologically, Wut is related to the name of the god-in-chief who was called Óðinn in Scandinavia, Woden in England, Wodan in northwestern Germany and Wuotan farther south.

  24. David Marjanović said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 7:44 pm

    I understand that the wording of my question will confound descriptivists.

    How so? You're asking a question about current usage, which is what descriptivists are all about.

    I think the answer is yes. But I'm neither a native speaker of English nor a resident of any English-speaking place.

  25. Michael Watts said,

    November 23, 2016 @ 1:07 am

    I agree that the noun "madness" cannot conventionally be used to refer to anger.

    I think it's overly generous to say the adjective "mad" can be interpreted as either angry or insane; to me, it means angry unless some very strong contextual cue exists to point the other way, such as being part of the fixed name "Mad Hatter" or the fixed expression "you're mad, MAD!".

  26. Eoin Cullen said,

    November 24, 2016 @ 9:52 am

    by the way
    where does the phrase 小氣 come from? does anyone know what being cheap has to do with qi?

  27. Richard W said,

    November 24, 2016 @ 5:08 pm

    @Eoin Cullen: Stinginess is about small flow: a tight-fisted person doesn't let money easily flow from his grasp. And you can also say that a fountain pen has a "stingy flow", for example. 氣 doesn't just mean "anger". It's also used more generally to refer to things that flow (such as gases, breath, energy etc.), and 小 means "small", so it shouldn't seem surprising that 小氣 (literally, "small flow") means stingy.

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