A new English word

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Since I began the study of Chinese languages half a century ago, there's one word that I have found very useful and versatile, but extremely hard to translate into English, so in this post I'm going to propose that we might as well just simply (gāncuì 乾脆 = the previous five English words) borrow it into English and be done with it.  That word is the almighty, inimitable, the one and only:  lìhài!

lìhài 厉害 (simplified) / 厲害 (traditional)

Click on the little speaker icon here to hear lìhài pronounced in Mandarin.  I sometimes pun on the name of the river, valley, and especially the university that are situated approximately 50 miles north of Philadelphia — Lehigh — since it sounds almost the same as lìhài.

Here are some of its meanings:

severe; strict; stern; rigorous; harsh; terrible; formidable; fierce; powerful; tough; intense; ferocious; shrewd; sharp (as a razor); cruel; serious; bad; ruthless; damnable; difficult to deal with; difficult to endure; radical; violent; tremendous; devastating; grisly; extremely clever; talented; awesome; excellent; amazing; fantastic

It should be immediately obvious that many of the meanings of lìhài 厉害 / 厲害 are completely contradictory.  Depending upon how you say it and in what circumstances, Tèlǎngpǔ / Chuānpǔ hěn lìhài 特朗普 / 川普 很厲害 could mean either "Trump is terrible" or "Trump is amazing".

How can we account for the sharply dichotomous semantics of the word lìhài?  A look at the two morphemes of which it is composed may help us understand its simultaneously ambiguous and powerful expressiveness:

lì 厉/ 厲 whet(stone); grind; sharpen

hài 害 injure; harm(ful); damage; destroy; kill; calamity; cause trouble to; evil; impair; kill; murder; suffer from

The second syllable has decidedly undesirable and unfavorable connotations, whereas the first evinces effectiveness and precision.

The contradictory semantics of lìhài are reflected even more clearly in the alternative Sinographic form for writing the word:  利害 ("profits and losses; advantages and disadvantages; benefit and harm; pros and cons").

zhēn lìhài 真厲害 ("really bad")

[Thanks to Yixue Yang]


  1. DW said,

    November 30, 2016 @ 9:31 pm

    somewhat similar to "killer", no?

  2. Buttercup said,

    November 30, 2016 @ 9:44 pm

    Or "wicked!"

  3. Mara K said,

    November 30, 2016 @ 9:49 pm

    At immersion camp in high school, I learned "lihai" as a positive thing, about equivalent to "awesome." The negative meanings were never discussed.

  4. Eulinne said,

    November 30, 2016 @ 10:14 pm

    It's a funny coincidence, that in Russian there's a word лихой (likhoj), which sounds kind of similar – [lʲɪxˈoj] and also means 'harsh; terrible; formidable; bad; ruthless; awesome', though it doesn't have any etymological connection to lìhài.

  5. Thorin said,

    November 30, 2016 @ 10:37 pm

    Reminds me of German "krass".

  6. Victor Mair said,

    November 30, 2016 @ 10:58 pm


    Out of curiosity, what is the etymology of Russian лихой (likhoj)?

    All the occurrences of lìhài in the form 厉害 / 厲害 that I'm aware of are modern, within the last century or so.

    I think that I came across this parallel between lìhài 厉害 / 厲害 and лихой (likhoj) once many years ago, but didn't know what to make of it because I didn't take the time to determine that lìhài 厉害 / 厲害 was a modern term in Chinese and didn't have the means to look into the etymology of лихой (likhoj).

  7. anya said,

    November 30, 2016 @ 11:30 pm


  8. Jenny Chu said,

    November 30, 2016 @ 11:49 pm

    This sounds interesting but I would love to have some more examples of how you would like to use the word, other than saying "Trump is so lihai". What's a situation where you were speaking English and felt compelled to use the word (such that no other would do)?

  9. Jenny Chu said,

    November 30, 2016 @ 11:57 pm

    By the way, my words-I-wished-exist-in-English include the following (both from Vietnamese) and I would love to know some good ones from other languages:

    Kệ nó – It's usually translated as "forget it", like "don't worry about it", but it's kinder than that; it's said with a smile. You might say it to a little puppy who doesn't know that he shouldn't be chewing on your shoe, and anyway he's too little to cause any real harm, or (ironically) for a younger staff member who didn't know any better than to mess up the report.

    Đàng hoàng – When you do something đàng hoàng, you do something openly and proudly, the opposite of shamefacedly. But obviously it doesn't mean shamelessly – it means you can do the thing with dignity/decorum and knowledge that everything is honest.

    My favorite Chinese (well, Cantonese) words-that-I-wish-existed-in-English are perhaps not so fit for the polite company of LL :)

  10. Bob Ladd said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 2:22 am

    You get a similar effect with the closely related English pairs awful and awesome and terrible and terrific. I think there are passages in the King James Bible where awful is used with roughly the modern meaning of awesome. As for terrible and terrific, there's a neatly parallel pair in Romanian, derived from the same Slavic root meaning something like 'terror', namely grozav (which is positive) and groaznic (which is negative). Curiously, though, English horrible and horrific, which are morphologically exactly like terrible and terrific, are both negative (and if anything horrific is worse than horrible).

  11. Popup said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 3:36 am

    Then there's egregious, which I saw once defined as bad – also good. (Although the 'good' sense is almost always marked as archaic.)

  12. ajay said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 7:28 am

    You get a similar effect with the closely related English pairs awful and awesome and terrible and terrific

    and, indeed, "shit" and "the shit".

  13. Reid said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 7:48 am

    加油 is my candidate for untranslatable work that should be added to English.

  14. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 9:00 am

    @Jenny Chu

    Is the latter much different from saying in English that one does something proudly or with pride?

  15. Stephen said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 9:03 am

    The Chinese course I did presented lìhài at first solely in its negative meaning, which was confusing as I can only ever remember hearing friends use it as a positive.

    There's also the similar Japanese すごい / sugoi which I believe originally was used as 'terrible' rather than the common present day 'awesome' meaning.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 9:15 am

    @Jenny Chu

    "some more examples of how you would like to use the word"

    The moments when I feel the need for "lihai" is when I'm thinking of both the positive and negative aspects of something or some person at the same time. It is at such moments that the word "lihai" pops into my mind, and I can't readily find an apt English equivalent.

    Maybe now I'll start thinking of лихой (likhoj) too!

  17. Victor Mair said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 9:21 am

    So interesting! Mara K's introductory course taught only the positive meaning of "lihai", whereas Stephen's introductory course taught only the negative meaning. When one reaches the stage of grasping both aspects of the word, one experiences a kind of liberating feeling, almost like a sort of enlightenment.

  18. KeithB said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 9:50 am

    Bob Ladd:
    I believe the King James is using awful literally: full of awe.

  19. Steven P. said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 10:57 am

    @Victor: The closest expression I can think of is "something else":

    "That Donald Trump is really something else": said in response to one of his perfectly pointed yet appalling tweets;

    "Oh, M_____? He's really something else": said of a very bright and charismatic student who got himself into, and out of, all sorts of implausible and messy situations on a near-daily basis.

    "Dean _____ is something else, isn't she?": said of a Dean who, after thirty minutes of artful debate, got the faculty legislature to enthusiastically endorse a controversial policy that they'd previously rejected outright

    The precise meaning varies with the tone of voice and situation. In the last example, for instance, both supporters and opponents of the policy could say it, and the tone would make the difference.

  20. Jonathan said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 11:13 am

    @JennyChu – I had Irish co-workers who would use the phrase "No worries" in much the same way you've described "Kệ nó" being used.

    I've tried adopting it, and I think it just doesn't work as well with my American accent.

  21. Mara K said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 11:15 am


    I associate 加油 with "break a leg" and/or "you got this." Not sure what you mean by untranslatable.

  22. Steve O'Harrow said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 11:27 am

    "POWERFUL" – this is neither good nor bad
    in English – it simply denotes strength and
    the uses to which it may be put are myriad

  23. DA said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 2:14 pm

    Could we think of it as meaning something like "extreme"?

  24. Harold said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 2:44 pm

    @Bob Ladd
    I've only ever heard "grozav" used in a negative sense, roughly synonymous with "groaznic".

  25. Bruce L said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 2:45 pm

    I feel that "lihai" has elements of skill and competence which some of the suggested words don't quite capture (most speakers I know would be Mandarin speakers from Taiwan, not sure if this is particular to my interlocutors)

    I like "puissant" as a translation, but maybe that's too obscure.

  26. EndlessWaves said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 2:45 pm

    Sick would be another potential translation lìhài.

  27. Janice Byer said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 5:38 pm

    @Jenny Chu

    "No biggie" is what this American says for what you describe as "ke no".

    Hope it's no biggie that I lack the knowledge to access the keys to digitize your word properly :)

  28. peter said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 6:01 pm


    There's also the pair:

    "Bollocks" and "The dog's bollocks"

  29. Eidolon said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 7:04 pm

    "Out of curiosity, what is the etymology of Russian лихой (likhoj)?"

    According to Wiktionary, from Old East Slavic лихъ (lixŭ).

    "All the occurrences of lìhài in the form 厉害 / 厲害 that I'm aware of are modern, within the last century or so."

    Online sources indicate "子不知厲害,則至人固不知利乎" is found in the Northern Song text 太平御覽, dating to around the 10th century. But this is likely a misspelling of 利害, which is a very old word in Sinitic, dating back to Old Chinese.

    Judging by the usage and the composition of characters, 利害 is likely related to 厲害 but only in the negative sense. In the other sense, radical/awesome/wicked, it is a neologism, perhaps cognate to the Russian word cited above.

  30. Victor Mair said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 7:22 pm

    Does anyone know the meaning of Old East Slavic лихъ (lixŭ)?

  31. Victor Mair said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 7:27 pm

    @Jenny Chu

    From a friend who is married to a Vietnamese:

    The Vietnamese word I most commonly hear at home is "khó chịu" (unpleasant, hard to get along with).

  32. Eidolon said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 8:00 pm

    Upon further consideration, I want to contradict myself on 利害 and 厉害 being related.

    First, it helps to be more specific in the above distinction between 利害 and 厉害 / 厲害.

    利害 combines two diametrically opposed words – 利 benefit and 害 harm – in a word that might be translated literally as "cost-benefit" in English. This sense is still used in Modern Standard Chinese today, as in the phrase 利害关系, which is usually translated as "stake" in English, which can be understood as simply another way of saying "cost-benefit." That is, my "stake" in a project is the "cost-benefit" of the project with respect to me.

    However, and in contradiction with what I said above, this version of 利害, though at times written as 厉害, is most likely *not* related to the latter. The first sense of 厉害 is severe/strict. This sense is very similar to the definition of the first character, 厉, which also means firm/strict/severe; however, the single character word preceded the two character word by thousands of years. It is therefore likely that 厉害, in the sense of severe/strict, emerged as an expansion of 厉, which given its late date, may have been inspired by Russian likhoj and enabled by the misspelling of 利害 already within the vocabulary.

    The second sense, powerful/strong/awesome, could've then arose simply as a popular sentiment reversal, as suggested by people above, which seems common enough among words of this class – "bad ass," "wicked," "awful", etc.

    This seems more solid than the idea that 厉害 and 利害 were related.

  33. tedpamulang said,

    December 2, 2016 @ 4:07 am

    In Indonesian, lihai (a Chinese loan word) has the following meanings: 1 cunning, crafty, clever (in deceiving), shrewd; 2 witty; 3 excellent, superior – but most often the first set.

  34. Andy said,

    December 2, 2016 @ 9:49 am

    Meillet (Le slave commun) derives лихъ from *leik-so, meaning 'superfluous, odd (of a number), left over', itself from PIE *leykʷ (cf. Lat. linquo, Gr. λείπω). Descendent words in Russian and other Slavic languages must have acquired their positive and/or negative connotations and new meanings from this original notion of 'the odd one out, the exception'. (Compare the development of the word 'odd' itself in English).

    There's also the Greek δεινός to be added to the list: its original meaning is 'terrible, awe-inspiring' (PIE *dwey); also 'strange; wondrous; powerful; dangerous', etc.; and later on (starting with Herodotus) 'clever, skilful'.

  35. January First-of-May said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 3:57 am

    The Russian word reminds me of one distantly related linguistic anecdote: several copies of a certain 11th century text attest the name of the original 11th century copyist – the priest Упырь Лихой (in the original spelling, Оупирь Лихыи).
    At face value, this translates to something along the lines of "Wicked Vampire", which is a rather improbable name for a priest (or for anybody really, but for a priest especially).

    Then someone proposed a theory that Оупирь was the transliteration of a Scandinavian name, and that the person in question is the 11th century Scandinavian runemaster Ofeigr Öpir.
    There are obviously still quite some doubts in this theory; an alternate theory, without involving any Scandinavians, is basically that the "Vampire" part was a childhood nickname that stuck, and the "Wicked" part was self-deprecation by the copyist (apparently common in similar texts). But IMHO the Scandinavian version is cooler.

  36. FM said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 9:36 am

    @Victor: Russian лихо is an old-fashioned word for 'evil (n.)'. So лихой must have started as straightforwardly meaning 'evil (adj.)', this is preserved in the fossilized phrase лиха беда начало, literally 'the evil misfortune is the beginning' but meaning 'starting [sth.] is the hardest part'. Today the more common meaning is something like 'bold, daredevil, free-wheeling.' It's how you would describe a driver who is self-assured about going too fast around turns, or a painter who paints in big, bold strokes, or those strokes themselves, or just a guy (I think it has to be a guy) who doesn't give a shit. It seems much more specific than lìhài, though.

  37. David Marjanović said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 1:59 pm

    "I'll beat you up bad, but good!"
    – Donald Duck to his nephews, many a decade ago.

    There's also the Greek δεινός to be added to the list: its original meaning is 'terrible, awe-inspiring' (PIE *dwey); also 'strange; wondrous; powerful; dangerous', etc.; and later on (starting with Herodotus) 'clever, skilful'.

    So dinosaurs are "clever/skillful lizards" after all…!

  38. Lazar said,

    December 4, 2016 @ 4:57 am

    @DM: Clever girl…

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