Roll out of here, Mubarak

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Jonathan Smith sent me this photograph of a man holding a bilingual sign during the protests in Egypt:

The Chinese says:

Gǔn chūqù Mùbālākè 滚出去穆巴拉克 ("Get out, Mubarak!")

The writing of the first character is odd. Otherwise, the characters are written neatly and correctly, but almost certainly not by a Chinese person.

The verb gǔn 滚 is interesting in that it literally means "roll" and is clearly intended as an insult. The verbal complements chūqù 出 去 respectively mean "go / come out" and "go away / to". The writer could easily have been more insulting if he had replaced the verbal complements with the word for "egg", thus gǔndàn 滾蛋 ("roll out of here like an egg"). As to the semantics of the opprobrious usage of dàn 蛋 ("egg"), they are so complex that I need to write a separate post on that subject.

The Arabic lines say:

law mish fāhim ‘arabī
gūr yā mubārak bi`l-ṣīnī

If you can't understand Arabic,
that's "Scram, Mubarak, in Chinese".

This is the third in a series of Language Log posts about Chinese signs in the context of the Middle East Jasmine Revolutions. The previous two were "Chinese sign in Benghazi" and "Maybe Mubarak understands Chinese".

[A tip of the hat to Joseph Lowry for help with the Arabic]


  1. Yuval said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 2:07 am

    Got the quotation marks wrong…
    The Arabic reads
    "If you can't understand Arabic, […] "Scram, Mubarak", in Chinese".
    Where […] is the Chinese part.

  2. Jason said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 2:33 am

    In Chinese, you can say the equivalent of "get eggwise out of here?" and it will be insulting? Who'd a thunk?

    Otherwise, the characters are written neatly and correctly, but almost certainly not by a Chinese person.

    Yeah, It's strange that they are so blocky, when Arabic is so… curvy. But maybe this is good evidence of how we memorize characters, by laying them out on a square grid.

    Also, perhaps you'd like to write "other than this", not otherwise? I'm familiar with this sense of "otherwise", but it feels casual and has never sat well with me. Sentences that use this construction always throw me off, unti l realize that I'm hearing the "other" otherwise. Otherwise, I would recommend this post to my friends.

    [(myl) Does it decrease your concern for your friends' delicate lexical sensitivities to learn that the OED has a sense for otherwise that fits this usage exactly, glossed as "In other respects", with a first citation from 1375 ("He gaf hem answere a-gayn þat god it [sc. a child] him sent; oþer-wise wist non where he it founde.") and more recent citations from various notable authors:

    1889 ‘M. Twain’ Connecticut Yankee xxv. 324 He knew somewhat about the warfare of the time—bushwacking around for ogres, and bull-fights in the tournament ring, and such things—but otherwise he was empty and useless.
    1922 J. Joyce Ulysses iii. 687 Was the narration otherwise unaltered by modifications? Absolutely.
    1952 G. Vidal Judgm. of Paris ii. i. 19 The streets otherwise were discouragingly familiar.


  3. Gary said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 7:04 am

    In Chinese, you can say the equivalent of "get eggwise out of here?" and it will be insulting? Who'd a thunk?

    Think other physical objects whose shape reminds speakers of many languages (not English, but other European languages like German for example) of eggs.

  4. Mr Fnortner said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 8:55 am

    Odd that he'd write in Arabic, "If you can't understand Arabic". Reminds me of the (joking) ad that says, "Illiterate? Write for more information." Of course, it's obvious that his intended audience is readers of Arabic, still….

  5. Ben Zimmer said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 9:26 am

    Mr Fnortner: This is part of a larger genre of (mostly rhyming) jokes about Mubarak's apparent inability to understand Arabic, ironically addressed to him in Arabic or supplying translation-equivalents as above. For more, see my post, "How Mubarak was told to go, in many languages."

  6. Outis said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 10:01 am

    Interesting. It's the first time I've heard that 滚蛋 is more insulting than simply 滚. They sound perfectly equally offensive to my ears.

  7. mpg said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 10:05 am

    I don't read (much less speak) Chinese but my first reaction was that the first character looks very much like a man running (towards the left of the screen).


  8. Peter said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 11:28 am

    Jason wrote:

    In Chinese, you can say the equivalent of "get eggwise out of here?" and it will be insulting? Who'd a thunk?

    You can do it in English, too: “Make like an egg, and beat it!”

    …though I guess Gary’s explanation is more likely to obtain in this case.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

    @Jason: In grad school I had a friend named Dan whose girlfriend was Chinese and got a lot of mileage out of the word for "egg". Apparently turtle eggs are especially bad. I wondered whether this was parallel to the British get or git, originally get of [whatever vile animal or person] but ultimately an insult on its own.

  10. SimonMH said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

    I lost count of the number of ladies who called me 坏蛋. Interestingly, 'bad egg' in English, which I have always associated with an aristocratic timbre, dates from at least the 19th century. 1864: A bad egg-a fellow who had not proved to be as good as his promise. The Athenaeum, p.559

  11. Kimi said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

    @Gary: Not to mention the fifteen hundred obscenities in Mexican Spanish revolving around the word (huevón, ahuevo, hueva, etc.)

  12. Ethan said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 8:58 pm

    I'm no expert, but I'd say that the addition of "蛋" in Mandarin doesn't do anything particular for the seriousness of one's tone, at least not in the examples brought up above. Whether or not directed at me, I've only ever heard "坏蛋" said lightly; and when particularly angry or impassioned, "滚!" (or, "你给我滚!") seem to be the phrases of choice. But, again, this is all based on "original research," plus a lot of TV.

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