Bad Egg

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In "Roll out of here, Mubarak," I pointed out that gǔndàn 滾蛋 ("roll out of here like an egg") is highly insulting and indicated that I would write a separate post on the semantics of the invective usage of dàn 蛋 ("egg").  This is an early fulfillment of that promise.

I've always found gǔndàn 滾蛋 ("to roll [away] like an egg") to be a most curious expression. I've even heard people say Gǔn nǐ de dàn 滾你的蛋 ("roll your egg[s] out of here!!").  Of course, I know that gǔndàn 滾蛋 means something like "Get the hell out!", but I'm not quite sure what the egg imagery in this expression is all about.  I suspect that it may be related to wángbā dàn 王八蛋 [lit. "turtle's egg"] / wàng bà dàn 忘爸蛋 [lit., "egg that forgot its father"] ("bastard; son of a bitch").

There are plenty of opprobrious terms that end with dàn 蛋 ("egg"):

1. nouns:  huàidàn 壞蛋 ("bad egg; scoundrel; rascal"), hútú dàn 糊塗蛋 ("muddlehead"), shǎdàn 傻蛋 ("fool; num[b]skull; nitwit"), etc.  These expressions are respectively similar to huàirén 壞人 ("villain; evil person"), hútú rén 糊塗人 ("muddlehead"), and shǎzi 傻子 ("fool; simpleton; blockhead"), where rén 人 and zi 子 are noun suffixes indicating a person.

2. verbs:  dǎodàn 搗蛋 ("stir up trouble; make mischief"), gǔndàn 滾蛋 ("to roll [away] like an egg; scram; vamoose"), wándàn 完蛋 ("go to the dogs; it's finished / over"), etc.

Many native speakers of Mandarin suggest that this vulgar, vituperative dàn 蛋 ("egg") may somehow be related to testicles, since the male gonads are also crudely referred to by that word.  Currently there is a very popular expression, dàn téng 蛋疼 (lit., "egg pain"), which refers to testicle pain.  The usual word for the testicles is gāowán 睾丸, but they may also be referred to as qiú 球 ("balls") (see below).

Another possible explanation I've heard is that dàn 蛋 ("egg") in these expressions might simply be a derogatory word for "person" or "offspring."  Think of the common expression xiàng mǔjī xiàdàn shì de 像母雞下蛋似的 ("like a hen laying eggs," referring to a very fertile woman).  Here the dàn 蛋 ("egg")  apparently signifies the offspring, and all the nouns containing dàn 蛋 ("egg") seem to support such an explanation.  The reference to male testicles might be a newer phenomenon that has been superimposed on the original notion of "offspring."  We hear of expressions like húnqiú 渾球 (lit., "muddy / turbid / foolish ball[s]"), shǎqiú 傻球 (lit., "stupid / foolish / muddle-headed ball[s]"), and gǔnqiú 滾球 (lit., "roll away your ball[s]") used in pretty much the same way as húndàn 浑蛋 ("scoundrel; blackguard; wretch"), shǎdàn 傻蛋 ("fool; num[b]skull; nitwit"), and gǔndàn 滾蛋 ("to roll [away] like an egg; scram; vamoose").  If dàn 蛋 ("egg") were a suffix at some point in the development of the language, it must have been a bound suffix like zi 子.  One thing we do know is that there are many expressions ending in dàn 蛋 ("egg") that are derogatory; they are predominantly used by men and with reference to men.

It would really be funny if someone said "Gǔn nǐ de dàn" 滾你的蛋 ("roll your egg[s] out of here!!") to a woman.

For comparative purposes, I thought of the expression "bad egg" in English, but it doesn't mean exactly the same thing as huàidàn 壞蛋 ("bad egg; scoundrel; rascal") in Chinese.  According to this site, "bad egg" was a term used in a children's playground game.  Here is the treatment of "bad egg" on this useful site for English phrases:



Someone or something that disappoints expectations.


The allusion is clearly to the disappointment felt when shelling a boiled egg, only to find that it is bad. The earliest use of the phrase in that context that I have found is in the Milwaukee Daily American, September 1856:

"Mayor Wood is moving heaven and earth to procure his renomination. One of his dodges is, to get up letters in the newspaper, pretending to emenade from 'distinguished citizens,' including merchants, mechanics and working men, soliciting him in the most pathetic terms to present himself to the dear people. There are also on the list a number of notorious blacklegs whom Woods keeps in pay. He is a bad egg."

The term "bad egg" is still very much in use (1,230,000 ghits).  A nearly synonymous expression is "rotten egg" (452,000 ghits), but its usage is restricted largely to a very special circumstance, namely, to designate the last person to jump into a swimming hole / pool.

"Last one in is a rotten egg!" (419,000 ghits)

"Last one in's a rotten egg!" (28,000 ghits)

There are lots of stories, plays, and films with this as the title, even a Swedish film:

Sisten i är en skit

I'd be curious to learn from our readers whether "egg" can be used as a term of opprobrium in other languages besides Chinese, where we have seen that it is very much in evidence, and English.

[Thanks are due to Maiheng Dietrich, Rebecca Fu, and Gianni Wan]


  1. Outis said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 12:06 am

    I remain skeptical of the suggestion that a.) the 蛋 suffix somehow makes an expression more insulting/emphatic and b.) that it has anything to do with testicles.

    In fact, I find 王八 to be significantly more offensive than 王八蛋. And words like 坏蛋 and 混球 don't sound particularly malicious to me either. Overall, I feel that the 蛋 suffix, if anything, tends to make an expression sound more whimsical than serious.

    I am not convinced, but even if the 蛋/球 suffix are indeed etymologically linked to testicles, this connection is completely forgotten in modern Mandarin. I've both heard and used 滚蛋 towards women and felt nothing awkward whatsoever.

  2. rootlesscosmo said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 12:09 am

    "Bad egg" (literal, not metaphoric) occurs in a famous Punch cartoon:

  3. q said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 12:38 am

    I agree with Outis. Huidan ("bad egg") sounds rather playful to me.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 12:47 am

    Outis and q: My Chinese colleagues, students, relatives, and friends consider the DAN4 in these expressions to be insulting.

  5. octopod said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 12:57 am

    Associated with the head, perhaps, rather than testicles? Just based on all the "stupid" in the epithets…

  6. Outis said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 1:14 am

    So it's just anecdotes vs anecdotes, eh? But how did you really phrase the question? Did they specifically say that all these expressions are _more_ insulting with the 蛋 suffix?

    Perhaps there is some degree of regional variation involved. Still, I cannot remember ever hearing anyone using 坏蛋 or 傻蛋 as a serious insult — they simply sound too childish or playful. 浑蛋 sounds much worse, though, whereas 坏人 would sound more matter-of-fact and thus more serious.

  7. Kalirren said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 1:16 am

    I always thought the use of dàn 蛋 in expressions like shǎdàn 傻蛋 and hútú dàn 糊塗蛋 was likening the insulted's head to an egg. In usage it's slightly playful and while insulting, still makes the comment less insulting than actually calling someone a shǎzi 傻子 or a hútú rén 糊塗人.

    I think the semantic connections in dǎodàn 搗蛋 and wándàn 完蛋 to eggs are sort of reliant on the idea of an egg as a fragile thing: I gloss the former to be like "juggling eggs", a mischievous and indiscretionary activity, and the latter to be like "spilled milk", except the reference is to a broken egg. I'm trying to think of other ways in which dàn 蛋 is used to express fragility but can't think of one off the top of my head.

    滾蛋 is definitely different. I'd buy the nuts explanation there.

  8. Brett said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 1:37 am

    In French there's va te faire cuire un oeuf ("go cook yourself an egg"). I've never really been sure why it's insulting, though….

  9. Outis said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 1:39 am

    A quick scan at the top 50 or so google hits of 坏蛋 vs 坏人:

    坏蛋 seems to be used exclusively for 1. funny/satirical writing, 2. title for some kind of game, and 3. title for other media contents. Notably it was used to translate the animated film Megamind — surely it can't be so terribly insulting if it was used in a Disney film title.

    坏人, on the other hand, has a much more diverse usage. But even within the top 10 hits there were rather serious things said about it (something about a law reform?).

    I had to look up much more hits for 坏蛋 than 坏人, because a huge amount of hits for 坏蛋 was repeated content. This could be seen as evidence that 坏蛋 is used much less often in normal writing.

    I then did a search on "你这个坏蛋/人" and "是坏蛋/人", and I couldn't find any hit where 坏蛋/人 were actually used in an insulting manner. But as I suspected, many of the 坏蛋 hits use it in such a way that suggests endearment. It seems to be used especially frequently in romantic relations.

  10. SmR said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 1:59 am

    I don't know about opprobrium, but "eggs" (ביצים) is definitely slang for testicles in modern Hebrew.
    Great post!

  11. Jongseong Park said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 2:49 am

    Actually, the Swedish title Sisten i är en skit does not refer to an egg at all but literally means "the last (one) in is shit". I gather that Last One In is a Rotten Egg is the somewhat sanitized English title.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 3:11 am


    Gǔn 滾 ("roll; scram")

    Gǔn chūqù 滾出去 ("get the hell out")

    Gǔn diào 滾掉 ("roll / get away")

    Gǔndàn 滾蛋 ("roll [your] egg[s] out of here!")

    Gǔn nǐ de dàn 滾你的蛋 ("roll your egg[s] out of here!!")

    I have personally witnessed fights erupt when the latter two versions (with dàn 蛋 ["egg"]) were screamed at someone. Although the former three versions can also lead to great anger and even pushing and shoving, they are less likely to result in a fight than the latter two versions with the "egg" insult added in.

    Of course, depending upon who utters them, to whom, and in what tone of voice, expressions such as huàidàn 壞蛋 ("bad egg; scoundrel; rascal"), shǎdàn 傻蛋 ("fool; num[b]skull; nitwit"), and dǎodàn 搗蛋 ("stir up trouble; make mischief") can be said in jest and affectionately. But one should be careful about shouting wángbā dàn 王八蛋 [lit. "turtle's egg"] / wàng bà dàn 忘爸蛋 [lit., "egg that forgot its father"] ("bastard; son of a bitch"), gǔndàn 滾蛋 ("roll [your] egg[s] out of here!"), or Gǔn nǐ de dàn 滾你的蛋 ("roll your egg[s] out of here!!"). If you do so, you are likely to end up with a fist in your face. These are not terms of endearment.

  13. Fred said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 3:23 am

    In Estonian the word muna 'egg', colloquially also munad 'balls', is also occasionally used as 'loser': Oled ikka igavene muna! 'You're such a loser!'. It can also occur in compounds where it simply refers to something round, e.g. (older Estonian) sina kuradi silmamuna! 'you bloody eyeball!' (silmamuna 'eyeball', lit. 'eye egg').
    I can't resist adding this old-fashioned Estonian riposte to an acquaintance who doesn't greet you on the street: kas munad kübaras? '(you got) eggs in your hat?'
    In the closely related Finnish munata, derived from muna 'egg', means 'to put your foot in it; to f*ck up' (but cf. munia 'to lay eggs').

  14. Alex G. said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 3:43 am

    Well, there's "What, you egg! […] Young fry of treachery!" from Macbeth

  15. D said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 4:46 am

    What Jongseong said. However, "Sisten i är ett ruttet ägg" (rotten egg literally) wouldn't be uncommon to hear either, at least not when I was a kid.

  16. Sana said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 4:56 am

    "Egg" just by itself is used as a mild children's insult in New Zealand English slang, meaning "stupid" or "foolish". It can be seen in a clip from the movie Boy, set in 1980s rural NZ.

    The wikipedia page on NZ slang helpfully tells me "egg – mild insult meaning 'fool' or 'dork'. Enjoyed widespread use in the 1980s, still used today. Used to be used occasionally with the partner (and now all but obsolete) "spoon"."
    Personally, I've never heard "spoon" before, but "egg" is commonly understood.

  17. LDavidH said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 5:25 am

    Seconding D.

  18. Alain Turenne said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 5:29 am

    In French, I often heard "Quel oeuf!" (what an egg!) in the schoolyard, 60 years ago or so. From only one schoolfellow at the beginning, so it could have been idiosyncratic, but the meme spread fast.

  19. Larry Goldsmith said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 7:26 am

    In Mexican slang, "huevo" of course refers to testicles as well as eggs (one learns to ask for "blanquillos" in the market), but "hueva" (feminine of "huevo") means "laziness" and "huevón" (augmentative) means lazy or slow and can be used as a noun to refer to a person. And "¡a huevo!" means "of course!" or "necessarily."

  20. Walter Burleigh said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 8:52 am

    Would it be too fanciful to detect a ghostly parallel between the Chinese -dan compounds discussed here and the English -pants compounds we were talking about a few days ago?

  21. John Cowan said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 9:33 am

    The OED also gives the "disappoints expectations" sense, but in my reading I have always assumed the phrase did indeed mean "scoundrel, rascal." Note how well that works in the quotation about the mayor.

  22. John Cowan said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 10:02 am

    (Saved too soon.)

    If the egg in 王八蛋 'turtle's egg' can be taken literally as 'offspring', then the expression is indeed parallel to the English son of a bitch. Bitch in this expression originally meant (as the OED chastely says) 'unchaste woman', so a son of a bitch was quite likely to be a bastard in the literal sense of that term. But this sense of bitch is obsolete, so most people today probably associate the phrase with the sense 'female dog'. In effect, then, both 王八蛋 and son of a bitch mean, or are taken to mean, that your mother was an animal — and remarks about someone's mother are almost always highly insulting anywhere. (As insults go, I personally like Your parents were brothers for its compact form and comprehensive implications.)

  23. Ellen K. said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 10:25 am

    @John Cowan.

    If I were to look at "son of a bitch" from it's 3 words, rather than taking it as a whole, I'd understanding it to say that the mother is a bitch in the human sense, not at all implying that the person's mother is an animal. Bitch may no longer mean "unchaste woman", but it's certainly quite current as a word that applies to women.

  24. Ray Dillinger said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 11:07 am

    When I've heard the French phrase "va te faire cuire un oeuf," it was used in the sense of "your input is worthless and you are an idiot; go do something trivial instead of bothering me." A phrase I've heard in English, with similar intonation and implications, is "Go push a rope." But native French-speakers seem to find the former more insulting than native Anglophones find the latter.

    In English we also have the phrase "good egg", generally seen as complimentary, "egg-head", which can be a compliment or an insult depending on context but which is more frequently an insult, and the phrase "I am only an egg" indicating that the speaker humbly acknowledges he has much to learn. The last, I believe, is attributable to Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Strange Land, though I have heard it used without connection to the novel.

  25. LDavidH said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

    @John Cowan & Ellen K. Yes, I also always thought that "bitch" as an insult referred to the "unchaste woman" meaning, rather than "female dog" – I had actually assumed (again, as a NNES) that the neutral meaning "female dog" was less common in everyday speech than the figurative insult…

  26. vanya said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 1:43 pm

    Does the use of 蛋 hold across Chinese languages? Is it similarly insulting in Cantonese or Hakka?

  27. R.S. said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

    Another remark on Estonian (that's so funny, two remarks on Estonian in the same comments section. You don't see that every day): children often say "Viimane on mädamuna" (literally: the last is a rotten egg) but the expression seems to be used in a more general way than in English, that is to say, not so much when jumping into a pool but whenever inciting others to run rather than walk.

  28. Chris Waters said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 5:36 pm

    PG Wodehouse often referred to members of his fictitious Drones Club as "eggs" or "beans". If there was a pejorative meaning, it went over my head, especially since the phrase "good egg" was fairly common back then as well. Checking the dictionary, I find "good egg" and "bad egg" both listed as old-fashion phrases, but no mention of "egg" to refer to people otherwise, so it may have been simply Wodehousian humor.

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 6:13 pm

    @LDavidH: Yes, everywhere I've lived (all in the U.S.), bitch meaning "female dog" is rare. I admit I don't know any dog breeders.

    However, my feeling is that the meaning "promiscuous woman" is pretty much obsolete. I usually understand bitch as meaning a nagging, complaining, criticizing woman. Or just a woman the speaker dislikes or is annoyed at. Or any woman the speaker doesn't want to speak too respectfully about—for at least the last three decades, including the one he loves. Sorry to get prescriptivist, but I'm not in favor of this trend.

  30. mondain said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 8:22 pm

    In relation to 王八蛋/忘爸蛋, there's an earlier variant 忘八旦(蛋), e.g. Chap. 97, Ershi nian mudu zhi guai xianzhuang 二十年目睹之怪現狀 and The True Story of Ah Q 阿Q正傳, see, s.v. 忘八, 忘八旦. I guess the variant is only orthographical.

  31. John said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 8:54 pm

    I'll chime in again to remind all that we can describe someone as a "good egg" in English. Not sure of the origin, but it seems plausible that it is meant to be the opposite of a bad egg.

  32. David said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 3:11 am

    Re the Swedish title: I don't think I've ever heard "sisten i är ett ruttet ägg" (though no doubt there is significant variation here), but I have heard "sisten i är en rutten skit", and so maybe the expectation that the word 'rotten' could be applied in a phrase like this influenced the choice of translation, even though it's not found in the original title. (Or something.)

    Another common bathing-related challenge in Swedish is "sisten i är en (bad)kruka" ('the last person in the water is a (bathing) pot'). To call someone "badkruka" seems to be a 20th century invention, but calling a coward "kruka" ('pot') is attested since 1685, according to the Swedish Academy Dictionary.

  33. Rod Johnson said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 7:30 am

    Teach your grandmother to suck eggs. Egg on. Over-egg the puddling. who knew eggs were so potent a concept?

    (Now I *wish* the word "eggroll" meant "scram" in English. C'mon daddio, let's eggroll.)

  34. John Cowan said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 10:54 am

    Ellen K., Jerry Friedman: I think you are right and I was wrong.

  35. Damon said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 2:33 pm

    Thank you for this post, Victor! I took a couple years of Chinese (never learned it well) and was always surprised that "egg" was associated so much with terms of abuse and it was really interesting to read more about it.

  36. Jerome Chiu said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 4:15 am

    gǔn 滾 and gǔndàn 滾蛋
    My observation: "gǔn" 滾 is usually used by somebody with higher perceived status towards somebody with lower perceived status, e.g. father to son, or boss to subordinate. The use of "gǔndàn" 滾蛋 usually implies perceived equal status between the two parties. "Gǔn" 滾 carries considerably stronger force, but may meet with less resistance. This observation, of course, is inevitably speculative and anecdotal.

    huàidàn 壞蛋 and béndàn 笨蛋
    To briefly reiterate what I said in the comment section of the earlier, related post: I'd rather hear (typically during courtship) a girl call me a huàidàn (definitely flirtatious: a reasonably clear nod towards my advance) than a béndàn (mildly flirtatious: a very subtle signal telling me to the effect that I should have taken the initiative and now it may or may not be too late).
    A tangential note: there is also a subtle difference in Cantonese between ngong6 gau1 戇鳩 and ban6 tsat9 笨柒. While the former alludes to an unduly erected penis, the latter alludes to an unduly non-erected one. It is no accident that the tone of gau1 is high flat while that of tsat9 is low stopping. As a matter of fact, of the 5 most common swearwords in Cantonese, 4 have high tones (2 in high flat and 2 in high rising), and the only one with a low tone is tsat9.

    dàn, qiú, Cantonese lan2 卵, etc.
    Although one cannot definitively prove anything here, IMHO the most plausible explanation of the wide use of dàn etc., is that they refer to testicles. That's the reason for the provocative and offensive force of this group of words.

  37. zhiyan gao said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 7:31 pm

    well, according to some literature of Chinese F word, 王八蛋 is actually a homophone of 忘八端. 忘 means forget, while 八端 means eight moral principles (孝、悌、忠、信、礼、义、廉、耻). 王八 had not become a name for turtle until the Ming dynasty. 王八 was not a bad word before Ming dynasty, actually many people use 王八 as their own names.

  38. zhiyan gao said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 7:48 pm

    in other words, 蛋 in 王八蛋 did not mean eggs originally, but served as a homophone of 端. people later might forget the originally word 忘八端,and associate 蛋(egg) with the bad guys.
    To my knowledge, the word 王八蛋 does not exist in some southern china dialects. as Jerome Chiu pointed out, people in southeast china (Wu dialects and Cantonese) use 卵 instead. The common insulting word in Jiangsu Province and Shanghai is 二五卵(stupid testicle).

  39. maidhc said,

    April 10, 2011 @ 3:46 am

    "Ouef" in French can mean "zero", hence "love" in tennis ("l'ouef"). I don't know if this usage is still around in modern French.

    Another English phrase is "to egg someone on", which I must admit has never made sense to me, even though I know what it means..

  40. Bob Violence said,

    April 10, 2011 @ 10:09 am

    There's also húndàn 混蛋 "mixed egg" (and the less common variant 浑蛋 "stupid egg," which could well be the original form); it seems to be fairly mild and is used to translate all sorts of English (and I assume other foreign-language) epithets. The Chinese subtitles for a film I recently watched (Pineapple Express) use it for "jerk," "son of a bitch," "asshole," "fucker," and "motherfucker," so obviously the translator wasn't too concerned with shades of meaning. Funnily enough there's a mainland Chinese film known in English as "Two Stupid Eggs," which sounds like a literal translation from Chinese but actually isn't — the Chinese title uses 傻瓜 shǎguā, literally "stupid melon." Am I right to guess a stupid egg is worse than a stupid melon?

  41. Bob Violence said,

    April 10, 2011 @ 10:19 am

    (I now see Victor and Outis already mentioned 浑蛋 — I'd overlooked it searching for 混蛋. Incidentally I wonder if there's any distinction in severity, even though they're the same in speech…anyone know?)

  42. hanmeng said,

    April 10, 2011 @ 4:30 pm


  43. Anne said,

    April 12, 2011 @ 9:49 pm

    'Another possible explanation I've heard is that dàn 蛋 ("egg") in these expressions might simply be a derogatory word for "person" or "offspring."'

    I find the "offspring" guess convincing, since my dad says "gundan" to me all the time. I once inserted a literal translation of this term into English dialogue in a story I wrote in class, and the other members of the class were shocked.

  44. don_caviare said,

    April 13, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

    Amused to see that 操蛋 has not been raised in this conversation yet
    (insulting power certified!)

    That one aside, 滚蛋 is the only other egg that anyone I know here in Beijing would actually consider insulting (it is insulting even without the egg part) — or at least, it's considerably harder to make sound 'sweet' (compared to all other ones), regardless of the tone of voice.

    Everyone here seems to throw all of these egg-words to everyone, with no gender distinction whatsoever. Same thing in the sitcoms on TV.


    ps – "va te faire cuire un œuf" is poetic nowadays, at most

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