Bastard, douchebag, whatever

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Here and here are links (South China Morning Post [SCMP] and the Chinese website of a German radio channel) re yesterday’s surprising statement by Judge HE Fan of China’s supreme court calling President Trump a "public enemy of the rule of law".

The story is being well covered by the international media (NYT, The Independent, ABC News), so I won't repeat all the details readily available there.  Here I wish only to concentrate on a term of disapprobation that Judge He applied to Trump when he referred to him as “ègùn 恶棍”, which SCMP translates as “bastard”.

I've never seen “ègùn 恶棍” translated as "bastard" before, but it admittedly is something very nasty to call another person.

So what is this horrible imprecation that Judge He unleashed upon President Trump?

The first translation on Google Translate is "douchebag".  I've never seen that given as a translation of “ègùn 恶棍” either, but it is pretty clear that people who try to translate this foul Chinese imprecation into English are searching for something appropriate to convey its meaning but not finding the right word.

Let's break ègùn 恶棍 down into its constituent morphemes and see if that helps:

è 恶 means "evil; vicious; ferocious; hateful; detested; loathsome; wicked; fierce; bad; foul"

gùn 棍 means "stick; rod; bar; wand; bastinado; stave; club; cudgel"

Thus, in terms of its etymology, ègùn 恶棍 signifies "evil stick".

Besides "douchebag", here are twenty-one other translations of ègùn 恶棍 listed by GT:

villain; scoundrel; tough; ruffian; hooligan; thug; toughie; hoodlum; rogue; rascal; knave; rapscallion; miscreant; crook; demon; daemon; larrikin; scamp; scut; desperado; reprobate

From other sources:  tough guy; devil; bully.

We have discussed the related term, guānggùn 光棍 (lit., "bare stick / club", i.e., "ruffian; hoodlum; bachelor) in this post:

"The transcription of the name 'China' in Chinese characters" (6/17/12) (see especially the second paragraph of the o.p. and the many comments on guānggùn 光棍 that follow [beginning about one quarter of the way down in the comments])

I don't think that Judge He meant to call President Trump a "bastard" or a "douchebag".  As for what he really intended, its probably some combination of all those twenty odd other translations of ègùn 恶棍 that have been proposed.

[Thanks to Bill Holmes]


  1. Peter Metcalfe said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 8:08 pm

    If the second component means "stick", then might "dick" be a good translation of the intended insult?

  2. Jenny Chu said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 8:46 pm

    My colleague just told me her first association with 棍 is a softball (oddly, not baseball) bat. So it puts her in mind of the kind of guy who hits people with a baseball/softball bat. To me, then, "thug" seems to be a pretty good translation: certainly better than "douchebag", which has a kind of slimy/creepy feeling to it.

  3. DaveK said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 9:34 pm

    "Bastard" seems a better translation than "scamp" at least. Maybe someone misread "bastinado" in the list of possibilities? "Goon" seems to carry the right implications, at least in my circles.

  4. Guy said,

    February 8, 2017 @ 12:16 am

    Is ègùn etymologically derived from these two morphemes being combined? Or is this more of a case of choosing phonetic characters with roughly appropriate semantics? If the former, can we get some explanation of its origin, if known?

  5. william holmes said,

    February 8, 2017 @ 2:49 am

    Why not "tyrant" for ègùn? We're dealing with a political figure, and the Declaration of Independence used that word: "A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people".

  6. John Swindle said,

    February 8, 2017 @ 4:36 am

    Would "bully" be closer than "tyrant," for Judge He's meaning? In any case, the world has been understandably shocked by Donald Trump, and the judge may be using a foreign case to make a domestic point about the rule of law.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    February 8, 2017 @ 8:36 am


    The derivation of ègùn 恶棍 is transparently composed of those two morphemes. It doesn't have a long history; so far as I know it didn't appear until around the 19th century.

    As I noted in the o.p., ègùn 恶棍 is related to guānggùn 光棍 (lit., "bare stick / club", i.e., "ruffian; hoodlum; bachelor"), a term that dates to the Yuan / Mongol period (1271-1368).

    Calling a ruffian or bully a "club" or "cudgel", etc. is not at all far fetched, since it's a simple matter of metonymy. A ruffian or bully is a guy who wields a club or cudgel. The same process occurred thousands of years earlier with the ultimate and most general term for "weapon", viz., bīng 兵. As I illustrate graphically and explain philologically in my translation of The Art of War: Sun Zi's Military Methods (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, 2009), bīng 兵 began with the meaning of "adze", and the pictograph devised to write down this word, which dates back to the latter part of the 2nd millennium BC, depicts two hands holding up the item in question. Since an adze can be used not only as a multi-purpose tool of the sort useful in the Stone Age, but also as a "weapon", bīng 兵 soon acquired that meaning as well. The semantic field of the word was then expanded to signify a "soldier", i.e., one who wields a bīng 兵. From there, the applications of bīng 兵 developed still further till it acquired the following meanings: "warrior, troops, army, military force, arms," etc. Adjectivally, it may used to signify "military", "warlike", and so on.

    BTW, I just found "miscreant" given as a translation for ègùn 恶棍 at several places online.

    By now, going back to the o.p., I trust that everybody understands the denotation of ègùn 恶棍:

    è 恶 means "evil; vicious; ferocious; hateful; detested; loathsome; wicked; fierce; bad; foul"

    gùn 棍 means "stick; rod; bar; wand; bastinado; stave; club; cudgel"

    As for its connotation, well, you pays your money and you takes your choice.

  8. Startlingly Idiotic said,

    February 8, 2017 @ 12:58 pm

    Based on Dr. Mair's explanation of the meaning of the constituent morphemes, "fuckstick" seems to be the mot juste.

  9. maidhc said,

    February 8, 2017 @ 4:08 pm

    A bad person who goes after people with a cudgel–I would go with "ruffian", "hoodlum", "thug" …

    For an Australian audience, "standover man".

  10. Guy said,

    February 8, 2017 @ 4:30 pm

    @Victor Mair

    Thank you for the thorough reply to my question. I appreciate it greatly.

  11. Brendan said,

    February 8, 2017 @ 11:33 pm

    "Bastard" wouldn't have been my first choice for 惡棍 either — but apparently the Chinese title of the Quentin Tarantino film Inglourious Basterds is 惡棍特工, which might help explain the choice. Of the options given above, I'd probably go for "thug."

    The term 惡棍 does show up at least as early as the mid-18th century novel 儒林外史 Rúlín wàishǐ, where it occurs alongside the similar 奸棍 jiāngùn and the related 地棍 dìgùn ("local tough"). 棍 Gùn seems to be pretty productive for words of this sort: a story in the 1624 collection 警世通言 Jǐngshì tōngyán has 赤棍 chìgùn, glossed in the Hanyu Da Cidian as "lowlifes with no proper occupation" (不務正業的流氓); 刁棍 diāogùn, "rascal," appears in the writings of Huang Liuhong (fl. late 17th c.), who also used the term 蠹棍 dùgùn.
    HDC lists the sense of "no-goodnik, baddie" (無賴,惡徒) as the second definition for 棍 gùn: its earliest example, from a poem by Li Shen 李紳, would push this sense back as far as the 9th century, but the usage example given there doesn't look very convincing to me, and on a quick search this sort of usage of 棍 gùn looks a lot more like a late Ming/Qing habit.

  12. Roger Lustig said,

    February 9, 2017 @ 12:02 am

    Perhaps he's heading toward Jon Stewart's "Fuckface von Clownstick."

  13. Rodger C said,

    February 9, 2017 @ 7:50 am

    For me "thug" is associated with management and "goon" with labor, but those are the associations of a 69-year-old West Virginian. At any rate, apparently we now have to watch out for people for whom "thug" is racialized.

  14. Pablo said,

    February 9, 2017 @ 11:39 am

    I vote we translate 恶棍 as "Bad Hombre."

  15. Mark Csikszentmihalyi said,

    February 9, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

    Another term being lobbed at the new occupant of the oval office is "shitgibbon". Here, I understand both parts of the compound word, but don't quite understand how I am supposed to put them together. Also why a shitgibbon when a "shitorangutan" would seem more appropriate in terms of coloration?

  16. Frode Rathe said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 4:46 am

    In chan / zen litterature one find the word " shit- stick" caracterizing something insignificant. and it refers to the factual & actual short wooden "spoon" /stick found in the monasterys toilet … and everywhere … used to scrape away the excrement. Or …. a longer stick to turn over the (hard) dung and shit when it had piled up too near the shit-hole.
    In fact it once was used as the answer from a Master to a monk on the question " What is the Buddha?" …. A shit stick!

  17. Joyce Melton said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 9:55 pm


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