You're a cow

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From David Cragin:

I was exchanging WeChats with a friend and she called me a cow, i.e.,  “Nǐ niú de 你牛的.”  It immediately made me laugh because calling someone a cow isn’t a good way to engender warm feelings in English.  Hā 哈!, but I guessed that in Chinese it must be a compliment.

I asked its meaning and she explained as below.  My friend's comments are in Chinese with my English translation following.  As you noted on 11/30/2016, I struggled with translating lihai, so I used “awesome” for that ("A new English word").

“Nǐ niú de” jiùshì “nǐ hěn lìhài” huòzhě “nǐ hěn bàng” de yìsi.

“你牛的” 就是“你很厉害”或者“你很棒”的意思.

“You’re a cow” means “you are awesome” or “you are great.”

Niú shì cow, shì yīgè hěn dà hěn zhòngyào de dòngwù, shì Zhōngguó nóngyè fāngmiàn zhòngyào dòngwù.

牛是cow, 是一个很大很重要的动物,是中国农业方面重要动物。

Cow is a cow, a very important animal and an important animal in Chinese agriculture.

Suǒyǐ shuō rén hěn niú, jiùshì shuō tā hěn lìhài.


So if you say a person is a cow, you are saying they are awesome.

Yǒu shíhou shuō yīgè rén shì dà niú, jiùshì shuō zhège rén xiāngdāng lìhài, xiāngdāng bàng de yìsi.


Sometimes we say a person is a big cow, that is, they are really awesome.  This has a particularly good meaning.

I thought this was really funny –- that in contrast, regardless of the context, references to farm animals in the US aren’t compliments.  All of the farm-animal based comments I can think of are insults:  “don’t be chicken”, “you’re a pig”, “hen-pecked”, and “bull-headed.”    Since your blog has participants from across the globe, it could be entertaining to hear some similar farm animal idioms that either compliment or criticize.

(Your comments on the blog resonate with me.  Recently you mentioned that despite 50 years of practice, you still struggle with Chinese characters.  For me, I’ve spent a fraction of this time.  Characters present a huge challenge, but a fascinating one since when I’m reading hanzi, I’m normally “deciphering” a note from a friend that I really want to understand.  This can offer enjoyable experiences like the above.)

Either Dave's friend is naive (which I rather doubt because almost everybody in China knows the real story about calling somebody "niú 牛" ["cow"]), or she is trying to protect and preserve Dave's innocence.

"Niubi ("awesome") revisited" (9/17/15)

See here, here (with links to other posts in which the term is treated), also here and here.


  1. Mara K said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 10:18 am

    That sounds like the kind of answer my undergraduate Chinese instructors would have given, had 牛 been a thing then, for the purpose both of protecting what innocence they thought their students still had and of making China look more couth and erudite. As it was, they struggled to explain why not to use 小姐 as a term of address (it's apparently become a term for prostitutes), and utterly failed at explaining the problem with 吃豆腐 (probably slang for a sex act, and I have speculated ever since about which one).

  2. John said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 10:37 am

    吃豆腐 means sexual harassment, particularly groping.

  3. Robert said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 10:56 am

    Holy cow!

  4. leoboiko said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 12:05 pm

    You can be "strong like an ox", but I don't think they usually call people "oxen" directly, without a simile? ("She's built like an ox"; ?"She's such an ox.")

  5. BZ said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 1:28 pm

    You can call someone a stud directly. There is also workhorse, though it's usually (but not always) applied to inanimate objects.

  6. alext said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 1:29 pm

    Horses would be an exception: you can be "hung like a horse" or a "stud".

  7. RP said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 1:53 pm

    "Lamb" can be a term of endearment. So, in parts of England, can "duck" and "ducky".

    "Bunny" can mean a sexually attracive woman (M-W), and "bull" can mean a physically strong man (M-W); "bull" is also Philly slang for "friend" (according to urbandictionary) and is more generally slang for a sexually dominant male (according to urbandictionary). "Cock" is "a friendly form of address among men" (Oxford Dictionaries Online), although it can also be used as an insult. "Cock" can also mean a "leader" (M-W).

  8. John Burke said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 2:29 pm

    Glad someone mentioned "duck" and "ducky." Funny about fowl, though: "goose" and "turkey" are unquestionably derogatory.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 2:53 pm

    Grandpa Friedman used to say he was "strong like bull", which must be a quotation from somewhere, with the "a" missing.

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 3:05 pm

    (The Internet seems to think "strong like bull" is from a TV series called Make Room for Daddy, starring Danny Thomas.)

  11. Adam Roberts said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 3:47 pm

    The strength and size of the cow is the salient, here, I suppose. I'm reminded of 'forte' in French: if, speaking to her parent, you call a baby girl forte it is a compliment: it means she is strong, healthy and so on. But if you call a grown woman forte it is a terrible insult, somewhat akin, I would imagine, to calling her a heifer.

  12. Morten Jonsson said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 4:06 pm

    "Cow-eyed" is a compliment when it's applied to Hera. And Zeus, of course, actually was a bull.

  13. Ryan said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 4:47 pm

    My Cantonese uncle said that when he was little, his neighbor used to call him "pig-boy". He had to explain to his Americanized nieces and nephews (like me) that it was actually meant as a term of endearment and not an insult.

  14. Bathrobe said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 5:05 pm

    I always thought that 牛 niú here was an abbreviation of 牛逼 niúbī, literally 'cow cunt', and I'm surprised it hasn't been mentioned. Of course, 牛逼 niúbī is quite vulgar, which I suspect is why the lady did not mention it, and probably why it's commonly abbreviated to 牛 niú. But vulgar or not, anyone in China knows the term.

    (Unless, of course, it's the other way round, and 牛逼 historically derived from 牛…)

  15. Bathrobe said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 5:20 pm

    And of course, I finally note that Professor Mair nailed that meaning in the comment at the end of his post… (shamefaced look)

  16. David Marjanović said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 5:44 pm

    But if you call a grown woman forte it is a terrible insult, somewhat akin, I would imagine, to calling her a heifer.

    Doesn't it simply mean she's fat, and the word has gone down the euphemism treadmill?

  17. Tee Murray said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 6:20 pm


    You're the dog's bollocks as we'd say in the UK.

    Quite similar to the cow's bi!

  18. shubert said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 11:16 pm

    Similar to bull vs. bear, Chinese use bearish as well.

  19. Gwen Katz said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 1:52 am

    "Stallion" can mean "sexy person"–and increasingly gender neutrally.

  20. ajay said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 5:32 am

    Hera is "ox-eyed Hera" in the Iliad – I am pretty sure that's supposed to be a compliment, or at least not an insult.

    And what about historical epithets? William the Lion and so on… there must have been leaders or kings called something like "X the Bull" as well (though I admit none are coming to mind).

  21. austimatt said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 6:28 am

    @RP: 'Gym bunnies' are often male.

  22. Rodger C said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 6:48 am

    (The Internet seems to think "strong like bull" is from a TV series called Make Room for Daddy, starring Danny Thomas.)

    Ah, that would be Uncle Tanoos (sp?), the stereotypical crazy uncle-slash-unassimilated immigrant.

  23. languagehat said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 8:23 am

    Uncle Tonoose (played by Hans Conried).

  24. Robert Davis said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 9:45 am

    Or "vachement bien" in French as "cowly well", meaning quite good, although as slang that may be dated.

  25. Graeme said,

    April 1, 2017 @ 1:39 am

    At 14, a friend and I goaded our teacher of German to share some swear words with us. Whether it was our tender age, his gentle temperament, or the fact he was Indian-Australian and not versed in crude Deutsch, he taught us 'blüde Kuh'.

  26. Tony Zhang said,

    April 6, 2017 @ 12:51 am

    The word 牛 Niu, when used to describe a person, conveys two different connotations in different situations.

    First situation:
    Directly referring to someone as a "cow / bull", which isn't a compliment of course. This situation usually happens when we are bothered by a obstinate person persistent on something, and we would say "这个人太牛了" (zhe ge ren tai niu le), which means "this guy is really stubborn".
    But apparently this is not the case with Professor David Cragin's friend. She's not saying David is stubborn.

    So here comes the 2nd situation:
    牛 is actually an abbreviation for the slang 牛逼 (Niu Bi). Yes, it's simply a vulgar version for "awesome", and it might be a little bit too vulgar for David's female friend to explain it in full. When she says "你牛的" she actually means "你真牛逼啊". This is a jesting compliment.

    Enjoy! :-)

  27. Karen said,

    April 8, 2017 @ 2:24 am

    You discussed the origin and use of the word "cow" in different culture.

    Its origin, I think, is related to the stock. For example, bull market means rise in the price of stock. So, maybe "你很牛" means that you are a "绩优股". Very interesting! Besides, it's about the importance of cow in farming. Cow is diligent and hardworking, so it plays an significant role in the agriculture. In addition, cow is mentioned in the "牛年" in China. People say, "wish you 牛气冲天."

    However, I think the word "cow" is not always compliments in Chinese. It depends on the situation. When someone is called "牛脾气", it means that he is stubborn or bull-headed. But "你很牛" means that you are great. If you want to compliment someone, don't say "牛逼", because it' s a bit impolite and rude, especially when you are talking to the elder.

    Now that we all know that words about animals are not always compliments in western countries, we should not say "you are a cow." to others in foreign countries. They may think you are impolite.

    In Chinese, every animal represent a kind of character. For example, rabbit means gentle. You will find it really interesting if you study the relations between Chinese and animals. But be careful when you use words about animals in case you offend others.

    Enjoy Chinese~

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