Things you can do with "water" in Cantonese

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Peter Golden sent me the following video, "Luisa Tam says: Let's put more HK English on the map", South China Morning Post (10/23/18):

That's all explained in Hong Kong English, of course, and it follows close on the heels of this post:

"Cantonese and Mandarin are two different languages, part 2" (4/1/19)

Peter adds:

One of my favorites, used in particular in restaurants, is guon sui (not sure of the proper system for rendering Cantonese [VHM: gwan2 seoi2]), lit., “boiled/boiling water” (kāishuǐ 開水 in Mandarin), used to warn someone to get out of the way, something hot is behind you (often quite literally).

And here's one that dates back more than two thousand years to classical times:  huòshuǐ 祸水 (femme fatale, lit., "baneful water") (source).

This "water word" is also interesting:  Cant. caa4 seoi2 / MSM cháshuǐ 茶水.  It can mean "tea water", "boiled water", "water for tea", etc.  When I first travelled to China in the early 80s, it used to be ubiquitous in airports and train stations — dispensed out of large containers and available for free. Basically, it was extremely dilute tea (boiled water with a few tea leaves tossed in).  This was a good idea in the days before the global phenomenon of water in plastic bottles.  At least you knew that the water had been boiled (or should have been boiled), and the exceedingly faint tea flavor also left a pleasurable taste in your mouth after you had drunk it.


[Thanks to Mark Swofford, John Lagerwey, David Moser, and Thomas K. Mair]


  1. Suburbanbanshee said,

    April 2, 2019 @ 7:01 pm

    Just like saying "hot pan" to get other people in a restaurant kitchen out of your way.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    April 3, 2019 @ 6:15 am

    From Tang Pui Ling:

    Apart from the various “sui” given in this post, there is also a slang “sui pei” 水皮in Cantonese, which is an adjective used to describe the performance of a person that is not good or even bad. The meaning of 水皮 is identical to another adjective, 渣. I have done a Google search, and this webpage might be helpful:

  3. Lang said,

    April 4, 2019 @ 4:45 am

    Native speaker here. When Luisa introduces the word "mut sui" (jyutping: mat1soei2, @1:17), she explained it terms of individual characters, 乜 and 水, which the second one meaning, indeed, "water". While this is a common way to write mat1 soei2, I argue that it should actually be 乜誰. I'll explain.

    On the morphemic side of things, 乜 means "what" and 誰 means "who". It is ostensible how this combination expresses the speaker's doubtfulness.

    Further, on the phonological side, note that 誰, by itself, is pronounced soei4. A parallel in morpho-phonemic change in evident in 公園 (garden).
    公園(individually: gung1, jyun4 -> combined: gung1 jyun2)
    乜誰 (individually: mat1,soei4 -> combined: mat1 soei2)

    I suppose, since tonal change in Cantonese is a seldom-discussed idea – and Cantonese was rarely seen in written form until the last fewer decades – 水 soei2, a common day-to-day character, came to be an easy stand-in as tonally changed 誰.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 4, 2019 @ 7:10 am

    From Tong Wang:

    Gwan2 seoi2, if written with Chinese script, should be 滚水(gǔn shuǐ). "滚" has another meaning as "going away". So is this the reason that 滚水 in Cantonese also means getting out of the way?

    Below is a web page I found discussing various kinds of "water" in Cantonese.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    April 4, 2019 @ 7:11 am

    @Tong Wang:

    Thank you very much for your note about 滚水. Since it also means "boiling water" in many topolects (闽南语、河南话、四川话、湖南话、江西话、粤语、潮语 — also Wu and Hakka and others), I think that it comes from the basic idea of "roll; turn; rotate" (as the water seems to do when it is boiling fast).

    See here:

    I think the Cantonese meaning of "leave" is secondary.

    One of my favorite Cantonese expressions, also borrowed into Mandarin (gǔndàn) and other topolects, is gwan2 daan6-2 滾蛋 (lit., "roll out [like an egg]"; "get out [of the way]; go away; scram; beat it; begone; get out; go to hell; f*** off").

    "Bad Egg" (4/5/10)

    "'Either… or…'" (4/9/16)

    "The paucity of curse words in Japanese" (9/4/14)

    Thank you so much for that web page discussing various kinds of "water" in Cantonese. I love it!

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