Grilled sexual harassment

« previous post | next post »

David Craig sent in this photograph and asked "What does it really say and why doesn't it?":


The Chinese says xiánzhūshǒu 咸猪手 ("groper"), which is a noun derived from xiánzhū 咸猪 ("salted pork") + shǒu 手 ("hand") — adjective + adjective + noun. Thus, the literal meaning of xiánzhūshǒu 咸猪手 is "salted pig's knuckle / trotter" (cf. German Schweinshaxe; Stelze in Austria).

"Groper" is a derived meaning of the term xiánzhūshǒu 咸猪手 ("salted pig's knuckle / trotter"). As to how "salted pig's knuckle / trotter" acquired the extended meaning of "groper", there is considerable difference of opinion. I will give first the explanation that is most straightforward and is accepted by the majority of people, and then will go into some of the more arcane, recherché theories.

Before that, however, I'd like to mention that xiánzhūshǒu is the Mandarin pronunciation of what is really a Cantonese expression: haam4 zyu1 sau2 鹹猪手 ("salted pig's knuckle / trotter"). Note that xián 咸, which is the simplified version of xián 鹹 ("salty"), also stands for a completely different morpheme signifiying "all; whole; universal; general", which was the original meaning of the character before it was borrowed to stand for xián 鹹 ("salty") as well.

The connection between lechery and piggish behavior is not too hard to see, since there are a number of terms in Cantonese that attest to it (e.g., zyu1 gung1 猪公 ["lecher"]), and the association exists in many other societies as well:

In the sixteenth century the emblem books introduced a host of new symbolic animals into the company of the virtues. Thus Chastity riding an elephant fights with Lechery on the familiar pig in an engraving cited by Tervarent. (Helen F. North, "Temperance (Sōphrosynē) and the Canon of the Cardinal Virtues," Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Vol. 4, 1973, ed. by Philip P. Wiener)

Of course, the pig is most often linked to Gluttony, but Gluttony and Lechery (usually connected with the goat) are often related (e.g., Chaucer, "Parson's Tale", 836-8: "After Glotonye thanne comth Lecherie, for thise two synnes been so ny cosyns that ofte tyme they wol nat departe.") Claudine Fabre-Vassas, The Singular Beast states: "The pig is a creature divided. It incarnates the sins of lechery and gluttony…."

We have accounted for the connection between "pig" and "lechery", now what about the "salty" part? Many Cantonese have told me that it has to do with the term haam4 sap1 鹹濕 ("salty-moist", i.e., "lecherous"). I'm sure that will ring a lot of alarm bells here at Language Log, since there have been several recent posts on this forum about word aversion with regard to "moist"; perhaps the same feelings carry over into a completely different language.

An example of a directly relevant Cantonese term based on haam4 sap1 鹹濕 is haam4 sap1 lou2 鹹濕佬 ("lecher", lit., "salty-moist guy") — there are lots of other words in Cantonese for such fellows, many of them beginning with haam4 sap1 鹹濕 ("salty-moist").

As to why haam4 sap1 鹹濕 ("salty-moist") comes to mean "lecherous", aside from the suggestions that I've already given, there are many other conjectures:

1. In the Qing dynasty, brothels were usually located near the sea, and the air was damp (湿) and smelled salty (咸).

2. The laborers and apprentices who went looking for fun in the brothels were sweaty (湿) and their sweat was salty (咸).

3. The lower-class prostitutes were called "haam4 seoi2 mui6 咸水妹” ("salt water maid") because they lived on the boats and the closeness in pronunciation of "haam4 seoi2 mui6" to "handsome maid" could attract foreigners.

4. "咸" comes from haam4 gwaa3 / Mand. xián guà 咸卦 (Xian trigram) in the Classic of Changes / I ching, where it means "probe".

All of these speculations, especially the latter two, seem far-fetched to me, the last one exceedingly so, since the Xian hexagram (no. 31) actually signifies "influence (wooing)" (Wilhelm / Baynes), not "probing"; furthermore, this ancient usage of xián 咸 ("all; whole; universal; general") has nothing to do with xián 鹹 ("salty").

There is yet another, even more fantastic, idea about why haam4 sap1 鹹濕 ("salty-moist") indicates lechery. According to this article, it was originally a transcription of "hamshop". I suppose that "hamshop" means a shop that sells hams (though I have no idea when that would have been attested in Hong Kong English), but what that has to do with lechery is beyond me — unless it's supposed to evoke the piggishness discussed above.

All right, enough about haam4 sap1 鹹濕 ("salty-moist") in the sense of "lechery". No matter its actual etymology, everybody agrees that it does convey that meaning.

Now, how about "grilled"? I don't see how it can come from any of the three characters, 咸/鹹猪手, that constitute the expression we have been investigating. Rather, I suspect that it was added by the translator to indicate the actual method by means of which pork is commonly cooked in Cantonese speaking areas, namely, "grilling", as in haau1 zyu1 juk6 / Mand. kǎo zhūròu 烤豬肉

For those who wish a more detailed history of the term xiánzhūshǒu 咸猪手 < haam4 zyu1 sau2 鹹猪手 ("groper"), see this article.

To wrap all of this up, it seems that the Chinglish translation compresses two meanings — the one figurative and the other literal — to become "Grilled Sexual Harrassment" (this sounds so insane…).

While I'm at it, I might as well also mention that there is another word for sexual harassment that involves a well-known item of food, namely, chī dòufu 吃豆腐 (literally, "eat beancurd"), which is a verb plus noun construction (it is applied thus: "eat [so-and-so's] tofu"). A less colorful verb plus noun construction is zhàn piányi 占便宜 ("take advantage [of so-and-so]").

I hope that I've done justice to David's short but pithy bipartite question with which this blog began.

[Thanks to Bob Bauer, Ranting Jiang, Fangyi Cheng, and Mandy Chan]


  1. Faldone said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 10:11 am

    Yes, thank you.

  2. David W. Hogg said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 10:57 am

    best "badly translated chinese" post ever!

  3. hanmeng said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 11:16 am

    What's the context of the photo? A notice about sexual harassment?

  4. julie lee said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 11:25 am

    Thank you very much for the explanations of various terms. Though I consider myself to be literate in Chinese, I didn't know what the three Chinese characters in the picture meant, but thought the translation hilarious. Though I'm almost a total illiterate when it comes to sexual expressions in Chinese, I'm familiar with the expression "chi-doufu" (eat bean curd), and have the impression it refers to flirting or light flirtation rather than sexual harassment. A surgeon at a university here once accused a senior surgeon of sexual harassment because he would call her "honey" at work (it was a big story in the newspapers.) I thought that was, at the very most, light flirtation or "eating bean curd". Actually I thought it was on the order of London shopkeepers calling me "love", like, "Here you are, love", which meant "Here you are, dear," or (in some parts of America) "Here you are, honey," which is not even light flirtation but a more friendly way of saying "Here you are, miss," or "Here you are, ma'am."

  5. Ellen K. said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 12:05 pm

    Hanmeng, it looks to me from the picture like it's some kind of small sign. Though I too am curious and interested to know more about the context.

    I think groper = grouper = a type of fish.

  6. Matt_M said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 12:33 pm

    @Julie: in Australia it's common for cafe owners and shopkeepers (especially if they're middle-aged) to call customers "love", or "dear", or "darling". This is generally accepted (and personally I like being addressed this way). But in a workplace, a (male) boss calling a (female) subordinate "honey" or "darling" etc. seems decidedly dodgy. I think the power relationship in a workplace makes a bit of a difference in this case.

    I don't know about the story you're referring to, but it seems to me that a one-off "honey" might be interpreted as an innocent social gaffe — but continued use of the term with no signs of encouragement or acceptance from the workplace subordinate would indeed seem like a (mild) form of sexual harassment to me.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

    From an anonymous commenter:

    I realize that coping with Chinese linguistic oddities is already a huge job, but someone should consider doing this with Japlish, too. Particularly confusing is when one thinks a Japanese is using a Japanese word when it’s really a loan word from some other language. “Reischauer” sounds like “rush hour;” and “sekuhara” doesn’t refer to a dammed field but sexual harassment. Kamikaze no longer means divine wind, but a crazy driver. Agh.

  8. Jason said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

    When I was living in Beijing, I was told by several friends that 吃豆腐 Chī dòufu "eat tofu" meant oral sex performed on a woman. Perhaps the phrase has several meanings in several topolects. I know that a Nigerian acquaintance, who really enjoyed 家常豆腐 (who doesn't?), was often urged by Chinese friends to tell new acquaintances at dinner how much he loved 吃豆腐, to genuine shock and hilarity.

  9. Rubrick said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 4:20 pm

    Heretofore I'd been relatively immune to "moist"-aversion, but the phrase "salty-moist guy" may have pushed me over the edge…

  10. julie lee said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 7:13 pm

    Good gracious, I didn't know "eat tofu" had that meaning in Beijing. As you mention, there may be differences within topolects. A middle-aged woman friend of mine (I'll call her Mary) told me that her former high-school teacher in Taiwan, who is quite a bit older than her, later married a beautiful woman many years younger than him. Mary met this aging teacher with his young wife recently and said to him after some pleasantries, "Teacher, you're looking younger all the time !!" Upon which he replied good-naturedly: "Now, now, are you trying to eat-tofu [i.e., flirt] with me ?"

  11. Wentao said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 8:59 pm

    From the size of the sign and the font, and the half visible container in the top right corner, I guess the photo was taken at a buffet.

    I'm from Beijing and I was not aware that 吃豆腐 had the meaning Jason wrote about.

  12. Mandy said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 9:33 pm


    This is certainly something new! I have never heard people using the phrase 吃豆腐 to describe *that* type of behavior, mainly because the description wouldn't make much sense context-wise, and also because there are other words to call that female part and tofu is not one of them…

    But who knows, time changes, maybe the new generation has taken the phrase to a whole new level??

  13. Victor Mair said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 9:51 pm

    From an anonymous commenter:

    I think this is the funniest of your language blogs.
    What truly amazes me is how any Westerner could EVER learn
    this language, just as I am puzzled why shopkeepers don't ever ask
    some English-speaker instead of doing google translations?
    Your exlanation is the most circuitous way trying to explain that sign.
    In Berlin we say "von hinten durch die Brust ins Auge" about anything that is so convoluted.

  14. John said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 2:19 am

    @Ellen K.

    …a groper is a dirty pervert who gropes other people's private parts.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 4:48 am

    My wife went to National Taiwan University in the early 1960s, and I remember her telling me indignantly how cheeky scoundrels would "eat bean curd" as they ran by her or rode by her on a bicycle down an alley and touched her breasts or bum. I'm sure that if they had tried that walking by or on a bus, she would have pulled their hair or scratched or punched them (my wife was tough).

  16. Faldone said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 5:03 am

    The context, as far as I know it is that it is from the Facebook page of English Whirled Wide. They post pictures of translation blunders from any language.

  17. chris said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 7:11 am

    Of course, the pig is most often linked to Gluttony, but Gluttony and Lechery (usually connected with the goat) are often related

    If I recall correctly, there's a pig character in _Journey to the West_ who is both gluttonous and lecherous. So that may contribute some to reinforcing the association of pigs with those qualities.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 7:37 am

    Good recall, Chris! What you say is precisely true. The character's name is Zhu Bajie, often referred to as "Pigsy" in English. (this article has an explication of his names)

  19. Ellen K. said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 8:51 am

    John, sorry, I thought it was clear that I was talking in the context of the sign in the picture. My comment was not meant to say that's the only meaning of the word groper, merely that that's the meaning here.

  20. Dave K said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 7:31 pm

    The association of salt and lechery is an old one in English too. E.g. in Othello "Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys,/ As salt as wolves in pride…" . It might come from the association of lust with sweat?
    The metaphor isn't used as much these days. There's always "salty language" though that may have more to do with sailors being proverbial cussers.

  21. Keith said,

    May 8, 2013 @ 1:25 am

    Victor, according to "Chinese: A Linguistic Introduction" by Chaofen Sun (which I happened to have been re-reading two days ago), there is another possibility for the source of the suxual meaning of 咸:

    "[The] combination of the English words 'handsome' and 'maid' first gave rise to a Cantonese word 咸小妺 meaning prostitute (Gao and Liu 1958). Later, the word 'handsome' was metaphorically extended, as a phonemic loan, to become the neologized Cantonese word 咸湿 meaning 'pornographic.'"(phonetic transcriptions omitted)

    Is there reason to doubt this story?

  22. Morgan Jones said,

    May 8, 2013 @ 2:00 am

    The sexual connotations of saltiness survived in Blues/Country lyrics–especially 'salty dog'=sexual partner.

    Let me be your salty dog
    Or I won't be your man at all
    Honey let me be your salty dog

  23. Victor Mair said,

    May 8, 2013 @ 5:34 am


    I covered that in my original post, though not in exactly the same words. As I said, there are different, and widely varying, opinions about the origins of haam4 sap1 鹹濕 ("salty-moist", i.e., "lecherous").

  24. Victor Mair said,

    May 9, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

    From John Rohsenow:

    Here is a response from one of my colleagues at the Chinese American Museum of Chicago, originally from HK:

    Grilled or roasted ham hock (schweinshaxe) is a very popular dish in Hong Kong.

    The article mentions a few origins of the Cantonese term "haam4 sap1 鹹濕". Even though the article says otherwise, but it is quite possible that the term came from hamshop that originated in Shanghai in the early part of the last century.

    Back in those days, there were lots of Cantonese living in Shanghai, even my father lived there for many years before WWII. The Cantonese had a long history of dealing with Westerners in Guangzhou. Shanghai was a boom town at the time with many Westerners living there.

    There were many shady establishments there where people gathered to watch Can-Can type of shows out front, but the show girls could be had for, shall we say, some extra-curricular activities in the back for some extra spending money. The Westerners called these estabilshments hamshops for obvious reason (a ham comes from the leg of a pig, there were plenty of legs and thighs on display in those shops alright at the time). The Cantonese, always quick to adapt, just called them Haam Sap (hamshop). Over time, the term haam sap became a term for lechery among the Cantonese.

  25. Alex said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

    @Ellen K: but, but, the sign in the picture doesn't contain the word "groper"! It contains 咸猪手, whose meanings are 'salted pig's knuckle' and 'one who gropes'. A secondary English meaning of Mair's gloss cannot possibly be relevant, unless you're worried about some scenario like him having just looked up 咸猪手 in a misedited Chinese-to-English dictionary and taken the result at face value (which would, in a couple ways, be unlike him…)

  26. Bob said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 7:21 pm

    referring to the photo: I also belieave that it is a sign attached to a food tray. Here a literal meaning is used to suggest an implied meaning. –some Chinese just think anything sexual is funny– btw, for some reason(s) unknown to me, in Chinese, pigs' feet are called pigs' hands more often in recent years.

  27. Bob said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 7:33 pm

    referring to 鹹/咸豬手, as a groping hand, it ought to be the shortened form of 咸湿-豬手;pig's hand, here "pig" is used for non-appreciated, not-approved, cowardly…etc.

  28. Bob said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 7:53 pm

    re 食豆腐, it is a Mandarin term, used in Taiwan, of 1950 to 1980; not heard much lately; non from any other areas. it was used mostly by a man's attempt to verbally take sexual advantage of a female. Only rarely the term is used to refer to actual bodily contacts… reason: to-fu is soft and easy to eat, thus an advantage thing to do.

  29. The suffocated said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 5:59 pm

    I am quite surprised that a well-known sinologist like you would cite articles in, a website of notoriously poor credibility.

    That said, one of the articles you linked to is partially true (but the rest of that article is outright wrong) about the origin of the term 鹹猪手 as groper: this new figurative meaning to the culinary term was overloaded by the Hong Kong actress 苑瓊丹 when she talked about a sexual harassment scandal. The scandal made some big entertainment headlines back then.

    As for 鹹濕,the term is not found the 1907 edition of English and Cantonese Dictionary edited by John Chalmers. Nor is it found in 孔仲南's 廣東俗語考 (1933). The earliest use of the term I know appeared in issues 68-70 (1929) of Hing Mee Monthly (恒美月報), which was published in Canton (Guangzhou), so I guess the term did not exist before the 20th century.

    At any rate, the use of 鹹濕 seemed to have become popular during mid 19th century. For instances, there were erotic novels entitled 鹹濕老師 ("The Lecherous Teacher", circa 1941) and 鹹濕精日記 ("The Lecher's Diary", circa 1946). The term can also be found in General Cai Tingkai's autography (1946): "她們也說得幾句鹹濕的山東話". (Cai was Cantonese.)

    By the way, there is another photo of "Germany sexual harassment", which you can see here:

    and a related news story here:

RSS feed for comments on this post