A curse from the novel coronavirus epicenter

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The whole world is now thoroughly familiar with the name "Wuhan", whereas four months ago, only a small number of people outside of China would have heard of it.  Since, two days ago, I posted about Dutch curses, many of which just so happen to be linked to diseases, I am prompted to dust off an old post that is about a colorful curse from Wuhan, which, by the way, is famous among all Chinese cities for the proclivity of its inhabitants to indulge in sharp-tongued imprecations at the slightest provocation.  I myself have been witness to their talent in this art, at which the women are especially adept.

The particular Wuhan curse in question here looks innocent enough on the surface:  gè bānmǎ 个斑马 ("a zebra").  But when we probe more deeply into Wuhan topolect, we find that it actually means "a motherf*cker" and has nothing whatsoever to do with zebras or even with horses.  How that happens is extremely complicated, and I have spelled it all out in this post:

"Why zebra'?" (5/29/16)

The linguistics of cursing — especially in Wuhan — is not for the faint of heart.


Selected readings

"Dutch curses" (4/19/20) — with additional references to cursing in the "Selected readings"

"The impact of COVID-19 on Russian" (4/18/20) — with additional references to COVID-19 in the "Selected readings"


  1. Mark S. said,

    April 21, 2020 @ 10:41 pm

    When I first moved to Wuhan in the early 1990s, I was amazed by how everyone seemed to be loudly arguing with one another — especially, yes, the women, who do indeed have a reputation in China for that. But I quickly figured out that's just how a lot of people there talked normally; and they might have smiles on their faces the whole time.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    April 22, 2020 @ 3:16 am

    Visited Wuhan for an international TeX conference in 2005 — could not have been made more welcome anywhere, and if anyone cursed me it went sdtraight over my head !

  3. John Carr said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 5:36 pm

    I have a question that's been bothering me ever since the "Why zebra?" post was young. In that post you wrote: "the unspeakably vulgar character cào 肏". How does a vulgar word in Chinese come to have a standard written form? Why wasn't a homophone good enough?

    I recall from an episode of the Lexicon Valley podcast that the English f-word used to not appear in some dictionaries. Written English was meant to be more formal and less vulgar.

  4. Misha Schutt said,

    April 28, 2020 @ 6:00 pm

    I took Mandarin in grad school. I was chatting with a Chinese woman at lunch (age probably about 22) who said there were no “bad words” in Chinese. I happened to know the character cào and I wrote it on a napkin. She said, her voice rising in agitation, “What’s that character? I’ve never seen that character before! Get it away from me!”

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