Hey Ren

« previous post | next post »

"Ren & Stimpy's Vacuum", a Facebook video:

As we have come to know all too well, to those who are predisposed to hearing it that way, Mandarin nàge nàge nàge / nèige nèige nèige 那个 那个 那个 ("that that that") may come across as a racial slur in English.

Going in the opposite direction, English "Hey Ren", may come across as Mandarin "hēirén 黑人" ("black person").

I dare say that, no matter what one says in one language, it may sound somewhat like something that has another quite different meaning in another language.

Basta basta(rd)!


Selected readings

[Thanks to Mark Metcalf]



  1. MattF said,

    September 23, 2020 @ 4:17 pm

    Unfortunately, viewing a Facebook video requires allowing Facebook to track you. Sorry, but no thanks.

  2. David Cameron Staples said,

    September 23, 2020 @ 4:41 pm

    MattF, all you really need for the context is "Hey, Ren" in your head, as said by Stimpy.

  3. Thomas Rees said,

    September 23, 2020 @ 6:19 pm

    When I click on the video the following announcement appears:
    Do you want to allow “facebook.com” to use cookies and website data while browsing “upenn.edu”?
    If I click the link «Facebook video», Facebook opens at the video. Who knows what the Zucktopus is doing with my data!

  4. Victor Mair said,

    September 23, 2020 @ 7:42 pm

    From Don Keyser:

    One can probably pursue these things ad infinitum. So I just wanted to share one small snippet from my personal past.

    When studying Japanese at the Foreign Service Institute around 40 years ago, I happened to share break time and a lounge room with students of Arabic. So we compared notes. I observed that the Jesuits had termed Japanese "the devil's own tongue," and rightly so. My colleagues in Arabic said that the Jesuits would have had a real problem with Arabic. So I bit and asked why. I was told, deadpan, that the better one's accent in Arabic, the more profane one sounds in English. I asked for an example and was offered that "an intellectual" comes out in Arabic as مفكر which in romanized English is roughly mufakir, the correct rendering of which sounds not unlike "mo'f***ker" in my native Baltimorean ("Bal'mor'un").

  5. Victor Mair said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 6:29 am

    I'm not a member of Facebook, so I never post things on Facebook and seldom read things on Facebook, but occasionally I look at things from Facebook if friends send them to me, as happened in this case, bearing in mind that some parts of Facebook are inaccessible to non-members. Despite all of that, I have not had the slightest problem with viewing this "Hey Ren" video.

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 6:40 am

    (circa 00:00:57/00:00:58) — what is a "hemi" ?

  7. DMcCunney said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 7:26 am

    @MattF: If you use Firefox as your browser, install the Mozilla Facebook Container – https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/facebook-container/

    Speaking personally, I don't especially care about being tracked, but mileage varies.

    @Philip Taylor: A "hemi" is a reference to a form of internal combustion engine used in vehicles. It refers to the form of the head on top of the cylinder block. Hemi head designs are more fuel intensive, but result in higher power from an engine using them. They are popular choices for utility vehicles like Dodge RAM pickups where you need the extra power to tow or haul heavy loads.

  8. Andreas Johansson said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 7:42 am

    Something I don't think I've seen anyone feeling the need to explain in this furore is which sense(s) of "that" that the offending word translates. Demonstrative? Relative pronoun? Conjunction?

  9. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 8:09 am

    Thank you, Prof. Mair! I've always said that Ren & Stimpy is a boundless source of cultural wisdom.

    Regarding Don Keyser's comment, great fun can indeed be had with Arabic, and not just anent the low-hanging fruit (e.g., "Hey there, li'l fakr!"). Anyone remember the genius who turned a low-quality Arabic song into a silly Swedish tune about a hat?:https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=fgdfcKtRQW8

  10. BobW said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 9:16 am



    Saw this and immediately thought of Language Log. Whatever are they doing with all those spree trails?

  11. Victor Mair said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 9:57 am

    A big thank you to DMcCunney for explaining what a "hemi" is. I've been seeing it around on very powerful looking cars and pickup trucks, and I keep telling myself to look it up. Now I don't have to because you've explained it so clearly.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 10:09 am


    Excellent find!

    I will post on it as soon as I get a chance.

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 10:35 am

    Re. the "spree trails", the cited article includes the following pararaph :

    For more than a decade, Kolomoisky siphoned billions of dollars from PrivatBank, Ukraine’s largest financial institution, which he co-owned, in an audacious laundering scheme, cleaning the money through a web of companies around the world, U.S. federal prosecutors allege.

    I cannot help but think that by holding back "U.S. federal prosecutors allege" to the very end, the article is top-toeing dangerously close to libel while weaselly avoiding any actual risk of litigation …

  14. Victor Mair said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 11:25 am

    @Andreas Johansson

    Great question!

    As a filler, "that" is not being used as a relative pronoun or conjunction. It's a demonstrative. It's as though the speaker were searching for which person or thing, etc. he wants to name, or wishing to characterize the person or thing he is about to name. It's that one.

    It can be very annoying and demeaning when a Chinese person is talking to or about you or someone you know well and keeps saying nàge nàge nàge / nèige nèige nèige 那个 那个 那个 ("that that that") when they and you both know very well that it's you (or your friend) that they want to name / specify. It almost makes you feel subhuman, like you're a thing, or not quite even a nameable thing, and one of the worst things you can say about a person in Chinese is that he's "not [even] a thing" ("bùshì [ge] dōngxī 不是[个]东西").

    Nàge nàge nàge / nèige nèige nèige 那个 那个 那个 ("that that that") … Victor Mair / Méi Wéihéng 梅維恒.

    It's as though they find uttering your name to be distasteful.

    Just spit it out, man! I'm [that] Victor Mair / Méi Wéihéng 梅維恒!

  15. Andreas said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 11:50 am

    @Victor Mair:


  16. John Rohsenow said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 1:23 pm

    Hei, ren! Zenme yang?
    "Hey, Man–what's happening?" :-)

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 2:41 pm

    Apparently Chrysler (maker of inter alia Dodges) has historically tried to assert U.S. trademark rights in "Hemi" as applied to automotive engines even though other unaffiliated manufacturers have used similar designs. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemispherical_combustion_chamber

    But whether or not the word might prove to be generic if one were willing to fight it out hard enough in court, one imagines that it was Chrysler-manufactured cars that were specifically intended to be evoked by the well-known lines

    "Beyond the palace, Hemi-powered drones
    Scream down the boulevard."

  18. George Lane said,

    September 25, 2020 @ 2:13 pm

    I recall reading somewhere that US soldiers stationed in Iraq were advised to not to use the word "dude" when addressing or referring to the locals. because it supposedly sounds like an Arabic term for "worm." Can any Arabic speakers here confirm or deny this?

  19. A. Skrobov said,

    September 26, 2020 @ 3:36 am

    @George Lane
    Indeed so; see https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%D8%AF%D9%88%D8%AF

RSS feed for comments on this post