Fierce, ferocious, formidable; awesome, amazing, astonishing

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If there's any Mandarin word that I often wish I could use in English, it is "lìhài 厲害 / 厉害" ("intense; fierce; ferocious; formidable; strict; stern; severe; shrewd; sharp; smart; serious [as of an illness]; cruel; terrible; powerful; amazing; fantastic; impressive"), with tones of "awesome" — and many other nuances, implications, and connotations.

Example sentence:

"Zhège rén hěn lìhài 这个人很厉害 / 這個人很厲害" ("This person is great / amazing", and lots of other things, many of them not so flattering, depending on the context).

Mighty "lìhài 厲害 / 厉害" is one of those panacean adjectives that covers a host of strong reactions to persons, happenings, situations, and what not.  It's been around (in the written record) for more than a century, but doesn't seem to have much greater time depth than that.

I've often wondered how such a powerful word arose, but can get no further with my etymologizing than to explain the meanings of its two constituent morphemes:

lì 厲

    1. fierce; stern
    2. severe; strict
      /   ―  yán  ―  strict; stern; sever[e]
    3. ferocious
    4. A surname​.
    5. (Classical Chinese) Same as (, “whetstone; to sharpen”).
    6. (literary) to encourage; to urge
    7. (literary) to raise; to exert
    8. (Philippines Hokkien) messy; disorderly; chaotic

My instinct is that the basic etymon for this morpheme is that in #5, for which see Axel Schuessler, ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese (Honolulu:  University of Hawai'i Press, 2007), p. 352.

hài 害

    1. to harm; to maim; to injure
    2. to cause to do; to result in (something unfavourable)
    3. to kill; to murder
    4. to suffer from
    5. to feel (an adverse sentiment)
    6. harm; disaster; calamity
    7. crucial point; vital point
    8. harmful; injurious
    9. (Min Nan) broken

Hài 害 is cognate with gē 割 (“to cut; destroy; injure”), for which see Axel Schuessler, ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese (Honolulu:  University of Hawai'i Press, 2007), p. 252.

厲 and 害 are both ancient Sinographs, going back at least to the time of the bronze inscriptions three millennia ago.

A final note:  whenever I think of "lìhài 厲害 / 厉害" ("intense"; etc., etc.), I often also think of Lehigh, the name of an awesome nearby university.

 

Selected readings

 

Addendum

After I finished writing this post, I realized that almost exactly five years ago I had already proposed adopting lìhài 厲害 / 厉害 into the English lexicon!  See "A new English word" (11/20/16).

 



9 Comments »

  1. Dwight Williams said,

    November 21, 2021 @ 11:53 am

    That one word, mixing all of those anglophone adjective-words into one descriptive…is definitely efficient. I can see why some anglophones will want to claim it for English.

  2. Gabriel Holbrow said,

    November 21, 2021 @ 8:16 pm

    Bravo!

  3. Scott P. said,

    November 22, 2021 @ 1:14 am

    Maybe a good English translation would be 'sublime'?

  4. Chris Button said,

    November 22, 2021 @ 1:37 pm

    It seems to overlap pretty well with "sugoi" in Japanese.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2021 @ 5:40 pm

    Sugoi is a good suggestion. Close parallels with lihai.

    "Borrowed from Japanese 凄い (sugoi, might have originally meant 'dreadful, ghastly'), maybe with the same change in meaning as English terrific."

    https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sugoi

    1. terrible; dreadful ​Usually written using kana alone

    2. amazing (e.g. of strength); great (e.g. of skills); wonderful; terrific​Usually written using kana alone

    すごい


    Terrific!

    3. to a great extent; vast (in numbers)​
    Usually written using kana alone

    集めた

    Madonna's concert drew a large audience.

    4. awfully; very; immensely​
    Usually written using kana alone, Colloquialism, See also 凄く

    https://jisho.org/search/%E5%87%84%E3%81%84

    But bear in mind that lihai chiefly / originally had to do with sharpness and cutting., whereas sugoi originally / mainly had to do with chilling, bitter cold, miserable, dreary.

  6. Denis Mair said,

    November 22, 2021 @ 9:50 pm

    I think the word li4 厲 (fierce, harsh) was once semantically separate from the word li4 勵 ("to sharpen with whetstone, " "urge," "encourage," "self-motivate"). The two senses were originally written with the same character because they were homophones, and the graph for one was probably borrowed to write the other. To me this looks like a loan character pairing, in which the earlier sense ("sharpen") subsequently added the signifier 石 to distinguish it from the later sense (“harsh”). However, in traditional etymology, one sometimes finds that semantically different homophones may come from a distant common word-ancestor. At some point they split to become different senses, only to be re-united by a graphic borrowing such as this. Anyway, these two senses of li4 became conflated in the inspired polysemic coinage that is lihai 厲害. // Another polysemic compound of marvelous utility that emerged in early Mandarin vernacular is tongkuai 痛快, which verges on the indefinable. These days it is not used so often as lihai 厲害, but it is wonderfully apt for exclaiming over a thrill (or a clean break) which one initially found intimidating. Another fine compound from early Mandarin is lingguang 靈光, meaning agile-minded and smoothly functioning. If you are going to propose the international recognition of lihai 厲害, I recommend that you add tongkuai 痛快 and lingguang 靈光 to make your proposal even more formidable. And while you're at it, you can add something in a more philosophical vein—"Daoti" 道體, which is simultaneously the substance, system and body of the Dao/Way. One can move to various vantage points within the Way/Dao, precisely because it is an organic system wherein the laws mesh from level to level. These are some of my favorite words, and I believe they would add something to the cornucopia of English. After all, the word guanxi 關係("high-status connections") and other lackluster Chinese words have already been added to the small number of loans in the English lexicon. So let's push for the recognition of a few that are full of vim and sparkle!

  7. Chris Button said,

    November 23, 2021 @ 6:47 am

    According to Qiu Xigui (Chinese Writing), 厲害 was originally written 利害 and referred to benefit and harm.

  8. KIRINPUTRA said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 11:44 pm

    Exactly — the graph 厉 (厲) in Mandarin 厉害 is a kind of “guided sound borrowing”.

    Mand. LÌHÀI (in all its meanings) is cognate to Japanese RIGAI, Taiwanese & Hokkien LĪHĀI, etc.; the Japanese & (native) Taiwanese-Hokkien representation 利害 is etymological vs Classical Book Chinese.

    Casually searching CTEXT and CBETA, it seems that 厲害 — with the sound borrowing — didn’t make it into formal writing till the 20th cen.

    What’s really amazing is that nobody in Mandarin Studies or Chinese Studies is keeping track of this stuff. The assumption is that there’s no need to, since “the Chinese language” is timeless, and the modern Chinese states have codified it so faithfully.

  9. Chris Button said,

    November 26, 2021 @ 8:30 am

    I wonder if 蠆(萬) "scorpion" is related to Sanskrit वृश्चिक vṛ́ścika "scorpion". It might also gives us a way to account for its loan usage as 萬 "10,000" with its bilabial onset.

    https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=42540

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