He's My BF

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Today I was chatting with three of our visiting graduate students from the PRC.  Thinking that I was being au courant, I mentioned the expression DUI4XIANG4 對象 ("boy/girl friend" < "target; object"); I knew very well that no one would say something so creepy and out-of-date as NAN2PENG2YOU and NÜ3PENG2YOU.  But all three of them (two women and one man) simultaneously laughed and said, "That's so old-fashioned, Professor Mair!"  So I asked them, "What do you say now?"  I was amazed when they told me, "We just say 'BF' and 'GF'."  Of course, I knew right away that they meant "boy friend" and "girl friend," but I thought such usages were confined to short text messaging, chat rooms, bulletin boards, and so forth, where they are indeed extremely widespread.  What struck me is that "BF" and "GF" are part of their spoken Chinese vocabulary as well.

TA1 SHI4 WO3DE BF 他是我的bf ("He's my boy friend") is a perfectly good Mandarin sentence.  I suppose that one could refer to this as a kind of code-switching, but I suspect that BF and similar expressions function as assimilated Chinese terms.  Acronymic loan words?  I'm really not sure what to call them, but they certainly are prevalent in the language as spoken and written today.


  1. JS Bangs said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 5:32 pm

    How is "BF" being pronounced by these students? [bi Ef] as in English? Or something more Sinicized?

  2. sls said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

    I suppose that "RSVP" does something like that in English–to the point that we (ok, maybe it's just me, but I suspect not) treat it as a whole, single word, to be nouned (She sent an RSVP.), or just used to mean "requested response." ("Please RSVP"; "Please send an RSVP")

  3. Flooey said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 5:55 pm

    I've seen that with English acronyms in the US (I have plenty of friends who say WTF ("double-you-tee-eff"), LOL ("lawl"), ROFL ("roffle"), and such), but that's very interesting that they take English acronyms and use them as loanwords in their native language.

  4. David Landfair said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 6:41 pm

    This reminded me of a passage from the Japanese article in "The World's Major Languages" (ed. Comrie). According to the article, the Japanese word for "office lady/girl" is OL, written that way and pronounced like "ooeru."

    It's on page 858, reproduced here.

  5. Bob Ladd said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 7:23 pm

    Is this really so different from any case where a borrowing language uses material from a source language in a way that speakers of the source language themselves wouldn't do? Like the now slightly dated German Twen 'young person in their twenties', based on the English words teen and twenty. Or Italian lifting 'facelift' or mobbing 'political pressure'. (Or for that matter, English double entendre). In all of these, actual word-formation processes of the source language are applied by speakers of the borrowing language to create words that haven't become established in the source language. There could be English abbreviations BF and GF for 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend'; it's just that English native speakers haven't created them. But Chinese speakers of English have, and use them in their Chinese.

  6. mondain said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 7:24 pm

    It is simply because you are sampling among a population of "visiting graduate students". I'd say that this usage is rather a sociolect.

  7. Chad Nilep said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 8:11 pm

    Japanese words such as oeru (OL, 'office lady') and esusaizu (S-size, 'small') are indeed common. As Bob Ladd suggests for BF, these would be perfectly grammatical/logical neologisms in English.

    Also common in Japanese are clipped versions of loan words such as baito 'part-time job' from German Arbeit. Clippping is a common morphological process in Japanese, acting here on a borrowed word.

    Both of this year's Fashionable New Words, as announced by publisher Jiyu Kokuminsha, are clipped versions of English words.

    Compare, too, the English honsha, which seems to apply a Spanish morphological process to a Japanese loan word.

  8. Nicki said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 8:17 pm

    Interesting. The problem comes when they try to use these constructions when speaking the source language – as my Chinese ESL students often do, thinking they are speaking perfectly good English. Another one that my students use that has always intrigued me is "AA" to mean "go dutch" (split the bill when dining out). They tell me it is English, but it certainly isn't the English I speak.

  9. chris said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 9:50 pm

    @Bob Ladd: "BF" and "GF" do actually exist in English. I'm not in the right age group to say with any certainty whether they are used regularly in speech but they're certainly common enough on the internet and in text messages. They're not nearly as common as they appear to be in Chinese, however. There's also some confusion with "BF" because that can also mean "best friend"; this is related to the similar acronym "BFF", which is in very common use to mean "best friends forever". The friends in this expression are nearly always both female.

    I recommend the Urban Dictionary as an excellent and highly entertaining resource in all such matters. It gives us the following example, helpfully clarifying the distinction between "bf" and "bff":

    (a) My bff's bf Bradley F. is going to the mall today.
    = My best friends forever's boy friend Bradley F. is going to the mall today.

  10. D Jagannathan said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 11:03 pm

    @Chris, Bob Ladd: Yes, BF and GF are used in speech fairly commonly among, say, under 25s. My sense of BFF is that for most speakers it is a disambiguation form, whose widespread usage was prompted by the growing use of BF/GF in speech.

  11. Popup Chinese said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 11:46 pm

    This is tongue-in-cheek, no? Perhaps we are more innocent here, but people use 男朋友 and 女朋友 all the time here in Beijing. I've never been introduced to someone's significant other as their 对象 when the relationship is unambiguous and mutually acknowledged.

    @Nicki – AA is from Chinese. It would be interesting to know where it came from and that might be an interesting project for Language Log. My own favorite misreading was reading PK as "Paul Krugman" for about a year, rather than the (now-obvious) "Player Killer".

  12. Brendan said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 11:51 pm

    My sense is that while occasionally used in speech, 'BF' and 'GF' are used mostly in online chat, along with 'LG' (老公) and ’LP' (老婆) and similar abbreviations like MM (妹妹) (for girls in general), GG (哥哥), and PPMM (漂漂妹妹). 男朋友 and 女朋友 are still the norm amongst most speakers, or at least ones I've heard; 对象 is a bit more like the English 'SO' ('significant other') to my ears — still in use, but no longer current. 男朋友 and 女朋友 seem to be the overwhelmingly more common usage these days, though I've also seen the abbreviated 男友 and 女友.

    I've also seen 'GF' rendered as 姐夫. (There's a nice illustration of this in the novelist Han Han's '三重门,' excerpted here.)

  13. Jack Huang said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 11:57 pm

    As a Chinese, I am trying to figure out more similar expressions.
    The first came to my mind is BT, 变态(Bian4 tai4), meaning creepy or abnormal. It can be used for expressing one's disgust.
    BS, 鄙视(Bi3 Shi4), look down upon. Interestingly enough, 笔试(Bi3 Shi4) shares the same pronunciation, so for a graduate looking for a job, the frequent expression is 我参加了XX的笔试,结果被鄙视了(wo3 can1 jia1 le XX de bi3 shi4, jie2 guo3 bei4 bi3 shi4 le),I took the written exam by XX (company), but did so bad that I was rejected.
    MM 美眉,(Mei3 Mei2), beautiful girl~
    All expressions above originated from the internet but now has been integrated to our daily speech.

  14. LwPhD said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 12:04 am

    In my (obviously non-native speaker) Chinese experience, 男朋友 and 女朋友 are quite timeless and never "old fashioned" or "creepy". I just ran it by a few colleagues (from Taiwan, YMMMV = Your Mainland Mileage May Vary) and my intuition was correct, at least this once. 男/女 朋友 is pretty normal while 對象 has connotations that hearkens back to arranged marriages.

  15. Gavin said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 12:59 am

    @Popup Chinese: There's no chance it was Cantonese "PK" (pok gai?), you don't think? When I was in high school, my friends used both frequently in speech and writing.

  16. Brendan said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 1:20 am

    @Gavin The term now comes from "player kill" (a term from the game Counter-strike, which itself is known by its initials as 'CS'). Baidu's got an article on it here.

  17. michael farris said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 1:56 am

    I hesitate to mention this, but back in my day BF had a different, less delicate meaning (the B rhymed with cut, and the F with luck).

  18. Philip Newton said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 2:26 am

    @sls: RSVP is not just a noun, but for some people a verb, too: "He never RSVP'ed to my invitation"; "Oh, I just remembered Becky and Paul are getting married next month – I'll have to RSVP so that they'll know I'm comming!".

  19. Bob Ladd said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 2:27 am

    @ michael farris: Yeah, that's what it meant to me, too, until this discussion started.

  20. Stephen Jones said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 2:36 am

    Well at least they're not talking about their SO (Significant Other).

  21. outeast said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 6:39 am

    A research colleague of mine has recorded focus-group participants (ie 'ordinary people') using new words such as 'imho' in the course of normal Czech speech.

  22. Nigel Greenwood said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 6:44 am

    @ sls:

    I've seen RSVP glossed as "Remember to Send a Vedding Present".

    Aren't 男朋友 and 女朋友 (admittedly older) calques from English?

  23. Andrej Bjelakovic said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 8:25 am

    I must say I regularly use WTF in my native language (Serbian) but only when speaking to people I know will understand what I mean (young, Internet-savvy people, let's say). And it's never pronounced the English way (double-you-tee-eff) but something like /ˌvə tə ˈfə/.

  24. Fiona said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 11:10 am

    Chinese husband (we're currently living in Shanghai) confirms:

    1) 对象 is only heard "in the village" and, as was noted above, has connotations of 'arranged marriage'

    2) 男朋友 and 女朋友 are the most common terms (although plenty of young people will just use 朋友 as in "他/她是我的朋友")

    3) He has only seen BF/GF on bulletin boards or text messages, and has never heard anyone use the term orally.

  25. Zubon said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

    Since there is some dispute on the English usage, anecdotal from a 29-year-old midwestern male:
    – BF and GF are used in casual (oral) conversation, but not very often. SO can even be used in arranging an event in a business context. All are of course available in text.
    – BFF is used orally and in text, but only with irony. The implication is that only adolescent girls use the term, so that connotation is added to the discussion. It is somewhat disparaging of the persons/relationship in question.
    – Chat speak (lol, wtf, omg, brb, irl) leaked into casual conversation ironically but is losing that with habit. It still has a "teehee, we're being silly" connotation, but some people will use it without thinking about it. Oral use of WTF is mostly with great emphasis: "double-you……tee…..EFF?!" I would still say this is a minority vocabulary, but it is common in my internet-heavy peer group. (Also, we do not capitalize "internet" or "web," despite the memo my workplace circulated.)
    – PK is more of a Everquest/World of Warcraft term than a Counterstrike term. Everyone in CS kills other players; that is the point of the game. In MMORPGs, it differentiates those fighting other players from those fighting computer-controlled monsters, and PK carries the (weak) connotation that one prefers to hunt new or weaker players ("gank"), as opposed to the more neutral "PvP" ("Player versus Player"). I more commonly hear the term "TK" ("Team Killer") for first-person shooters like Counterstrike, meaning someone who shoots his own teammates instead of the enemy.

  26. KYL said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

    Victor Mair has a habit of extracting from very small samples into grandiose claims about modern Chinese that are often incomplete and sometimes outright wrong. As the comments indicate, this is one of those instances.

    Every small group of young people think that they are cool and hip, but graduate students in any country are not going to be the leading edge of fashion. If you want to find out what young people really say, you need to go visit them, not their (much older) brothers and sisters.

  27. KYL said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 12:31 pm

    Zubon, as a note: "PK" is used by some young Chinese as a loan word similar to "vs." in English.

    JS Bangs: the pronunciation of "BF" depends on the person, since there's no simple answer for what "sinicized" means. It depends on the person's native topolect of Chinese.

  28. kyle gorman said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

    the use of the "neologisms" BF/Gf in spoken english of people under 25 is rather frequent. these forms exist productively in younger english. though maybe some semantic split (irony) is going on.

  29. Russell said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 2:23 pm

    I suppose this is/seems more noteworthy because most Chinese vocab is not written with any alphabet; but as mentioned above, the presence of OL and S/M/L in Japanese is well-established. The phenomenon is still interesting, of course.

    My first exposure to this, soon after getting the ability to read Japanese about 10 years ago, was seeing phrases like HPがあがりました "(the) HP has gone up." At the time my only exposure to HP was in role-playing games, as "health points." It took me a while to realize that people were saying their *home page* was up, and not saying in a truly nerdy way that they were feeling healthy.

  30. Rawley said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 3:02 pm

    Notice that native English speakers once referred to their BF using that good old-fashioned English word beau. And if things became more serious, the beau became a fiancé. As we say, "plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose."

  31. j said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 7:11 pm

    Taiwanese-American teenager here. I use 男朋友/女朋友, as do my Chinese-speaking friends here in the U.S. My twenty-something, ultra-hip Taiwanese cousin uses BF/GF.

    (Just registering my data point.)

  32. NIjma said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 8:51 pm

    When I was in Jordan I was startled to hear the Bene Hassan tribe referred to as "B.H." apparently in perfect English. They're a fairly large tribe ranging north and east of Amman and are known for short tempers, sugary tea, and eating mansaf with a spoon instead of fingers. (I can vouch for the tea.) I have since heard the expression in other parts of Jordan and the Arab neighborhoods here.

  33. Amy said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 11:16 pm

    On the line of Zubon's post, here's my experience with spoken internet abbreviations, from a seventeen-year-old girl's perspective —

    My friends and I will sometimes use expressions like BF, GF, BFF, IDK, etc., but almost exclusively in a satirical sense. We constantly mock the "idk my bff jill" commercial. Thinking about it, I don't think I've ever heard my peers use this internet lingo as a serious way to communicate; using these abbreviations always seems to have a silly connotation.

    Although, most of the people I communicate with will even avoid these phrases in texts/e-mails, so I may not be completely representative of the average teenage girl.

  34. hanmeng said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 2:02 pm

    How do you say "punked"?

  35. Nijma said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

    "Punked?" My 17-y-o niece uses the word "owned" right at the Christmas dinner table. Not that anyone else in the family understands her.

  36. is this really unusual? said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 3:49 am

    Doesn't seem to different from "RSVP-ing", "TV's" etc.

    Norwegians say "PC-er" meaning computer.PL.INDEF all the time (where "PC" is the English acronym; some years ago some traditionalists feebly tried introducing "PD" ("Personlig Datamaskin"), but that largely went unnoticed).

    The letters of "PC-er" are pronounced in the Norwegian way, however I've also heard "BFF-en" (BFF.SG.DEF) with the letters pronounced in the American way.

  37. Lugubert said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 6:17 am

    Swedish also has "PC" for the computer meaning, pronounced as Swedish letters.

    What is confusing when you first encoutre it is that in Hindi, initials of names are usually given according to their English pronunciation. "Dr. R.J. Smith" is written "Da. aar. je. smith". ("D" is retroflex, "e" is IPA [e:], the "th" an aspirated t.)

  38. Randy Alexander said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

    Since nobody answered JS Bangs' question in the first comment (how is BF pronounced?), while I didn't hear those specific students pronounce it, I can tell you how it's commonly pronounced in northeast China: [bi.ai.fu], or with tones [bi˩.ai˨˥.fu˥˩]. Of course this would be a very thick accent. Less thick accents would be a little bit closer to English [bi.ˈɛfə].

  39. Simon Cauchi said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 7:25 pm

    "BF" among us older English people doesn't mean "boy friend" but "bloody fool".

  40. hsknotes said,

    February 8, 2009 @ 5:22 am

    Asking a chinese person what 'word' they use is often a horrible way to get the right answer. Hearing other people actually use it in the course of a conversation (say while two people are having lunch) is obviously a preferable route.

    I have never heard anyone say 对象 (dui4xiang4), but my understanding is that it has always been like 'boyfriend/friend in the sense of chinese people don't have more than one bf/gf in their life and this is the person that they will soon marry.' Obviously, not that useful nowadays, and obviously far more formal than boyfriend/girlfriend for the city classes.

    Anyway,  will second brandon/fiona and say that BF/GF and related phrases are if not completely, almost exclusively restricted to internet/text messages.

    The grad students telling you some bogus (they in fact may say it among themselves, somewhat doubtful) feels so incredibly familiar to when I'll ask someone what they'll say and I can see them trying to think of some 'good chinese' or some english expression that they would never use with anyone. In a place like Taipei, where english does get dropped into actual daily speech in a much more copious way, than say, Beijing, (bear in mind this moves this shift from 1 out of 10,000 words to 2 out of 10,000 words) it is very often simple little things PR (public relations) or things like that. Among daily life, outside of "seven-eleven" which is by rule pronounced in english, you can easily go days or weeks without hearing english. On TV shows, discussion will sprinkle large amounts of Taiwanese (or entirely Taiwanese) and words in English. As for the young romantic dramas/comedies 偶像剧 they insert english in there that I never ever hear young people actually use, which I'm sure is done intentionally.
    在意 becomes 'care', for example.

    Nicki and Popup, I'm nearly positive AA comes from HK (Hong Kong) which is truly the birthplace of all bad english and englishized chnese in mandarin.

    As for PK, in Taiwan PK (like in the Mainland) assumes a variety of meanings and uses:


    And it makes it into even the most mainstream of magazines

    天下杂志‧童书出版: :当老师PK老师

    Here and in many other cases the meaning comes to come from this second source, penalty kick. But certainly the logic is more than a little odd to an english speaker.

  41. neddanison said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 7:38 pm

    One more tiny point to add: While letters or acronyms may gain currency (however fleeting) in spoken Chinese, English words are very rare (as hsknotes and others note). English letters, moreover, come out sounding like Chinese syllables/characters (as Randy Alexander notes). Over at More on Loanword Typology (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1008), myl cites Victor Mair's BF, etc., as evidence of increasing acceptance of loanwords in Chinese. Are these indeed loanwords?

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