There are enough articles about Cantonese slangs out there. Here’s something different: we challenge you to find direct translations of these eight Cantonese concepts.
Being multilingual (or bye-lingual, lol) has brought us insights into how some words are simply impossible to translate into another language. And Cantonese, being the tough language it is, has offered us plenty of these gems. In fact, some Cantonese concepts can’t even be directly translated into Mandarin, despite that they’re both Chinese dialects – pretty cool, right? While you probably won’t need to know these words to order at your favourite cha chaan teng, this will be a fun piece for you if you’re the type to chuckle at Mcdull, and love a bit of Hong Kong culture. Since the notoriously difficult ‘add oil’ is now officially in the Oxford English Dictionary, we’ve come up with a new list of Cantonese concepts and terms that are super hard to directly translate into English. See if you can beat us by coming up with the perfect translations as you scroll down the list!
8 Cantonese concepts that are impossible to translate
1. Mm goi VS dor tse（唔該 VS 多謝）
Closest translation: thanks VS thank you very much
We’ll start with an easy one. Mm goi and dor tse are two short phrases every Cantonese beginner has to learn, as they mean the all-important: thank you. And showing gratitude is always a lovely thing to do – until you use the wrong thank you, that is… Yeah, then it might just get a little awkward. Because while mm goi and dor tse both express appreciation, they’re used in very different contexts.
Let’s break it down. You’d say mm goi when you’re being served something, or when someone does you a small favour. Think when your friend pours a shot for you (eyyy); when your mum cuts some fruit for you; or when the waiter sets the table for you. On the other hand, you’d say dor tse when you’re given presents, or when someone’s done you a huge favour. Dor tse for coming to our Ted Talk.
2. Yook gun（肉緊）
Closest translation: I wanna squishhh
The literal translation of yook gun is meat tight (say what?), but what it really means is surprisingly cute. Basically, yook gun is the intense feeling you get when you want to squish something or someone cute (or hug the life out of them – okay, don’t). Imagine an adorable puppy running towards you. Or a corgi’s bum. Or a baby with soft, chubby cheeks. Um, do we sound creepy now? Sorry, not sorry. We’re just here to inform you that this emotion exists. Now hide yo kids and hide yo wives!
On the less creepy side, you can also feel yook gun when you’re heavily invested in a story; like, so focused that you don’t want to stop pursuing it. This may happen when you’re in the middle of some fierce gameplay, or a plot twist of a novel. The closest translation we can think of in this case is hooked, but we feel yook gun adds a bit more depth, still…
Closest translation: goofy
Gau literally means plastic, but when this Cantonese concept used to describe someone… Let’s just say it’s not exactly the best compliment. While this popular slang can imply that a person is funny, it also suggests that their humour is dry, or even immature or tasteless. In fact, the reason why this word means what it does is because it shares a similar pronunciation with a certain Canto swear word. To keep this PG, we won’t reveal what that swear is, but IYKYK!
Other than being an adjective, gau can be used as a verb in the phrase pai gau (派膠). Literally meaning: to distribute plastic, pai gau refers to someone clowning around and exhibiting gau behaviour.
4. Sau bing（收兵）
Closest translation: ‘collecting’ admirers
This is, sadly, a pretty common phenomenon in the modern world. It’s not as detrimental as global warming, but it can still mean the end of the world for some people. Because sau bing, ladies and gentlemen, is essentially the artful act of friendzoning suitors (or giving them false hope) en masse – while still keeping these poor souls close enough to use as a port of call, like a loyal army of white knights. Literally translated as collecting soldiers, sau bing is thought to be mostly done by girls to guys. But hey, this sort of arsey behaviour is probably (and unfortunately) not gender-specific, so beware, kids!
5. Leh gum heh（呢咁hea / 捩咁棄）
Closest translation: clumsy
Imagine a typhoon day when you have to carry a bulky umbrella, seven bags of groceries, plus a heavy tote, while rushing to the bus station. This kind of awkward and cumbersome situation, with an emphasis on bulkiness, is essentially what leh gum heh is, as a Cantonese concept. And if you didn’t have to imagine that scenario, because you’re bogged down and late to everything all the time, lol we feel ya.
6. Most collective nouns
Some of you may remember learning about collective nouns in your English lessons. A school of fish, a flock of birds, a bunch of flowers… But these are nowhere as descriptive as Cantonese collective nouns. In fact, you could use some of these collective nouns as objects of similes, and Canto-speakers would immediately know the state, shape, or appearance of what you’re trying to describe. Here are some examples:
- Lup (粒)
Meaning: To describe anything tiny and round
Example: A pea, a piece of candy, a grain of rice
- Gau (舊)
Meaning: To describe a bulky (but not necessarily heavy) mass; somewhat even more substantial than a lump
Example: A cloud, a rock, a six-pack (abs), a clump of rice (yes, we love our rice)
- Pat (擗)
Meaning: To describe a patch of something, with an emphasis on its flatness
Example: A fringe (in terms of hairstyle), mud, poo (LOL)
7. Vivid colours
Red as blood, blue as the sea… Why use similes in Cantonese, when the vocabulary itself describes the vividness of the colour? (Maybe because the shade is too specific, to be fair.) Below are a few examples:
- Hung dong dong（紅噹噹）
Meaning: Bright red with a sense of auspiciousness. Pretty specific, we know.
Example sentence: ‘Happy Chinese New Year! Wow, your family is dressed up all hung dong dong today – there’ll definitely be good fortune ahead.’ （恭喜發財呀！哇，你哋成家都著到紅噹噹，好意頭喎！）
- Wong gum gum（黃黚黚）
Meaning: Yellow with a tinge of black
Example sentence: ‘Eek, that person’s teeth are so wong gum gum.’（咦～嗰個人棚牙咁黃黚黚嘅。）
- Tseng bee bee（青咇咇）
Meaning: Bright green, or sickly green
Example sentence: ‘Oh! Why is your face tseng bee bee today? Are you ill?’（哇，你今日塊面做咩青咇咇嘅？唔舒服牙？）
8. Exclamations and sentence endings
Finally, of course we have the famous aiya! Commonly used by Cantonese speakers all over the world (just ask our Singaporean friends), aiya can carry various meanings depending on the context, and how it’s spoken. For instance, when it’s pronounced with a slight ‘k’ sound at the end (aiyak!), it pretty much means: ouch! Otherwise, this term can denote regret, distaste, surprise, or when someone’s realised they’ve forgotten something.
Aside from aiya, which is often used at the beginning of a sentence or on its own, there are many other exclamations in Cantonese. We usually put them at the end of sentences, and each of them adds a subtly different layer to what we say. La (啦/喇) may be the most famous ending, but there are also bo (噃), lo (囉), za (咋), jeh (啫), lok (咯), wo (喎) – and the list goes on.
Nah, just kidding. I’m not even going to try dissecting the concepts used in Chinese medicine, or the ways in which we address our relatives in extra precise terms… If you’re curious, however, we definitely encourage you to read and learn about them (thanks, Google!), even though it might be a little confusing at first. Or, reach out to us for a Part II to this article and we’ll see where we go from there…! 😉