Most of us will likely agree that Cantonese is a difficult dialect. Not only are there nine tones to get your head around, but there are also some downright weird slang words and specific phrases that just wouldn’t work in any other language. So if you've already got your ‘aiya’ down, then let’s not ‘blow water’ anymore and throw it back with vintage slang. Whether you’re learning it for the first time or looking to jog your memory, here are eight old-school Canto phrases and how to say it phonetically.
Translation: Blocking a bean-shaped hole
This phrase was most commonly applied when telling a child off for misbehaving and used to describe the little brat. Harmless really! However, the phrase allegedly bears a much more sinister origin as it is related to a cruel ritual in ancient China and Japan. At the time, people would try to block small holes in the dams with actual children to prevent flooding, believing that this act of human sacrifice would please the gods... Maybe don’t tell the kids about this one!
Translation: Should be grilled
'Goi wui' is a response that expresses pity and condolences to something unfortunate. The phrase comes from a Cantonese idiom about a sweet potato accidentally dropping onto the grill – it's a sweet little mishap for those who eat it, but a sad end for the sweet potato.
Translation: Meat acid
Meat acid? Ergh! Yep, this reaction of disgust is precisely what 'yook shoon' is trying to convey. While 'meat acid' doesn't really mean anything, the two words coming together is somehow enough to make faces scrunch up in distaste and confusion. 'Yook shoon' usually depicts the actions or appearance of people or animals that are unpleasant, unattractive, or embarrassing.
Translation: Imitate a crab
‘Baan sai haai’ is commonly used to describe someone fake and dramatic, but the point of having a crab in the phrase is to compare the arrogant behaviour of a person to the bravado of crabs. Thus, the slang also refers to a boastful person who exaggerates their own intelligence and assets.
Jaan gwai I 盞鬼
Translation: A witty ghost
An adjective to portray someone witty and ingenious. While ‘jaan’ shares the same sound the Chinese character (㜺) which signifies prettiness, the meaning of the phrase ‘jaan gwai’ has deviated over the years. It can also be used as a remark towards TV shows, song lyrics, and other things that are funny and interesting.
No, this isn’t related to someone being overly sensitive to criticisms, or the opposite to thick-skinned. Instead, ‘Ngun pei’ is usually used by adults to describe children who are naughty, disobedient, or badly behaved.
Moong chaa chaa or MCC I 矇查查
Translation: Unclear or fuzzy
Short for ‘mung chaa chaa’, MCC was widely used in the 70s. ‘Moong’, meaning unclear or foggy, brings meaning to the whole term as ‘chaa chaa’ doesn’t have any literal significance, but it does make the term more vivid. The abbreviation is no longer used today but ‘mung chaa chaa’ is still a common phrase to describe blurry vision or someone who is clumsy, clueless, and careless.
Translation: So shrimp
Finally, a term that isn’t used to scold kids! ‘So haa’ simply refers to babies. The ‘so’ shares the same sound as another Chinese character (臊) which describes the distinct (and sometimes gamey) smell of milk, and ‘haa’, meaning shrimp or prawn, to illustrate how a baby is curled up like a shrimp when it is still small and newborn. Cue the awws!