Every language has different levels of speech, from polite speech you use with people you don’t know to slang you use with friends. Here’s an introduction to some of the expressions you are more likely to hear on a Chinese street than in your average Mandarin class.
Like most people, the Chinese don’t like long words when short ones will do. Some very common slang words you may hear are 啥 (shá) and 咋 (ză) used to replace the more classic 什么 (shénme) and 怎么 (zĕnme) – meaning ‘what’ and ‘how’, among the first words you will learn in Chinese.
An expression that translates well into English is 死了 (sĭle) – meaning ‘dead’ – added to an adjective. If you add it to 累 (lèi), ‘tired’, you get 累死了 (lèisĭle), ‘dead tired’. It works with ‘hungry’ too: 饿死了 (èsĭle) means ‘dead hungry’ or ‘starving’.
Others don’t translate so well, for example, 卖萌 (màiméng). Literally, this means to ‘sell a sprout’ but is used to describe someone who is being deliberately cute. This expression supposedly comes from Japanese Manga.
Some are easier to understand, like 吃醋 (chīcù). Literally translated, this is ‘eat vinegar’ – but the expression really means ‘to be jealous’.
Some slang words are borrowed from English: take the word 酷 (kù) for example. The original meaning of this is ‘cruel’, but because it sounds similar to the English word, it now also has the meaning of ‘cool’ (as in ‘cool clothes’ or a ‘cool hairstyle’).
The Chinese also love their abbreviations. If you go to Beijing to learn Chinese, you might study at 北京语言大学 (bĕijīngyŭyándàxué), known in English as Beijing Language and Culture University. This is quite a mouthful, and you will commonly hear it simply called 北语 (bĕiyŭ).
The same happens for long country names. The Chinese words for Malaysia and Indonesia are 马来西亚 (măláixīyà) and 印度尼西亚 (yìndùníxīyà) respectively. However, in common speech, they are more often referred to as 大马 (dàmă) and 印尼 (yìnní). Bizarrely, the short name for Malaysia literally means ‘big horse’!
Of course, the internet is also awash with slang. The normal word for ‘foreigner’ is 外国人 (wàiguórén), literally meaning ‘foreign country person’. However, many people online now type 歪果仁 (wāiguŏrén) – which has a slightly different pronunciation.
Another common internet word is 囧 (jiŏng). As you might be able to guess by looking at the character, this word means ‘embarrassed’ or ‘ashamed’. This is exactly because the character looks like the face of somebody who is mortified by something stupid they’ve just done.
Some of the most creative slang comes from numbers and the way they are pronounced. ‘520’ in Chinese has come to mean ‘I love you’. Why is this? It’s because in Chinese, ‘five two zero’ is pronounced ‘wŭèrlíng’, which sounds a bit like 我爱你 (wŏaìnĭ), the real way to say ‘I love you’.
Another is 94 (jiŭsì), which sounds very close to 就是 (jiùshì), meaning ‘exactly’. So next time you want to agree when talking to your Chinese friend online, instead of writing 就是you can simply type ‘94’.
As you can see, Chinese is full of lots of creative and fascinating slang – far more than we have space to introduce here. But if all becomes a bit too much for you to take in, you can simply throw up your hands and exclaim 算了！(suànle) – meaning ‘forget it!’ or ‘I give up!’
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