In the course of trying to find an online reference for the Great Hungarian Curse (for a MeTa comment), I came across a funny and occasionally informative National Review article by John Derbyshire that starts off with some dismissive remarks about Lenny Bruce that would have infuriated me a few decades ago and continues with some much more interesting stuff about Chinese, which I’ll quote here:

In Mandarin Chinese, the only foreign language I know much about, the all-purpose expletive is tamade, pronounced “tah-MAH-duh,” which translates as “his (her, its, your) mother’s.” His mother’s what? The great 20th-century writer Lu Xun — he was a sort of Chinese Orwell in his broad outlook — wrote a witty essay on this topic, which somehow manages not to be offensive at all. You hear tamade all the time in Chinese street talk. Often it is just used in isolation. After hitting your thumb with a hammer, for example, it would be appropriate to say Ta-MA-de!! — “Oh, pop!!” The expression can also be heard in more complex forms, sometimes truncated, as in Shei tama zhidao? — “Who the pop knows?”
Lesser Chinese dialects are usually much more foul-mouthed than the official national language. Dogs, mothers, popping, and, for reasons it would take much too long to explain, turtles feature largely in various combinations, some of them physiologically very improbable. In South China, where you can get three mutually incomprehensible dialects within ten miles of each other, the locals tweak their neighbors with expressions that sound obscene on this side of the mountain but harmless on the other. Taishan people, for example, will mutter Kip ma-go hoi! among speakers of “regular” Guangzhou Cantonese, to whom it sounds like “Go ride a horse across the river.” To a Taishanese ear it is actually much more potent than that.

(I guess I should add that he’s using “pop” as a euphemism for what he calls “the common f-word.”)


  1. When I was in high school in Japan, I learned from a HK kid a phrase of Cantonese that lay dormant in my memory for two decades. It went something like “Dieu lei lo mo chao hai!” (supposedly meaning ‘Pop your old mother’s dirty mop’, euphemistically speaking; perhaps Taishanese hoi = HK Cantonese hai). It was only after getting acclimated in Zhongshan City, Guangdong, 20 years later that I began to hear on the street in busy impersonal places–not between neighbors–how ubiquitous the verb “dieu” was (at least as common as kuso ‘shit’ in Japanese). Although I never really heard the full phrase I had memorized so long ago, I heard the first two (“Pop you!”) often enough.

  2. When I studied Chinese at Defense Language Institute, one of our teachers mentioned the offense inherent in the word “turtle”, but never explained why it was so bad. I think I’m going to find out now.
    Incidentally, I’ve heard “goupi” (‘bullshit’) often enough in conversation in Putonghua

  3. (I guess I should add that he’s using “pop” as a euphemism for what he calls “the common f-word.”)

    Thanks for clearing that up; I did look at that paragraph a bit quizzically.

    One thing about that Derbyshire article is that in the case of definitely one, and possibly two of the swear-words he’s euphemising, I don’t honestly know which he’s talking about. “The male organ of generation?” I can think, offhand, of three words with that meaning and wide currency in US English that should be avoided in the company of the proverbial maiden aunt. Ditto “human rear end.”

    And if he’s going to euphemise English, why not accord the same “respect” to Mandarin and Magyar? I remember seeing an interview with an English politician, talking about Chirac-Thatcher encounters, and thinking, as the interviewer earnestly tried to get him to say “putain,” that his reticence to do so was exactly the right thing. It wouldn’t be very diplomatic for the BBC to air this civil servant’s claims that Chirac had called Thatcher a whore in her presence, no matter the language.

  4. Goupi is literally “dogfart” but the meaning is indeed “bullshit”.
    I believe that “turtle-egg” means something like “son of a whore” and is like hundan “rotten egg”. One complexity is that the turtle is a symbol of age and wisdom and images are seen in temples, etc., (and live turtles in pools too). Students of mine made smutty jokes about a temple turtle on a class trip. In Taiwan I was told that the Taiwan connotations are opposite the mainland connotations, but this may have been some kind of modern/ traditional or formal/ vernacular difference.
    Lu Hsun was a highly independent Communist, and was praised by Mao. He was also more literary and scholarly than Orwell. The comparison is poor; Derbyshire’s political wackiness caused him to euphemize the guy — but give D. credit for good literary taste.

  5. xiaolongnu says:

    About turtles and tortoises: They have stood for longevity (and hence wisdom) for a very very long time — at least since the Han dynasty, when memorial stelae were erected on turtle-shaped bases to imply that they would stand forever (and some of them are still at it). The source of this association is merely the fact that some tortoises in fact live to be extremely old, certainly outliving most humans.
    The smutty sexual connotation of the word “turtle” (often “wang ba,” a very slangy term, rather than any of the technical terms for varieties of turtle) comes later, from folk culture, and it’s been explained to me as coming from the resemblance of the turtle’s head and neck to the human penis. “Gui tou” (“turtle’s head”) is a euphemism for penis, and there are endless jokes about the turtle pulling in or putting out its head. Somehow from this comes the idea of the turtle as cuckold, so “turtle’s egg” (“wang ba dan”) means literally “son of a cuckolded father” which I guess can get you something like “son of a whore” as well.
    I’ve read somewhere a perhaps somewhat dubious etymology of the slang term for turtle, “wang ba,” which literally means “king eight” — I think people have suggested that it came to mean “turtle” because of the shape of the characters rather than the literal meaning of the word — but the evolution of slang terms has so much to do with homonyms, punning and the various ways in which spoken Chinese is so much more slippery than written Chinese, that I’d be skeptical of pretty much any explanation.
    Interestingly, the modern Chinese term for “internet cafe” is “wang ba” (“net bar”) pronounced with the same tones — this doesn’t seem to bother anyone really, but uneasy jokes are occasionally cracked about it.
    Zizka, I’m interested to hear you say that you were told Taiwanese connotations for the turtle were opposite to those on the Mainland. I think you’re right that it’s a formal/vernacular difference. You know from experience, of course, how Taiwan sometimes sees itself as the guardian of true Chinese cultural virtue as against the barbaric mainlanders (and how this is sometimes an artifact of class differences between those who fled to Taiwan in 1949 and those who stayed behind). I wouldn’t be surprised if your informants were trying to assure you that the proper Taiwanese would never be that profane and dirty-minded!

  6. All I can say is that when I was in Taiwan (late ’70s) I got a very strong sense of the off-color nature of turtledom. But maybe I hung with the wrong crowd.

  7. joe tomei says:

    I feel compelled to share this, though it has nothing at all to do with Chinese
    The turtle lives ‘twixt plated decks
    Which practically conceal its sex
    I think it clever of the turtle
    In such a fix to be so fertile.
    -Ogden Nash

  8. joe tomei says:
  9. I think that the large number of eggs that the turtle rather casually abandons may have something to do with its bad reputation.

  10. The Alternative Dictionary is of interest in this context. I’m a trifle cautious about the etymology of the Great Hungarian Curse described there; it may well be true, but seems too historically pat (akin to ‘Ring A Ring O’Roses’ allegedly being about the plague).

  11. Xiaolongnu, I seem to recall that there is an old wordplay with wàngba 忘八, as “to forget/neglect the eight [principles/virtues of filial and fraternal piety, fidelity, etc.]. I am away from the shufang where I store my reference books, though, but I’ll check it out if my work allows me to.
    Anecdotically, what is called a “wangba” (Net-bar) in Dalu is a “wangka” (Net-café/kafei 咖啡) in Taiwan. I hear it is because of the bad connotation of ‘jiuba’ 酒吧.
    And Joel, it is not exaggerated to say that ‘diu’ is the Cantonese F-word (you can hear it alone as well, like French “merde” or Greek “gamoto”, or, in the all-too frequent curse “diu nei lo mo”, of which you learned an extended from your Hong Kongese classmate).
    The exact Mandarin equivalent (in meaning, frequency and application fields) is cao 操 (I’m using my old computer, where I can only type jiantizi, but the “explicit” character for this is composed by a ‘ru’ 入 “penetrate” above ‘rou’ 肉 “flesh”).

  12. I learned from many people that ‘ching-chong makah hyung’ means ‘fuck you’ in the chinese language. I, myself have never been to china. I have been raised in the United States and my family won’t tell me if it is true for fear that I make a habit of swearing in my native language. Tell me, is it true?
    Lui Lou

  13. I seriously doubt it. Were these people by any chance schoolmates?

  14. Just a correction:
    I don’t think 网吧 (wang3 ba1) is in the same tone as 王八(wang2 ba1).

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