Delay No More!

Victor Mair at the Log reports on what may be the best newspaper screwup I’ve ever seen (if it was indeed a screwup—or, as Mair puts it, “what happens when copy editors type what they’re feeling and then forget to take it out again before it goes online”—rather than a suicidal level of cheekiness), a South China Morning Post headline that begins “Delay no more.” So what, you ask?

As most Hongkongers know, “delay no more” is a homophone for “diu lei lo mo”*, which means “f*ck your mum”. The common and irreverent phrase has inspired a range of products and even a short-lived lifestyle shopping centre from Hong Kong retailer G.O.D., dubbed the Delay No Mall.

*[VHM: diu2 nei5 lou5mou5-2 屌你老母]

There are so many wonderful aspects to this I had to share it immediately. Also, I want to learn Cantonese.


  1. To add some context to the assertion of homophony, the merger of /n/ into /l/ is a feature of the Cantonese and English spoken in Hong Kong.

  2. Thanks, I had wondered about that.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    I am told by my wife (who grew up in Southern California) that if you drove around some of the heavily Asian-American towns in Orange County back in the day you could see cars with vanity plates demonstrating that whoever at the California DMV was in charge of screening out vanity-plate applications with obscene connotations lacked familiarity with some of the major non-English languages spoken in the state. (The ones she remembered meant something vulgar in either Mandarin or Taiwanese; it’s quite possible that there were others that meant something vulgar in e.g. Vietnamese that she herself didn’t understand . . .)

  4. Greg Pandatshang says

    I’m aware of /n/ and /l/ merging as a general principle (indeed I’ve heard it in Putonghua spoken with a nonstandard Anhui accent). In this case, they merge to /l/? So “delay no more” would come out sounding like “delay low mo’”?

  5. I learned precisely that bit of Cantonese (and nothing more) in boarding school in Japan from a fellow boarder from HK whose father was a businessman (I think running an artificial flower factory) back in the 1960s. I never heard (or used) it again until about 25 years later when my wife and I taught English for a year in Guangdong Province. We didn’t hear the phrase at our school, where the language of education was Mandarin (and English in our classes), but when I got out on the streets of the city, I heard it all over the place!

  6. Does Chinese have any standard mechanism, like our replacement of vowels with asterisks, for bowdlerizing taboo words?

  7. When the International Herald Tribune in Paris went from hot metal to computers in the 1980s, some of the sub-editors were not pleased. Shortly after the changeover, a column by their noted food writer Mary Blume, which always included a recipe, ended with “Then add a pint of chicken blood” …

  8. bowdlerizing taboo words

    Not graphically. One simply uses a similar-sounding word with a different ordinary meaning, which in this context is understood to mean the same as the taboo word, like fracking for fucking. A meeting of scholars held during the early years of the Republic of China to work on standardizing a form of Chinese broke up in violence when a Southerner used a colloquial expression for ‘rickshaw’ that a Northerner misunderstood as a euphemism for 王八蛋 wángbā dàn ‘son of a bitch’ (lit. ‘turtle’s egg’).

  9. David Marjanović says

    One simply uses a similar-sounding word with a different ordinary meaning

    Hence The Legend of the Grass Mud Horse’s Struggle Against the Evil River Crab, and Other Stories. Read all the comments, too.

  10. As I commented at the Log, this certainly wasn’t a screw-up in the sense that it was an error, nor was it simply a sub-editor typing in what they felt and forgetting to take it out: I’m sure the sub meant it, and was hoping his/her superiors wouldn’t notice. I never worked on the online subs’ desk when I was at the SCMP, but my impression was that supervision by those at the top of the tree was minimal: they were much more interested in the printed version of the paper.

    As far as merging /n/ into /l/ in Hong Kong English goes, it certainly happens, but in two years I can recall spotting it only once.

  11. Taboo words are probably most commonly bowlderized in the way John Cowan mentions above, but they can be graphically bowlderized as well. Bī 屄 ‘pussy, vagina’ is commonly written with the homophonous character 逼, but it’s also commonly written with the roman letter “B” (which I guess is also a homophonous character) or just “X”, which seems comparable to the use of asterisks to me. I don’t remember seeing any similar kind of bowlderization for any other words/characters, though, off the top of my head.

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