I could have sworn I’d mentioned this pleasing Chinese curse etymology before, but apparently not, so I’ll quote the relevant post from Blood & Treasure (“Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent”):

I offered [250 kuai a month for once-a-week cleaning] and she laughed and said that was fine, but could it be 260, because 250 was a swearword. And both my friend and I were “Huh?” Which wouldn’t be strange if it was just me, but said friend has really, really good Chinese.

Anyway, I asked a couple of people and they confirmed that yes, 250 was either “crazy” or “stupid.” So I assumed that it must sound like a similar phrase, but couldn’t think of it, and my Chinese friends said, nope, 250 just meant stupid and they had no idea why. My friend Baidu’d it up, and –

Apparently it comes from the custom of stringing copper cash into strings called diao in ancient china. And one diao had 1000 cash on it. So there evolved a humble term ban diaozi, “half a diao,” that literary types would use self-deprecatingly. That’s not considered an insult now. But then the insult “250” emerged, because it’s half a half a diao, i.e., a guy who really is stupid.

That is one hell of a complex insult.

Thanks, David!

Not especially LH-relevant (except that I have a beard), but fun, so I’m tacking it on here: a 1939 appreciation of the beard. Thanks, Sven!


  1. Pinyin and hanzi: 250 = èr​ bǎi wǔ​​ (二百五), bàn​ diào​ zi​ (半吊子). Eveline Chao’s wonderful Niubi!” describes it as Northern Chinese (which in the context of the book sometimes means simply ‘not used in Hong-Kong and Taiwan’) and a bit old fashioned.

  2. Wow, I’m really surprised this isn’t more commonly known. Anyone who’s spent any length of time living in China would encounter this, most often in the context of haggling just as above.
    I’ve heard a few different explanations myself after a decade living in China. The one he used above was the last of those listed: http://baike.baidu.com/view/8335.htm .
    The others there:
    * King can’t find killers of friend. After some time issues a promugation claiming friend was traitor, and offers 1000 reward to killers. Four come forward, he says “behead these ‘250’s”
    * Unsuccessful scholar wants sons to become famous. Names them “Success” and “Failure”. Before going to market, commands Success to write 300 characters, Failure to write 200. Returns, asks how it went. Wife replies, “They wrote, but Success’ were few and Failure’s were many, so each wrote 250.”
    * Tang Dynasty Chang’an mayor roamed the streets with his guard, had a “squad caller”. Added more callers, people started calling them “250” (two “squad” callers) and “2 poles” (which they carried).
    * A Majhong exclamation with changed pronunciation.
    * An idiot selling a treasure for 250 when the trasure had “sell for at least two hundred fifty eight” written on it. (similar to what I was told)
    * A person studied songs of a musician “Five Hundred”, but sung horribly. Others said he was only worth half a “Five Hundred”. Friend called him “250”.

  3. Thanks, that’s quite a selection! I think I may be remembering it from my time in Taiwan, but that was over thirty years ago now, so who knows.

  4. John J Emerson says

    Making up new explanations (new folk etymologies) is a big part of the joke. It’s not as though there is a deep meaning to understand once bedrock is reached.
    This kind of “anything goes” reading is often far overdone, but seems right on the money here.

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    For somewhat similar math but pointing in the other direction, see “Brahma said: Well, after hearing ten thousand explanations, a fool is no wiser. But an intelligent man needs only two thousand five hundred.” This is said to be from the Mahabharata, but I just came across it on the Facebook page of a young grad student in astrophysics and have not tried to verify the sourcing.

  6. Reminds me, obliquely, of phrases like “two sandwiches short of a picnic”. I’ve no doubt someone will try one day to put forward a folk-story explanation for that: “There was once an emperor who decided to take his court on a picnic. But the man he entrusted with the catering arrangements was very stupid …”

  7. This is said to be from the Mahabharata

    Indeed, it was said right here in 2006.

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