The Wall Street Journal‘s China Real Time section wonders why we haven’t seen much linguistic small change from China filtering into everyday English:
As languages go, English is a notoriously promiscuous one, borrowing caricatures from Italian, chutzpah from Yiddish and faux pas from French.
And yet despite the English-speaking world’s deep and wide confluences with Chinese culture, for some reason, few Chinese words have lately entered the English-speaking world’s vocabulary.
China’s state media is hoping that could change: Last week, it cited several Chinese entries that have recently appeared [at] UrbanDictionary.com. “English speakers may soon be saying ‘you can you up, no can no bb’ in response to criticism,” the official Xinhua news agency said, referring to a Chinese phrase that means if you can do it, do it, and if you can’t, don’t criticize others. (The original Chinese is你行你上,不行别BB. In Beijing dialect, “BB” means to nag or complain.)
On the English side, resistance to Chinese words doesn’t seem to be a simple difficulty of pronunciation: though Mandarin’s different tones may be daunting, the basic syllables are easy enough, and the trickiness of French or Japanese pronunciation (coup d’etat, karaoke) hasn’t stopped English from embracing words from either language.
And there are plenty of words that would seem ripe to jump the Pacific: Here at China Real Time, one particularly accessible term, mafan — meaning a hassle, or difficulty — could be easily adopted by English speakers (and in fact already has been by many on staff). And who could resist the roll-off-the-tongue ease of mamahuhu, a term that means “so-so”? (The literal translation is “horse horse tiger tiger.”) Maybe, as some theorize, it’s just a matter of time, as China’s reach grows, and exchanges continue to deepen.
Oddly, some of the most colourful terms listed here haven’t yet become common:
15) Stupid Inbred Stack of Meat
笨天生的一堆肉。・ BUN tyen-shung duh ee-DWAY-RO
On a visit to one of Mal’s old Army buddies, Monty, on an uninhabited moon, Mal and crew encounter “Saffron”, the beautiful con-artist who once tricked Mal into marriage, and nearly stole his ship (played by the absolutely magnificent Christina Hendricks); this time, she’s taken the name “Bridget” and married Monty. A short tussle ensues between her and Mal (lucky bastard) which Monty breaks up as Mal explains the details of their shared history. When Saffron, who had been denying everything, lets it slip that she knows Mal’s name, Monty abandons her on the barren lunar surface. She screams this bit of Mandarin to the heavens as his ship departs. This phrase is also noteworthy for its use on the back cover of Serenity: The Official Visual Companion, where Chinese characters inform prospective buyers: “If you don’t buy this book, your friends will think you’re a stupid inbred stack of meat.”
6) Filthy Fornicators of Livestock
喝畜生雜交的髒貨 ・ Huh choo-shung tza-jiao duh tzang-huo
As a clergyman, Shepherd Book is usually denied the use of the kind of innovative vulgarity the rest of the crew enjoys. Sometimes, however, a particular sight inspires even a man of the cloth to throw down with the best obscenity slingers. Book offers this exclamation in response to crime boss Adelai Niska’s reprehensible act of sending the Serenity‘s crew their kidnapped Captain’s severed ear. Fun fact: the Firefly-Serenity Pinyinary offers translations of not only the entire phrase, but of the component words. We mention this in case anyone might be wondering if this translation is simply a more polite way of saying “Dirty Cow Fuckers”. It isn’t. Foreign languages are fun, huh?
5) Motherless Goats of All Motherless Goats
羔羊中的孤羊 ・ Gao yang jong duh goo yang
Another slice of pure Mandarin what-the-fuckery, this time from Wash, who has the honor of delivering some of the most outrageous Chinese dialogue this side of a Beijing mental hospital. Wash mutters this under his breath when he learns that Magistrate Higgins has put a landlock on the ship — his consternation doesn’t last long, for only a moment after noticing the lock, it was removed. Only Inara knows why (she was hired to deflower the Magistrate’s son, and accomplished making a man of him a bit too well for the senior Higgins’ liking).
4) Holy Mother of God and All Her Wacky Nephews
我的媽和她的瘋狂的外甥都 ・ Wuh duh ma huh tah duh fong kwong duh wai shung
This may be the most awesome phrase we’ve ever heard in any language; only its lack of vulgarity kept it from breaking the Top Three. Once again, it issues forth from the mouth of Wash. In “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” we first encounter the deliciously devious ginger con-babe, Saffron. After leading Mal to the “Special Hell”, she proceeds to the cockpit where she puts the moves on poor Wash. Only his devotion to Zoe keeps him from succumbing to Saffron’s charms — devotion that earns him a roundhouse kick to the head. This marvelous line is his singular response to Saffron’s advances.