Word of the Day


Tuo Le Kuzi Fang PiMeaning: Literally, this phrase means “Take off pants. Fart.” Figuratively, it indicates that someone is doing something unnecessary. Think about it for a minute and get back to me if you still can’t figure out why taking off your pants to fart would be unnecessary.

Why I Like This Phrase: I imagine this is pretty obvious. If there’s one thing I love, it’s third-grade-level bathroom humor. But the great thing about this phrase is that I actually learned it from the textbook we use at Princeton in Beijing. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the book, which in general teaches us very formal words, but the lesson with tuō le kùzi fàng pì was priceless. I don’t think this phrase is used very frequently, certainly not in polite company. It is colorful, though.

Pronunciation: The first word is in first tone, and the last three are in the fourth — or falling — tone. Click on the link to hear the phrase pronounced. Repeat at your leisure.

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I’ve long thought that “bless you” is a funny thing to say after people sneeze. My sneezing doesn’t mean I’m going to get the plague, and I don’t need to worry that my soul is escaping through my nose. Still, it’s just polite — and I never realized how accustomed I was to saying and hearing it.

Chinese does not have a word that approximates “bless you.” You sneeze in Beijing, and this is what you get: nothing. People don’t seem to realize that they have just witnessed a momentous occasion. Even if they know you well, they simply go on about their business, making you feel insignificant and unloved.

More problematic is that in my Chinese program, we aren’t allowed to speak English. So when someone sneezes, we’re reduced to sitting there and making the international shrugging-shoulders-and-moving-hands-apart-with-palms-up gesture that means “Hey, man, I wish I could help you out, but you see the position I’m in. There’s clearly nothing I can do.” I find it fascinating that I’m so acculturated to “bless you” that I honestly feel trapped and uncomfortable when I can’t even say something similar to it.

Some of us have taken to saying the Chinese word for “good,” because there isn’t anything else to say. This word, , is pronounced hǎo and is useful in plenty of other situations as well. You can hear it pronounced if you click on the link below.

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One of the strangest concepts for early Western learners of Chinese could be the fact that the language doesn’t really have words for “yes” and “no,” at least not when used in isolation. (I’ll pause while some of you read that sentence again and think to yourselves, “Wait. What?”)

If someone asks you a question and you want to say “yes,” you usually have to repeat whatever verb the person used in the question. So if someone asks, “Did you go?” you would respond with “go.” To say “no,” you would use the word for negation in front of the verb — basically, you would say “no go.”

Fortunately, Chinese does have a word for “correct.” I find myself using it a lot, and I can’t tell whether that’s OK or whether I’m simply using it because I have trouble with the whole trying-to-figure-out-what-verb-I’m-actually-agreeing-with-and-then-repeating-that-verb concept. The word for “correct” is “dùi,” (对) and you can say “incorrect” by using “bú dùi” (不对). Trust me, it comes in handy, even if you’re not using it properly.

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zao gao characters Meaning: Literally, “messy cake.” Figuratively, “darn.”

Why I like this word: Come on. Obviously, it is completely awesome that “messy cake” means “darn” (and not just because I like most things that involve cake). I originally thought I should start out with a basic word like “I” or “you,” because that’s what Chinese-language students start with. But I realized that anyone reading this would be much more likely to use an exclamation such as zāo gāo. Admittedly the characters are somewhat complicated, but the word is relatively easy to say, and it’s a lot of fun.

If you want to see the etymology of the characters, you can click on these: . The one for “cake” is pretty neat. It’s a combination of the character for “rice” and the character for “lamb,” because cake is rice made soft like lamb’s wool. (Oh. Yeah. Welcome to the strangely enjoyable hell that is learning Chinese characters.)

Pronunciation: Both syllables are said in Mandarin’s first tone, which is sort of like singing. Click on the link below to hear me say it in my horrible American accent, if you’d like.

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