Taiwanese phrase of the day: You can tell if people are stupid by looking at their faces 人若呆,看面就知 lâng nā gōng khòaⁿ bīn tio̍h chai

I seem to have learned mostly offensive Taiwanese so far, but hopefully that will change as I slowly run out of offensive material. This is still one of my favourite phrases in Taiwanese, because it’s so cutting. The photo above (not mine, found on Facebook, but originally posted to ptt) had me laughing for a while during the Sunflower movement. Cabinet member Hsiao Chiachi (蕭家淇 Xiao Jiaqi) remonstrated with the press that someone ate his taiyangbings (太陽餅 a flat pastry filled with stuffing, like a moon cake) during the brief occupation of the Executive Yuan by students – obviously his major concern at a time when the Legislative Yuan was still occupied by students. The caption reads: “The ones I was going to give my colleagues were eaten too!” His words and his despair have spawned many a meme, but this one has to be my favorite. I don’t agree with the premise of the phrase, as it’s pretty offensive to call anyone stupid, and I don’t think Mr Hsiao is stupid either, his comments were just comically ill-timed. He was probably attempting to portray the students, who were being deified in the pan-green press at the time, as vandals (stealing, damaging property etc), and therefore undermine the support in Taiwan for the protest in the Legislative Yuan. This came across, however, as a passionate love for sun cakes, and utter disappointment that someone else had gotten to them first. Continue reading

Taiwanese phrase of the day: Taiwanese people are up to their ankles in money (throwback) 台灣錢,淹腳目 Tâi-ôan chîⁿ im kha-ba̍k

10_Custom_Gold_Units_1930台灣錢,淹腳目  Tâi-ôan chîⁿ im kha-ba̍k In Taiwan, they’re rolling in money (lit.Taiwanese money floods your ankles)

If you buy Ma Ying-jeou’s line on the cross-strait trade-in-services and trade-in-goods pact, though many don’t, the end is nigh for Taiwan if it doesn’t sign. So the idea of Taiwanese swimming in money might seem slightly incredulous, but it wasn’t always this way – back in the 1980s, the “economic miracle” was in full swing, and in the words of Li Ang in her new book 《路邊甘蔗眾人啃》 (Everybody nibbles on the sugar cane at the side of the road):


It wasn’t until years later, when Taiwan’s economy began to take off in the 1980s that the Taiwanese were really rolling in money, and swept through boutiques in Europe loaded with cash, saying: “I’ll take this, and this, I don’t want that, but can you bag up everything else for me”.

台灣 Tâi-ôan Taiwan

錢 chîⁿ money

淹 im flood or drown

腳目 kha-ba̍k ankles

Feel free to contact me with any cool Taiwanese words or phrases you hear and want featured on the blog.

Taiwanese phrase of the day: Ha Ha Ha! (I’m crying inside) 鬱鬱在心底, 笑笑陪人禮 ut ut tsāi sim té, tshiò tshiò puê lâng lé

鬱鬱在心底, 笑笑陪人禮 ut ut tsāi sim , tshiò tshiò puê lâng

This phrase is one of a list that I got one of my friends to recite for me, it basically means that somebody is all smiles on the outside but is miserable inside. Just because you want to use the phrase, however, is not a valid enough reason to suggest to someone that they’re fun-loving friend might need therapy, although I have met a lot of people to whom this phrase could be applied. The audio is below, along with a helpful explanation in Mandarin.

Quick note just to say that I use two different but similar dictionaries for this blog, a university one and the Ministry of Education one, but one of them keeps breaking down, the phonetic system used is the same on the whole, but there are some differences, for example “tshiò” here for 笑 is written “chhiò” in the other dictionary and similarly “tsāi” here for 在, can also be written “chāi”, though this is just two representations of the same sound.

I haven’t yet updated the google doc of differences between Taiwanese and Mandarin pronunciation for this post (an ongoing experiment), but check it out here and see if you observe any patterns.

Photo: Cheezburger.com

Taiwanese phrase of the day: If there’s no fish, shrimp’s ok too 無魚,蝦嘛好 bô hî, hê mā ho


無魚, 蝦嘛好    (Click each syllable for pronounciation or click below for whole phrase)

This phrase basically means, “something’s better than nothing,” rather loosely illustrated here in a drawing by Arvid Torres (you should have been happy with the shrimp). It can be used to refer to someone’s partner too, as in, “he really scraped the bottom of the barrel with that one,” as used in Taiwanese author Li Ang’s latest novel, to portray the racist and misogynist tendencies of Taiwanese men in the anti-government pro-democracy protests of the 1980s:


(As no normal women [Lin Hui-shu is the product of a mixed marriage between a mainland soldier and an aboriginal woman] dared to be associated with Chen Ying-jun, he really didn’t have much choice, and as, Lin Hui-shu was really quite attractive, the two quickly entered into a relationship.)

雖然偶有政治犯同學戲稱他無魚蝦也好,但多半是羨慕又帶嫉妒。 (Although some of his political prisoner comrades joked with him that he was really scraping the bottom of the barrel, most admired him with a little bit of jealousy mixed in.)

You’ll note that she uses it directly as an adjective here, Subject + adjectival phrase.

This phrase also works in Mandarin – hurrah!

Phrase of the Day – Duck hears thunder 鴨仔聽雷

 鴨仔聽雷 ah-á thiaⁿ lûi

A very apt description for the way some people have looked at me when I try to speak Taiwanese to them, somewhat equivalent to “like a deer in the headlights”, but in reference to hearing something that you can make neither head nor tail of. It’s nice that it conjures up a very specific image in your head. Suggested use – if you can get it out and be understood – is to use it to break the ice after a Taiwanese friend looks at you like a duck hearing thunder.

I will update the google doc soon. Feel free to contribute phrases you’ve heard, songs you can sing in Taiwanese, or recordings of you speaking Taiwanese.

(No ducks were harmed in the making of this post)

Phrase of the Day – Watermelons rest on the largest side 西瓜倚大傍

西瓜倚大傍 si-koe óa tōa-pêng (Click syllable to hear pronunciation)

I like this phrase quite a lot as I always picture a watermelon rolling and then falling on its heaviest side. It’s used as a metaphor to say that people generally tend to side with those who will benefit them (as opposed to choosing through justice or impartiality), it can also suggest populism or going with the crowd. Below I’ve compiled two super short clips of Wu Nien-zhen’s Human Condition (《人間條件》)in which this phrase is mentioned. I don’t own the copyright to the video and am using the clips for purely educational purposes. Here the woman speaking uses a variation of the phrase: 吃西瓜倚大傍 ﹣ although the 倚 is commonly rendered phonetically as 挖 – which sounds closer to the Taiwanese pronunciation of 倚, which is pronounced “yǐ” in Mandarin. The 旁 is also commonly written as 邊, because it’s closer to the meaning of the phrase in Mandarin. In both cases the whole phrase is used as an adjective.

In the first clip she says: (吃)西瓜倚大旁的個性lóng(攏/都)無改變呢啊!chia̍h si-koe óa tōa-pêng ê kò-sèng lóng  kái-piàn nih ah   and in the second she says 按呢(這麼)吃西瓜大án-ne chia̍h si-koe óa tōa-pêng?

Again, be careful how you use this phrase, as careless use can offend strangers.

I’ve updated the google doc, for those interested