A Dictionary of Cantonese Slang: The Language of Hong Kong

Movies, Street Gangs and City Life (review)
Hugh D. R. Baker
China Review International, Volume 15, Number 1, 2008, pp. 114-116
Published by University of Hawai'i Press
DOI: 10.1353/cri.0.0133
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114 China Review International: Vol. 15, No. 1, 2008
© 2009 by University
of Hawai‘i Press
Christopher Hutton and Kingsley Bolton. A Dictionary of Cantonese Slang:
Te Language of Hong Kong Movies, Street Gangs and City Life. London:
C. Hurst & Co., 2005. xxiv, 492 pp. Hardcover £45.00, ISBN 1-85065-419-0.
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2005. xxiv, 492 pp. Paperback
$28.00, ISBN 0-8248-1595-5.
Hong Kong Cantonese is a language that invents, savors, and discards slang at
an ever increasing rate, especially under the insatiable demands of television,
cinema, and comic books.
Yet a stabilizing infuence is at work. Almost alone and certainly preeminent
among the regional dialects/languages of Chinese, Cantonese has its own quite
widely current system of writing. Tus slang can be captured for posterity and
perhaps it could be given sufcient exposure that it could transcend its ephem-
erality. Te problem lies in the nature of the writings that make use of Canton-
ese: almost all are themselves ephemera: cartoon speech bubbles, advertisement
copy, human interest stories in newspapers, radio scripts, pornography. Te main
exception is the Bible, but that eschews slang in the interests of solemnity.
While standard written Chinese may be to some extent constrained by the
need to be intelligible to all levels of Chinese society throughout the Chinese
world, written Cantonese enjoys the luxury of being aimed at limited audiences,
being mostly confned to materials that try to represent the lively, uninhibited
speech of “the man on the Shaukeiwan tram,” but the vehicles for its writing do
not assist greatly in preserving its unique favors and ingenious quirkiness for
later generations to enjoy or puzzle over.
Tis dictionary attempts to rectify the situation, and the compilers have
amassed a signifcant body of material. Teir prime sources are comic books,
magazines, a few popular newspapers, and flms, but use has also been made of
police collections of secret society jargon, and here and there can be found refer-
ence to slang in use among taxi drivers, lorry drivers, and other trade groups.
Inevitably, there is a heavy emphasis on obscenity and swearing, and, with a few
exceptions, the translations ofered are uncompromisingly appropriate.
Entries are arranged in alphabetical order using the Yale Romanization sys-
tem, which is currently as close to being a standard system as any. Users need to
be alert to the correct but counterintuitive displacement of low pitch words caused
by the insertion of low-pitch indicator -h-, so that bahn is separated from other
ban-pronounced words by four other entries and sahp is seven pages from sāp. A
stroke-count character index at the back refers to the appropriate Romanization:
like the main entries, it is only helpful in locating the frst character of an entry.
Reviews 115
Te layout could have been better thought out, a confusing faw being the
lack of indentation when an entry runs on for more than one line: where this puts
Romanization in bold type at the beginning of a line it is indistinguishable from a
new Romanized entry (there are two examples, chāa mūi and chaan mūi, among
the aa entries on page one). From page 272 all the way to page 342, the typesetter
has completely forgotten to use bold typeface for Romanization, making it hard
to distinguish headwords from text. Te use of the compilers’ own conventions is
not totally consistent; < , > and / all apparently indicate derivation from English,
though the summary of symbols on page xxiv gives only >. Also somewhat way-
ward is the desultory use of → to indicate hit hauh yúh 歇後語, “tail-less puns”.
Tere are not a few editorial slips, from “to full up” on page 14 (a simple typo? or
careless editing of input from research assistants?) to the headword “fēi 非 [nega-
tive]” when the only entry under the word is the (not marked with →) tail-less
pun fēi jāu wòh séung 非洲和尚 in which fēi is used phonetically and without
negative value. It is a strength that the majority of entries carry source references,
but there is no clear explanation given for why some do not. And some are con-
cise to the point of being obscure: Does the bald entry “aa gāt 阿吉chicken (OS)”
mean “a fowl,” “chicken meat,” “a coward,” or “cowardly”?
In their preface, the compilers deal honestly with the difculty they had in
assessing what is slang and what is not, and some of the material found here might
not ft everyone’s defnition of “slang,” being perhaps more aptly termed “custom-
ary usage.” Tus “gām taap 金塔 [gold tower]” is not slang; it is the standard term
in Hong Kong for the large earthenware pots in which disinterred bones are kept.
Tis dictionary’s defnition is “a container for the ashes of a deceased person,” and it
may be that in the application of the old term to the cremation process there lies an
element of slang even if the gloss is not wholly accurate. “Yāt góng Chòuh Chōu,
Chòuh Chōu jauh dou 一講曹操曹操就到” is neither slang nor exclusively Can-
tonese for “talk of the devil.” Lohk séui 落水 is very commonly used as a substitute
for lohk yúh 落雨 “to rain” and can hardly be considered slang, and sok hei 索氣
is nowadays the standard word for “short of breath” rather than a slang term. But
given that the dividing line between regular usage and slang is, indeed, hard to draw,
it is surely better for a dictionary to err on the side of inclusiveness as it does here.
Some of the meanings assigned to entries are of doubtful accuracy or just plain
wrong. Te schoolboy slang “undinkable” under headword ahn (p. 4) means “unbeat-
able” not “unbearable”—the mistake appears twice in the same entry. On page 30 bun
tòhng fāan 半唐番 is glossed as “a Westernised Chinese,” which seems to be a rela-
tively new meaning, since this used to be and still is the normal slang word for “a Eur-
asian,” “someone with one Chinese and one other parent.” Te grammar of the term
is certainly more consistent with this latter meaning. No source is given for the entry,
and it is not possible to guess at when it began to be applied to what is sometimes
called in English “a banana.” Gām sī māau 金絲貓 [gold thread cat] on page 137
does, indeed, mean “a young female foreigner,” but only if she is “a blonde” (admit-
116 China Review International: Vol. 15, No. 1, 2008
tedly, somewhat generously interpreted, but defnitely not black-haired). Máaih séui
買水 (p. 278), the ceremony of symbolically buying water to wash the face of a dead
parent, may be a Chiu Chow custom as the entry says, but it is a custom common to
many other regions of China as well. On page 342 sāam jih gīng 三字經, “the three
character classic,” is glossed as “swear words,” though it principally refers to one fre-
quently occurring obscenity. Tek saai geuk 踢晒腳 (p. 407) is waiter’s slang for “the
restaurant is full” (tripping over legs everywhere); it does not mean “to be isolated.”
Tīu naah sīng 挑那星 (p. 411) means “bugger you!” not “shit!”
Tere are plenty of omissions. Number slang, such as jāa jyuh 樝住 for “fve” or
néih tùhng ngóh 你同我 for “two”; terms used by waiters in calling out the amount
of the bill (though these may have been cast aside as outdated); and terms used in
the “guess-fngers” drinking game are all absent. Certain terms that make use (some-
times obscurely) of English letters do not appear. A few examples are AA jai AA 制
[AA system] “to go Dutch”; Wai-ta-ming M 維他命 M [Vitamin M] “money”; D
(now increasingly commonly used to represent the plural classifer dī); and MCC to
stand for the moribund phrase mùhng chàah chàah 矇查查 “stupid”, “thick”. Also
missing are sihk sí gáu 食屎狗 “shit-eating dog,” a regular term of abuse and one
which taxi-drivers use for “trafc policeman”; móuh sām gēi 冇心機 “listless,” “unin-
terested”; tit kèh sī 鐵騎師 [iron jockey] “motor-cyclist” (although tit máah 鐵馬
[iron horse], “a motorcycle,” is given); mh sái fōng 唔使慌 “You’ve got to be joking!”;
tìhn ló chē 田螺車 [snail vehicle] “a cement lorry”; yáuh móuh gáau cho 有冇攪錯
“Are you out of your mind?” although several variants of this enduring expression are
given; só sìh 鎖匙 [keys>] “kiss”; luhk dím bun 六點半 [half past six] “impotent”;
néih yíh wàih lā 你以為啦 “Tat’s all you know!” and certainly many more.
Dictionaries are so difcult to create and such easy targets for unkind review-
ers. Clearly, this pioneering work is not perfect, but it cannot be said to be a failure
in any sense. In testing it, a list of ten slang expressions was compiled beforehand—
not one of them was missing. Some of the entries included are rare, some are quite
new (e.g., wáih gō 偉哥 [Brother Huge] as a transliteration of Viagra, and the scath-
ingly apt bahn jyū tiu 笨豬跳 [stupid pig jumping] transliterating/translating “bun-
gee jumping”). Indeed, these two examples might well serve as proof of the lively
and humorous inventiveness of Cantonese, a quality that the compilers obviously
revel in and succeed admirably in communicating to the reader.
Te content may be “superfcial,” crude, and ofen lighthearted, but this is a
serious work that can form the solid foundation for revision and augmentation. It
is brave, original, and brutally literal in its search for precise equivalents in Eng-
lish. Te preface is especially to be recommended as an excellent down-to-earth
summary of the reasons why the dictionary was necessary.
Hugh D. R. Baker
Hugh D. R. Baker is professor emeritus of Chinese, SOAS, University of London.

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