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10 descriptive Cantonese slangs only local Hongkongers will know

By Catharina Cheung 10 August 2020

As any foreign learner will attest to, Cantonese is a famously tricky language to grasp. Unlike Mandarin Chinese, a large portion of Cantonese is made of slang and colloquialisms that are pretty much unintelligible to those who aren’t native speakers. The origins and deeper meanings behind these phrases are also mysterious to most Hongkongers themselves!

In order to sound fluent in Cantonese, you need to use colloquialisms; in this instalment, we’ve rounded up 10 descriptive phrases that can be used in everyday life. Interestingly, they all consist of doubled characters—a language technique where the repeated characters might not contribute to the literal meaning of the phrase, but rather emphasises the accompanying adjective. Stick with Localiiz’s Canto Slang series, and we’ll have you speaking like a local Hongkonger in no time!

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濕濕碎

Pronunciation: Sup sup sui

Literal translation: Wet fragments

While this has nothing to do with being wet or dry, it’s the fragments part of the phrase that rather comes into play. Sup sup sui is used to describe something that is minor, that isn’t a big deal.

How to use:

A: “Thanks for helping me with this!”

B: “No problem, sup sup sui la!”

2

白雪雪

Pronunciation: Bak suet suet

Literal translation: White snow

This one is easier to understand, as English has an equivalent simile: “white as snow.” Applicable to everything from complexions to actual snow, this can be used to emphasise how white the subject is.

How to use:

“She uses sunscreen everyday to keep her face bak suet suet.”

“It must be so difficult to keep white dogs looking bak suet suet in Hong Kong.”

3

麻麻哋

Pronunciation: Ma ma dei

Literal translation: No literal meaning

While the words themselves have no inherent meaning, this phrase as a whole is used to describe something that is not that great, only so-so, okay-ish. Usually accompanied by a noncommittal shrug.

How to use:

A: “How was the movie?”

B: “Ma ma dei la, but sequels are never that great anyway.”

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

By Catharina Cheung 10 March 2020
By Jen Paolini 19 February 2020
4

無啦啦

Pronunciation: Mo la la

Literal meaning: Without a “la la”

This is a commonly used phrase to describe when something happens out of the blue, unexpectedly, or all of a sudden.

How to use:

“Please don’t mo la la make such loud noises, you really frightened me!”

5

臭崩崩

Pronunciation: Chow bung bung

Literal meaning: Smell chipped off

While the doubled word is just to add emphasis and doesn’t mean anything, the first character 臭 means smelly, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to work out what this phrase is used for. Yes, it’s simply used to describe something malodorous that stinks.

How to use:

“Ever since they ate durians in the meeting room, our whole office has been chow bung bung.”

6

黐黐地

Pronunciation: Chi chi dei

Literal meaning: Slightly sticky

We’re sure that everyone’s who spent some time in Hong Kong will already know of the phrase chi sin (黐線) which means crazy, nuts, or to call someone a bit of an idiot. A similar alternative is chi chi dei, to describe something as insane, or to express incredulous disbelief.

How to use:

“Charging $200 for a salad? They must be chi chi dei.”

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list👇

7

肥嘟嘟

Pronunciation: Fei dyut dyut

Literal meaning: Fat

Used to describe something as chubby, or rounded and plump, it should be noted that fei dyut dyut has somewhat positive connotations, instead of the negativity usually associated with being fat. Using this phrase implies that there is an element of being cute or endearing that comes with the chubbiness.

How to use:

“The baby’s cheeks are so fei dyut dyut, I really want to squish them!”

8

嗱嗱臨

Pronunciation: La la lum

Literal meaning: No literal meaning

This alliterative string of words is used to describe hurrying to do something. No Chinese person will even be able to tell you why these three characters were arbitrarily chosen to represent haste, but it’s a well-used phrase indeed.

How to use:

“You’ve been staring at the menu for 20 minutes, can you just la la lum decide what you want?!”

9

光脫脫

Pronunciation: Gwong tyut tyut

Literal meaning: Bright shedding

The use of the word 脫 (“to shed”), used for either clothes or fur, should be a good clue for the definition of this phrase, which means to be completely naked. While mostly used in the context of people not wearing clothes, it can also be used to describe sheared animals or even a completely bald head.

How to use:

“I don’t mind just being gwong tyut tyut when I’m at home.”

“Is it true that you shouldn’t shave your pets gwong tyut tyut even in very hot weather?”

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

10

香噴噴

Pronunciation: Heung pun pun

Literal meaning: Fragrant spray

This means to smell good, fragrant, be easy on the olfactory senses. Heung pun pun can be used to describe all good smells, from perfumes and fresh laundry to the mouthwatering smell of dinner cooking. Usually accompanied by a blissful closing of eyes or vigorous sniffing.

How to use:

“This new room fragrance is great, it makes everything heung pun pun.”

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Catharina Cheung

Senior editor

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.

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