It happens to the best of us, it happens to the worst of us. You’re chatting with some aunties during a family dinner, or perhaps listening to your security guard give their (unrequested) opinions on “the youth these days” when it happens—they throw out a funky phrase that is way out of your limited Cantonese knowledge. Was it a subtle jab? A sarcastic joke? Some hot family tea that you’ve missed because you have no idea what that phrase meant?
No worries—we’ve got you covered with some common Cantonese idioms that you can pepper into your next family dinner or Instagram caption to show that this 2021, you can say things other than the dim sum menu! Some historical context is provided as well so you can impress your folks and friends with fun facts, too.
Pronunciation: laai1 ngau4 soeng5 syu6
Literal translation: Pulling a cow up a tree
Pulling a cow up a tree is an impossible feat at best, and this Cantonese idiom is used for exactly such situations: vain attempts at a difficult task!
How to use: “Getting her daughter to clean her room was like ‘laai ngau soeng syu.’”
Pronunciation: sik6 wun2 min6 faan2 wun2 dai2
Literal translation: Eat top of the bowl, flip to the bottom of the bowl
The only time a bowl is flipped over is during the ceremony to offer food to the ancestors. To flip the bowl of someone living is to symbolise their death, particularly in the context that they have invited you over for a meal. This Cantonese idiom is therefore used to describe those who are ungrateful, particularly in the face of kindness from their friends, such as betraying a friend or turning on someone who helped you. Similar to ”biting the hand that feeds you.”
How to use: “I have helped you so much but you’ve decided to ‘sihk wun min faan wun dai’ and backstab me?”
Pronunciation: baan6 gwai2 baan6 maa5
Literal translation: Pretend to be a ghost, pretend to be a horse
To “baahn dwai baahn maah” means to deliberatively deceive or trick someone. You can also use this to refer to people who put on costumes and fanfare to amuse others.
How to use: “During Halloween, kids like to dress up and ‘baahn dwai baahn maah.’”
Pronunciation: sik6 sei2 maau1
Literal translation: Eat a dead cat
Somewhat of an urban explanation, this saying is supposedly rooted in China’s past history of consuming cats. Because of the inhumane cages that these cats were kept in, some of them would die from the poor conditions and thus produce sub-par meat. Someone inexperienced or unaware of this fact would then end up eating meat that was lower in quality. In modern times, this Cantonese idiom is used to describe someone acting as a scapegoat or being tricked into taking the blame for something that was not their fault.
How to use: “Unable to defend himself, the younger brother had to ‘sik sei maau’ and take the blame for the mess his sister had made.”
Pronunciation: ngau4 m4 jam2 seoi2 m4 gam6 dak1 ngau4 tau4 dai1
Literal translation: If the cow doesn’t want to drink water, you can’t force the cow’s head down
This Cantonese idiom is used in hopeless situations involving other people who don’t accept help or refuse to ask for it, meaning that you can give someone an opportunity, but you cannot make them take it or force them into doing anything. Similar to ”You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink.”
How to use: “I offered to edit her paper many times but she never sent it over. Oh well, ‘ngau m jam seoi, m gam dak ngau tau dai’—I can’t force her to ask for help.”
Pronunciation: sik6 zyu6 faa1 saang1 dang2 tai2 hei3
Literal translation: Eating peanuts while waiting to watch a film
Bystanders who love watching people argue or fight, often opting to observe a situation unfold instead of getting involved, can be described using this Cantonese idiom. An older iteration of this phrase is “企喺城樓睇馬打交,” which means to ”stand on the fort walls to watch horses fight,” but seeing as how we’ve moved away from living in castles and fortresses, the phrase has adapted with the times.
How to use: “Mum is coming home soon and my brother still hasn’t started on his chores. At this point, I’ll just ‘sik zyu faa saang dang tai hei’ to see how she reacts.”
Pronunciation: sei2 gai1 caang1 faan6 goi3
Literal translation: Dead chicken propping up the rice cooker lid
When you are in the wrong and stubbornly insist that you are right, then you should not be surprised if someone calls you a “dead chicken propping up the rice cooker lid.” This Cantonese idiom is reserved for people who refuse to concede despite making the mistake in the first place.
Canton people have a dish called “white-cut chicken” (白切雞; baak6 cit3 gai1). Unlike other popular siu mei meat dishes, “white-cut chicken” is not roasted. Instead, it’s boiled and then left to cook in the residual heat of the pot. This process involves tying the chicken legs into the stomach cavity so as to ensure the lid of the pot can close. If done poorly, the legs stick up and prop the pot lid open, ruining the cooking process.
How to use: “You know you’re in the wrong! Why are you being a ‘sei gai caang faan goi’ and refuse to apologise?”
Pronunciation: saam1 m4 sik1 cat1
Literal translation: Three does not know seven
This Cantonese idiom is used to describe someone who is unknown or incompatible, as well as someone who does not know anyone. It originated from a game similar to the modern version of Rummikub, where the goal was to pull two cards or tiles that added up to nine, but not over. Therefore, if a player drew a three, they would not want a seven, as it would boost them to a score of over nine. Players got into the habit of shouting “Saam m sik cat!” which, over time, morphed into the meaning we now use the phrase in.
How to use: “When I showed up to the event, I was ‘saam m sik cat;’ I didn’t recognise anyone and no one recognised me, and I wandered around by myself for a while.”