You might be familiar with English idioms or phrases that contain numbers, such as “being on cloud nine” or “zeroing in.” However, Cantonese takes its number game to the next level when it comes to slang phrases, which consist only of numbers, such as “9413,” “88,” or “55.” Don’t know what they mean? As part of Localiiz’s Canto Slang series, we will demystify the numbers slang that Hongkongers use in their day-to-day lives—whether in person or online. Navigate any conversation and sound like a native speaker in no time!
Pronunciation: baai1 baai3
Whilst the number eight is considered lucky and symbolises wealth in other usages in Cantonese, the double eight “88” usually used in text messages doesn’t wish luck or wealth upon the other person. Rather, it is a simpler way to say goodbye that replaces “bye-bye”—a common way of saying goodbye that doubles the usual “bye”—and its Cantonese transliteration, “拜拜.” This is because the number eight (八; baat3) sounds similar to the phrase “bye-bye.” You can add another number to substitute Chinese particles for emphasis, like the number six in “886” (拜拜囉; baai1 baai3 lo1; where the number six is pronounced similarly to “囉”) for a more casual tone.
How to use: “See you tomorrow. 88!”
Pronunciation: m4 m4
The number five (五; ng5) sounds similar to the sounds of agreement in Cantonese, “唔唔” (m4 m4), when doubled. So, if someone responds to your texting saying “55” (唔唔; m4 m4), this means they are agreeing with you. However, if you use a single number five, it sounds similar to the word “not” (唔; m4). A number five can then be used in combination with other phrases, such as “o5ok” (O唔Ok; O m4 Ok), a form of Hong Kong Chinglish that fuses the word “ok” with Chinese grammatical habits, meaning “Is this ok?”
How to use: “Do you think that this painting is great? O5ok?” “55, it looks fine.”
Pronunciation: m4 saang1 m4 sei2
Meaning: Not alive not dead
Here, much like in the previous example, the number five means “not” in Cantonese. “5354” (唔生唔死; m4 saang1 m4 sei2) means to “not be alive and not dead.” This phrase is a combination of two phrases: “53” (唔生; m4 saang1) meaning “no birth” or “no life,” where the number three sounds similar to the character “生,” and “54” (唔死; m4 sei2), containing the infamous number four and meaning “no death” or “won’t die.”
“5354” can be used to describe someone who is in such a miserable state that they look and/or feel almost dead or on the verge of death. “5354” can also be understood as “唔三唔四” (m4 saam1 m4 sei3; literally “not three not four”), referring to someone who does not meet expectations or follow social norms and cannot be easily categorise, thus “not three not four.” This phrase could be used to describe someone who is peculiar or strange. Since “5354” can mean different things, pay attention to the context when using the phrase.
How to use: “Bob has been OT-ing on four hours of sleep at work. He looks 5354.”
Pronunciation: sap6 ng5 sap6 luk6
Meaning: Fifteen sixteen
If you have heard of the phrase “being at sixes and sevens” in English, then this is its Cantonese equivalent. “1516”—commonly written as “十五十六” (sap6 ng5 sap6 luk6)—is used to describe someone in a state of uncertainty, hesitation, and/or indecisiveness.
How to use: “Ugh! I am 1516 because I can’t decide on Japanese or Thai food for lunch!”
Pronunciation: jat1 gau6 gau6
Meaning: A lump lump
This phrase may seem kind of random as it is used to describe something that is lumpy. However, “199” (一嚿嚿; jat1 gau6 gau6) is quite a versatile phrase. “199” can be used to describe the confusion or imprecision of someone’s speech, and it can also be used as an insult to describe someone who is sluggish or does extremely sloppy and unpresentable work. You can also add an extra “9” to the phrase, like “1999,” for extra emphasis.
How to use: “The way Sam talks is just 199, I can’t understand what she’s saying!”
Pronunciation: chat1 chat1 baat3 baat3
Meaning: Seven seven eight eight
While the literal translation of the word just means sevens and eights, “7788” (七七八八; chat1 chat1 baat3 baat3) is used to refer to something is “almost done,” think of it as being 70 to 80 percent complete. So, next time if want to say you’re nearly done with something, you have an alternative phrase you can use to sound more like a native!
How to use: “I can hand this report over to you before noon, it’s 7788.”
Pronunciation: gau2 sei2 yat1 saang1
Meaning: Nine death one life
A more morbid phrase, the meaning of “9413” (九死一生; gau2 sei2 yat1 saang1) is quite literal—something being 90 percent dead and 10 percent alive. Used in the context of life-or-death situations, it can mean someone who has narrowly escaped a fatal fate.
How to use: “Gina was trapped in a cave and saved by the paramedics after 36 hours. She is in stable condition in the hospital now, she truly is 9413.”
Pronunciation: jat1 ng5 jat1 sap6
Meaning: One five one ten
The literal translation for this phrase may seem more confusing than it needs to be. In ancient times, people used five and 10 as counting units. Now “1510” has become a way to ask for clear and concise information. More commonly seen in its written form “一五一十” (jat1 ng5 jat1 sap6), it is used to demand precise information from someone.
How to use: “You better 1510 explain everything.”
Pronunciation: saam1 chat1 yaa6 jat1
Meaning: Three seven twenty-one
Three, seven, and 21? Whilst this phrase is a great way of memorising your multiplication tables, 3721 has more meaning beyond that. Commonly spoken as “3721” (三七廿一; saam1 chat1 yaa6 yat1) or “三七二十一” (saam1 chat1 yi6 sap6 jat1), this phrase refers to the fact of the situation. The numbers three and seven were once considered ominous and unlucky numbers, one can only image what 21 connotes as the result of their multiplication.
So, “3721” had once meant risks or threats of a situation, but now its meaning has shifted to describe any aspect of a situation. You can even think of it as another way to say “whatever” in Cantonese in a specific context, such as in the example below.
How to use: “Just do it. No matter 3721, you should audition even if you might get rejected.”
Pronunciation: ngo5 oi3 nei5
Meaning: Five two zero
A borrowed phrase, “520” is used in a romantic context to show your love, since in Mandarin, “I love you” (我愛你; wǒ ài nǐ) sounds like “520” (五二零; wǔ èr líng). Although “520” (ng5 yi6 ling4) and “I love you” (我愛你; ngo5 oi3 nei5) are pronounced differently in the Cantonese regional dialect, this sweet phrase has been used amongst the local population as an expression of one’s love for another. Sometimes people even have a romantic dinner on 20 May because of the number’s resemblance to the date!
How to use: “Oh, honey! I 520!”
Pronunciation: jat1 saang1 jat1 sai3
Meaning: One life one lifetime
Another romantic phrase borrowed from Mandarin, “1314” in both Mandarin and Cantonese sounds like “一生一世” (“yīshēngyīshì” and “yat1 saang1 yat1 sai3,” respectively) meaning “forever.” This can be used together with “520” to form “5201314” (ng5 yi6 ling4 yat1 saang1 yat1 sai3), which sounds similar to “I love you forever” (我愛你一生一世; ngo5 oi3 nei5 yat1 saang1 yat1 sai3)—talk about a subtle declaration of love.
How to use: “Honey, I would love to spend my life with you, 5201314!”