I have always thought that the best way to begin learning a new language is to start with its swear words. They are short and easy to remember. Of course, nothing feels better than being able to express your extreme unhappiness to someone who just pissed you off. This is especially so for Cantonese, which boasts an extremely colourful vocabulary of profanities (in Cantonese, 粗口 cou1 hau2).
In what follows, I will introduce some of the more common and important Cantonese swear words you might hear in Singapore, and during your travels to Hong Kong or Guangdong. Where applicable, I will also mention some of the interesting things regarding their etymologies and potential use-cases. Those who have lived in Singapore for some time might already be well-acquainted with some of these words and phrases, but you may be surprised at how you may have misunderstood some of them too.
Cantonese Swear Word #1 – Diu2 (屌): to fuck
The first on our list, one of the so-called “Outstanding Five” (一門五傑 jat1 mun4 ng5 git6) in Cantonese, is an undeniable classic that most people should know. Indeed, for most people who proclaim knowing “a little bit” of Cantonese, this will be the one bit that they know. This word, which is the Cantonese equivalent of the word ‘fuck’ in English, is equally versatile and can be used in just as many instances: e.g., to directly curse at someone, to express disappointment, or to show anger.
Etymologically, like the large majority of Chinese characters, this word is a phono-semantic compound (形聲字 jing4 sing1 zi6). That is, it is made up of a semantic radical which supplies its general meaning, and a phonetic component that suggests how it should be pronounced. In this case, 屌 is made up of a semantic 尸 (si1, representing a body or a corpse) component, coupled with a phonetic 吊 (diu3, meaning ‘to suspend’) component. However, it is interesting to think about what else ‘suspends’ under a body.
Another common way of writing ‘diu2’ in Chinese characters is 𨳒. Unlike 屌, this word is a compound ideogram (會意字 wui3 ji3 zi6), meaning that the word combines two pictographic or ideographic characters to suggest a third meaning. In this case, it combines the word for ‘door’ (門 mun4, suggesting an orifice in the body) with the word for ‘small’ (小 siu2, suggesting – of course – something small). What do you get when something small enters a bodily orifice? You don’t need to say it out – yes, you are right. Don’t ask me why it is not big (大 daai6).
A few euphemisms – like how we sometimes say ‘freak’ or ‘fudge’ instead of ‘fuck’ – exist for ‘diu2’. These include 頂 ding2, 小 siu2, and 超 ciu2.
Some common use cases include: (i) 屌你 diu2 nei5, fuck you; (ii) 屌你老母 diu2 nei5 lou5 mou2, fuck your mother; (iii) 屌你老妹 diu2 nei5 lou5 mei2, fuck your sister.
Cantonese Swear Word #2 – Gau1 (𨳊): an erect penis
The second of the “Outstanding Five”, ‘gau1’, which is more commonly written as 尻 or 鳩, is most often used in conjunction with 戇 ngong4 (meaning ‘dumb’ or ‘blur’, the same as Hokkien ‘gong’): 戇鳩 ngong4 gau1 (meaning ‘dumbass’).
The word is etymologically similar to ‘diu2’ in that it is a phono-semantic compound. Indeed, all the ways of writing it feature the phonetic 九 gau2 (meaning ‘nine’). The semantic components are either a door (門 mun4), a body (尸 si1), or a bird (鳥 niu2). Easy enough to understand why.
Cantonese Swear Word #3 – Lan2 (撚): a penis
The third of the “Outstanding Five”, ‘lan2’ ought to sound very familiar to Singaporeans. Yes, it means exactly the same thing as the ‘lan’ we say all the time in Hokkien. This leads me to conjecture that it might be a loanword from either Hokkien or Teochew (especially as the latter is geographically very close to Cantonese-speaking regions in China). The fact that it is often written as 撚 (which originally means something like ‘to pick up’) seems to lend credence to my guess – for 撚 is simply a transcription used to capture how the word sounds. It may have originated from the word 卵 (leon2 in Cantonese, luán in Chinese, meaning ‘eggs’), which is the word often used to represent the vulgar ‘lan’ in Hokkien.
Its use cases are plentiful. Similar to how ‘fucking’ is used as an adverb in English, ‘lan2’ can be inserted into any phrase to provide an aggressive emphasis: (i) 冇撚用 mou5 lan2 jung6, fucking useless; (ii) 關你撚事 gwaan1 nei5 lan2 si6, none of your fucking business; (iii) 黐撚線 ci1 lan2 sin3, fucking crazy.
Cantonese Swear Word #4 – Caat2 (𨳍): a penis
The fourth of the “Outstanding Five,” ‘caat2’ is most commonly used in conjunction with 笨 ban6 (meaning ‘stupid’): 笨𨳍 ban6 caat2 (meaning ‘stupid dick’). It is slightly less commonly used out of the five. Etymologically, it is similar: again, made up of the semantic 門 mun4 (‘door’) and the phonetic 七 cat1 (‘seven’). Therefore, be careful when saying numbers in Cantonese! Both seven and nine, if pronounced with the wrong tones, can end up being profanities.
Cantonese Swear Word #5 – Hai1 (閪): a vagina, cunt
The fifth of the “Outstanding five”, and the only one to refer to female genitals. Yet another phono-semantic compound, it consists of the semantic 門 mun4 (‘door’) radical, with the phonetic 西 sai1 (‘west’) radical in the middle.
Malaysians in particular seem to love this word. People who spend a lot of time with Malaysian gamers on games like DoTA or League of Legends (LoL) would be familiar with the oft-repeated ‘sohai’. No, he/she isn’t saying that you are ‘so high’, nor is it pronounced like that. 傻閪 so4 hai1 (sounds more like ‘sor high’, meaning ‘dumb cunt’), is a very vulgar expression.
Common use cases include: (i) 臭閪 cau3 hai1 (‘smelly cunt’) and (ii) 屌你老母嘅臭閪 diu2 nei5 lou5 mou2 ge3 cau3 hai1 (meaning ‘fuck your mother’s smelly cunt’).
For Cantonese learners, please do not pronounce the word for ‘is/am/are’ – 係 hai6 – with a high tone, especially when introducing yourself. This is a relatively common but unfortunate mistake. It should be 我係 ngo5 hai6 David (‘I am David’), not ‘My vagina is David’.
Cantonese Swear Word #6 – Puk1 gaai1 (仆街); to drop dead
This phrase, which literally means to fall down (face flat) on the street – is commonly understood in Singapore and Malaysia to mean ‘broke’ or ‘bankrupt’. Perhaps it is because of the impression that bankrupt people would end up on the streets. However, it can be used to directly curse at someone too, i.e., 死仆街 sei2 puk1 gaai1 (meaning something like ‘damned prick’). It can also be used as an expression of disappointment or anger, much like ‘fuck’.
Cantonese Swear Word #7 – Ham4 gaa1 caan2 (冚家鏟); may your whole family die
This is another popular but very vulgar phrase. By itself, 冚家 ham4 gaa1 means ‘all [one’s] family’, while 鏟 caan2 means ‘to shovel’. Combined together, it is easy to see why it is a way to curse someone’s entire family to be ‘shoveled’ – i.e., buried. The best use case for this is in conjunction with 屌 diu2, to form 屌你老母冚家鏟 diu2 nei5 lou5 mou2 ham4 gaa1 caan2, meaning ‘fuck your mother and may your whole family die’.
Interestingly, 冚家富貴 ham4 gaa1 fu3 gwai3, which literally means ‘may your whole family be wealthy and high-ranking’, is actually another variation of ‘ham4 gaa1 caan2’ itself. Why? This is another example of Cantonese linguistic ingenuity. To become ‘wealthy and high-ranking’ involves 升官發財 sing1 gun1 faat3 coi4 (lit., ‘to become an official and to become rich’). The second and fourth words, 官 gun1 (‘official’) and 財 coi3 (‘wealth’), when read together, sounds like the word for ‘coffin’, 棺材 gun1 coi4. Therefore, 冚家富貴 ham4 gaa1 fu3 gwai3 means exactly the same thing as 冚家鏟 ham4 gaa1 caan2!
There you have it – 7 potent profanities in Cantonese for your not-so-daily use. A gentle reminder: please use these words and phrases with caution!
Contributed by Jason Chan
Reference: Pang, Chi Ming (2007). Little Dogs are too Lazy to Polish Shoes (小狗懶擦鞋): a Study of Hong Kong Profanity Culture (in Chinese). Hong Kong Subculture Publishing. ISBN 978-962-992-161-3.