“Kan!” You exclaimed, after accidentally kicking your toe against a wall. You probably did not give it much thought, but you involuntarily uttered a Hokkien swear word.
In Minnan language or what is locally known as Hokkien, ‘swear words’ are known as 垃圾话 lah sap weh, which literally means ‘trash talk’. Intended to be disparaging and taunting, people use swear words typically when they want to express frustration, anger or pain.
That said, in today’s social context, the meaning of many Hokkien swear words have been seemingly watered down. For example, kan is used loosely in local Singaporean slang as an exclamation or interjecting word. This begets the question: Has the meaning changed over time due to popular usage, or has the meaning simply been lost and misunderstood throughout the years? In other words, when someone uses swear words as their mantra or pet phrases, do they know what the words truly mean?
The above outlines our purpose for penning this article. We explore 7 common Hokkien swear words and uncover their real meaning. We hope to help you get better acquainted with these words, so that you know when not to use them, or if need be, use them with extreme caution.
*We crafted this article with our Singaporean readers in mind. For ease of relating to the words, we are using Hokkien pronunciation and romanization that is most commonly heard and seen in Singapore. As such, please note that these swear words would be romanized differently from Pe̍h-ōe-jī or Taiwan Romanization System.
Hokkien Swear Word #1 – Kan (姦): Fuck
Kan 姦 is the universal f-word, akin to diu in Cantonese, and pu in Teochew. Often, rather than the standalone term, you’ll hear it uniquely as “kan ni na” in Singapore, abbreviated as KNN. Our research shows that there may be 2 possible derivations to KNN. Firstly, it refers to kan lin nia 姦恁娘, which literally means ‘fuck your mother’. The alternative explanation is kan lin a… 姦恁阿…, which literally means, ‘fuck your…’. For the latter, the subject is deliberately kept silent, perhaps as a last-ditch effort to be slightly more polite or discreet.
Similarly, you may also hear kan ni nabeh (or kan lin a peh 姦恁阿爸), which in our pursuit for speech efficiency, is often shortened to nabeh. The potency of the phrase is nonetheless retained, which means ‘fuck your father’.
Hokkien Swear Word #2 – Lan jiao (𡳞鸟): Penis
*For some devices (especially Andriod), the Chinese character for Lan cannot be displayed. Please refer to this image instead:
Lan jiao 𡳞鸟 is the Hokkien term for a penis. Literally, it means ‘penis bird’. It is equivalent to the English phrase ‘dick’ and can be applied in a similar manner. Lan jiao can also be used as a stand-alone phrase to convey irritation at something that does not make sense. Such chagrin can also be conveyed in the form “sih mih lan jiao”, where sih mih is the Hokkien phrase for ‘what’. Put together, the term shows frustration in a similar effect to the English vulgarity, ‘what the fuck’.
Lan is a versatile word that can be combined with other words to increase its potency. For example, wa lan 我𡳞 is often used to express a state of shock. Literally, it means ‘my dick’. Another commonly-used phrase is du lan 揬𡳞 , which literally means, ‘poke one’s penis’. It conveys figuratively that a person has been provoked. Guai lan 怪𡳞 – strange penis – is used to describe people who are difficult to get along with. This is a term that can be dedicated to a neighbour from hell or a raging driver who abruptly cuts into your lane.
Hokkien Swear Word #3 – Chee bye (膣屄): Vagina
Chee bye 膣屄 refers to a woman’s private parts. In daily life, it is often used to curse an unpleasant or stupid person. It can also be used to express anger at an inconvenient situation. It is equivalent to the English word, cunt. Sometimes, the adjective chao 臭 (meaning, smelly) is added in front of the phrase for amplified effect – chao chee bye 臭膣屄 (means ‘smelly cunt’). Both phrases are commonly abbreviated as CB and CCB, respectively. In fact, against the backdrop of Covid 19 lockdowns, the circuit breaker restrictions in Singapore have acquired the unfortunate acronym of CB, which happens to be the shorthand version of this vulgar phrase. As such, CB has also turned into an innuendo to vent about the disruptions caused by the Covid 19 pandemic.
Hokkien Swear Word #4 – Siau (潲): Semen
Not to be confused with siao 痟 (crazy), siau is the Hokkien word for semen. Adding the word – siau – tends to convey exasperation on top of a word’s original meaning. For instance, sway siau 衰潲 (unlucky); mai chap siau 毋爱插潲 (don’t pay attention to him/her, but in a very demeaning manner); and hao siau 嘐潲 (bullshit).
Hokkien Swear Word #5 – Sibeh (死爸): Very
Sibeh 死爸 is often used casually in Singapore to mean ‘very’. For example, ‘very good’ would be sibeh ho, and ‘very delicious’ would be sibeh ho jiak. That said, many people do not realize that sibeh is a swear word. Literally, it means ‘die father’, and it refers to an extreme situation that equates to one’s father passing away.
Sharing a personal story, I recall that this was the first swear word I used at the young age of 10 years old. Back then, I had heard it from my friends and thought it was a cool slang to incorporate into my vocabulary. That same fateful night, when my father asked how my day went, I replied, ‘sibeh ho’, with a gleam on my face. In contrast, my father’s face flushed with anger, and I was given a slap on my face. It was only after he explained that I realized my language was extremely inappropriate. I had said, ‘it’s good that my father passes away.’ I learned since to not use swear words or, in fact, any words casually if I do not know what they mean.
Hokkien Swear Word #6 – Lim peh (恁爸) / Lim bu (恁母): Your father / Your mother
In Hokkien, limpeh 恁爸 literally translates to mean ‘your father’ while lim bu 恁母 is the feminine equivalent meaning ‘your mother’. It can be considered as an arrogant and crude equivalent of the English phrase, ‘yours truly’. The term also connotes the user’s sense of superiority over the intended addressee. Often heard in the form of ‘lim peh / lim bu gah li gong 恁爸/ 恁母佮你讲’ (means ‘I tell you’), one would use this phrase to talk down to a person.
Hokkien Swear Word #7 – Kao peh kao bu (哭爸哭母): Excessive whining
Kao is the Hokkien word for cry. Peh refers to ‘father’, and bu refers to ‘mother’. As such, kao peh kao bu 哭爸哭母 means to cry for one’s father and mother when they have both passed away. A shortened form is kao peh 哭爸. An interesting point to note is that the degree of vulgarity associated with this phrase has been drastically reduced in Singapore’s context, as it is used to derisively refer to excessive whining in Singapore’s context. However, this is not the case in Taiwan. Given the importance of filial piety in Chinese culture, this term is considered taboo as it implicitly wishes death upon the recipient’s parents at the same time. These Hokkien swear words stir strong negative emotions such as regret and upset. As such, if you have Taiwanese friends, you may want to refrain from using them casually.
So there you go – 7 commonly used Hokkien swear words in Singapore. While one may think that it is cool to use those phrases, it is unpleasant to be on the receiving end of them. In fact, many of these words have additional meanings that allude crudely to sexuality or curse one’s parents. These are not phrases that are spoken lightly, and on an educational note, do use them with caution.
Co-written with Brandon Goh