< Back to front page Text size +

You can't say "nerd" in Chinese but there are many ways to come close

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  March 13, 2013 09:23 PM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

A few linguistically minded bloggers have recently engaged in an entertaining back and forth about the range of insults that can be expressed in Chinese.

The conversation began when New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote on February 28th that "American high school students tease nerds, while there is no such concept in the Chinese vocabulary." This prompted longtime Brooks critic Tom Scocca to write on Gawker:

Whenever you hear someone explain that a concept is so foreign to this or that culture that people cannot even use their language to describe it, it is safe to assume your passport has just been stamped for entry into the Land of [inappropriate synonym for fairy tales].

Scocca went on to explain that indeed there are plenty of ways to say "nerd" in Chinese, including: fáwèi de rén (a dull and tasteless person), diànnǎomí (someone excessively enthusiastic about computers), and shūdāizi (a "pedant" or "bookworm").

Scocca's post prompted Victor Mair to reply: not so fast. Mair, a professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote on Language Log that while there are a number of words in Chinese that circle around, "nerd," none hit it exactly. Some Chinese words may capture the bookish or intellectual dimensions of the term, but there are none, Mair argued, that simultaneously convey the social ineptitude and square-ness that "nerd" connotes. (To appreciate the subtle terminological distinctions Mair gestures towards, enjoy this Venn diagram parsing the differences between "nerd," "geek," "dweeb," and "dork.")

David Brooks may have had it right that there is no exact Chinese synonym for "nerd," but Mair goes on to show that there are plenty of ways to call out people in Chinese for possessing nerd-like qualities. Mair then embarks on what he self-describes as a nerd-like terminological extravaganza, citing dozens of words in different Chinese languages and dialects that you could quite easily fling as invective in a middle school cafeteria. They include Mandarin words:

  • chǔnrén ("dolt")
  • dāizi ("fool; sucker; idiot; goon; gawk; simpleton; calf; blockhead")
  • shǎguā ("muddle-headed melon")
  • chǔnhuò ("stupid goods")

And also Cantonese words for "home boy / man"; "bookworm"; "secluded / hidden / sequestered youth"; "silly; simple-minded"; and best of all, the term "yam young'un" which Mair explains "has multiple meanings, but is mostly used to describe a person who is dowdy, unhip, and a bit antediluvian."

To appreciate the full spectrum of pejoratives, though, you'll have to read Mair's post.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


Browse this blog

by category