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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

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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.

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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.
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