“What the Hell?” and “Foreign Devils”

Word of the Week: niǎo

In Chinese niǎo 鸟 means a bird, but you can also use it to mean so much more. And it’s strangely derogatory. So you’re at karaoke and on comes another Chinese song. It’s really bad Chinese pop music and you’re thinking “what the hell is this?” but because you’re in China you say

zhè shì shén me niǎo gē?

This is what bird song?

In fact it’s a useful sentence structure. You can say zhè shì shén me niǎo and then add any noun to roughly mean “what the hell is this?” Imagine you’re in the language textbook section of the book shop and you see a really bad textbook.

zhè shì shén me niǎo kè běn?

This is what bird textbook? / what the hell?

If you want to make it extra strong you can replace niǎo (bird) with gǔi 鬼(ghost/ devil) because, for some reason, the word gǔi is offensive in China. The phrase “foreign devils” might sound funny, but it’s a translation of the Chinese yáng gǔi zi which is about as pejorative as a Chinese racial slur seems to get. Although it still sounds funny to me.

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Imagine you find yourself in a really bad bar that only sells weak Chinese beer that’s 2.5%, you can say

zhè shì shén me gǔi jǐu bā?

What sort of shitty bar is this? / This is what ghost beer

zhè shì shén me gǔi pí jǐu?

What is this shitty beer? / This is what ghost beer

Similarly, when something happens that makes you think “what the hell” you can simply exclaim shén me gǔi! This is literally “what ghost” but contextually it’s used like “what the hell” or “what the f***” in English.

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