Don’t Make This Mistake Speaking Mandarin

Word of the week: qì sǐ wǒ

When linguistic incompetence results in a Chinese girl saying to you that she will “ride you like a horse”, as though it is some kind of threat, you can’t help but laugh.

That instance wasn’t anything about mistranslating Chinese into English; the girl in question simply misunderstood the nature of the phrase “ride someone like a horse”. When speaking Mandarin it is possible to make a very similar mistake if you don’t watch your tones.

Chinese people, when frustrated, often throw out the phrase qì sǐ wǒ (气死我), which is a bit more like an angry interjection than a meaningful sentence. It can be literally translated as “I’m angry to death” but perhaps more closely correlates to the English phrase “for god’s sake…” Although, unlike the English phrase, qì sǐ wǒ is often used jokingly. It can be bit like an over the top “oh my god I’m so angry…” even if you’re not really that pissed off.

The problem (as is so often the case when speaking Mandarin) is that if you get the tones wrong you could say something completely different. Because the word means “ride” as in zì xíng chē (ride a bike) mó tuō chē (ride a motorbike) and mǎ (ride a horse).

I assume the readers of this can figure out for themselves that if you get the tones wrong and instead of saying qì sǐ wǒ (angry me to death) you say qí sǐ wǒ (ride me to death) it has connotations that are more than a little bit different.

You could also use fán sǐ wǒ, which is a bit like qì sǐ wǒ in it’s usage and meaning but is less likely to be used in a joking way. As an adjective fán means annoying or frustrating. So if someone is being annoying you could say fán sǐ wǒ (annoy me to death). Similarly, if you are having difficulty getting a certain WordPress blog to display the fonts you want for your latest post you might mutter fán sǐ wǒ to yourself under your breath, which translates a bit like “for fuck sake (this is so annoying)”

For pronunciation purposes it’s important to remember that when there are two third tones in a row the first changes to second tone, so sǐ wǒ is actually pronounced sí wǒ. The use of this adjective + sǐ wǒ sentence structure is very common. For some more useful examples click here.

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