My Top 6 Chinese Malapropisms

It is remarkably easy to make hilarious malapropisms in Chinese, since it’s a tonal language with lots and lots of homophones (unsurprisingly, much of Chinese humor, especially subversive satire and censorship circumvention, is based around puns). And as a Chinese learner (7 years on), I’m almost freakishly prone to them. Since I’ve had a few howlers recently, I figured I’d share some:

That is the hot pot for misbehavior!

What I mixed up: Consequence (Houguo 后果) and Hot Pot (Huoguo 火锅). My kids still say this sometimes as a joke. Sigh.

OK, that’s good, but you should say that when we make love.

What I was trying to say/context: I was asking students to give me examples of words with the short A vowel sound, and a student volunteered the word “big”. I was trying to say “say that when we do the letter I”, but unfortunately I directly translated what I wanted to say, and “做 I” (zuo I) sounds exactly like “做爱” (zuo ai), which means “make love”. No wonder some of my kids tried to set me up with their classmate when I told them I didn’t have a boyfriend.

When you chat in class, you make love to students who want to learn!

What I was trying to say: Kids were chatting, so I was trying to tell them that when they talk to their classmates while the teacher is talking, they impede (zu’ai 阻碍) those who want to learn from learning. But they turned it into another “zuo ai” joke. Sigh.

Do not play with big turkeys in class! It’s very dangerous!

What I mixed up: Lighter (dahuoji 打火机) and Big Turkey (dahuoji 大火鸡). They look the same, but have different tones, which of course makes all the difference in Chinese. To make matters worse, I made this mixup around Thanksgiving.

Yeah, I know Jay Chou personally!

What I was trying to say: I know who Jay Chou (a very famous Taiwanese pop star and occasional actor) is. Chinese has a couple different words for “to know”: zhidao (知道), which indicates knowledge in the general sense, and renshi (认识), which is used for knowing/meeting people and for “to recognize” (as in recognizing a Chinese character). I didn’t realize that to indicate recognizing who a person is (but not knowing them personally), I should have used zhidao. My Chinese teacher was really, really excited until I was forced to clarify that no, I have never met the chart-topping pop legend Jay Chou.

I knew she was sick, but I didn’t realize her illness was so strict.

What I mixed up: Strict (yansu 严肃) and Serious (yanzhong 严重). This elicited a few laughs when I was out to eat with some Chinese fellows last week.

So just as a warning to all those learning or thinking of learning Mandarin Chinese: you will say some inappropriate or ridiculous things pretty much on a daily basis. Just roll with it. Also be warned that the words for “pen”, “arm”, and a very rude word for a woman’s genitalia sound exactly the same except for the tones. Isn’t Chinese fun?


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