Stupid chéngyǔ joke

In Mandarin, chéngyǔ 成语 are idioms, though perhaps more poetic than those you’ll usually find in English. Sometimes the meanings are clear based on the words, sometimes not. For example one, dating back to a philosophical disagreement between Mencius and his contemporary Yang Zhu, goes 一毛不拔 yā máo bù bá, literally “one hair not pull,” or “won’t pull out a single hair” and it used to mean “stingy.” Some of them are also almost word-for-word identical to common English phrases.

There’s this joke that’s been making the rounds. It goes something like this:

liǎng ge luǒ nán zuò zài shítou shàng, dǎ yī chéngyǔ

Two naked guys are sitting on top of a large stone, making a chéngyǔ.

The punchline is one of those that match English pretty well: 一石二鸟, two birds with one stone. Variations include 一石双鸟, 一箭双雕, 一举两得 and certainly more.

In case you missed it, the joke is that niao 鸟 also means penis. Actually, Victor Mair posted about just that recently on Language Log. In his post he quotes a post from a Taiwanese forum, which I’ll reproduce here:

The Middle Chinese word “tieu” (鳥) meant “bird”. Then over the centuries it acquired the taboo meaning of “penis” (as a noun) or “fuck” (as a verb). Because of this taboo, the initial consonant of the word for “bird” was changed to “n” in Cantonese and Mandarin (but not in the Wu or Min dialects, or in Hakka). The original term remains a cuss word: diu in Cantonese, and diao (屌) in Mandarin.

And as the commenter mentions, despite this change in pronunciation, 鸟(鳥) is still very much used to mean ‘penis’.

It got me wondering. We have that phrase in English. It’s as common as in Chinese. In fact the only thing that doesn’t let the joke work in English is that we don’t use “bird” to mean “penis” (though if my childhood conversations with the older kid next door are any indication, we certainly have many other words that get used as substitutes). Just to try it out, I told the joke in English to a couple native English speakers who would otherwise know of the Chinese pun. Unfortunately a worse joke teller you’ll never find, so I had little success.

Still, I wonder. Could this (admittedly lame) joke work in English? What’s more, are there other chéngyǔ based jokes that might have a partner in English, and if so, would those work? Humour doesn’t translate well between languages and especially between cultures. Could this be just the pixie dust that struggling expats around the world need?

I’ll leave it to you, great Sinoglot-reading masses.

13 responses to “Stupid chéngyǔ joke”

  1. Aaron Posehn says:

    What if you translated 鸟 into birdie. It’s still not that good, and you might have to emphasize birdie by saying “Get it? Birdie!”, but it might work.

  2. GAC says:

    Hmm… I think “bird” can be used for “penis” in English, but it’s very figurative and usually has to be imbedded into a context that makes it obvious. I was going to share this on Facebook, but maybe first I will try this on some friends. Another issue is that the English phrase is commonly known to be “kill two birds with one stone”, which makes it that much harder than two naked dudes just hanging out on a stone — something unfortunate has to happen to them.

    I wonder if this would work in Spanish? As far as I know, it seems to have the opposite incongruency from what you describe. That is, in Spanish, “pájaro” or “pajarito” can mean penus, but I don’t know if there is expression like “matar dos pájaros con una sola piedra”. Perhaps it would occur in places like the US, northern Mexico, and Puerto Rico where English influence is very strong.

  3. Tony says:

    I love cross-cultural jokes.

    Here’s an English idiom/cliche that has a direct partner in Chinese, and would be interpreted dirtily in completely different ways:

    English: A bird in one hand is worth two in the bush.
    Chinese: 二鸟在林不如一鸟在手 ̥

    The English speaker would find innuendo in the “bush,” while the Chinese speaker would find it in the “bird.”

  4. Brendan says:

    What about (over-) translating 鸟 as “pecker?”

  5. Karan says:


  6. Aaron: I find it best to avoid jokes that end with “get it??”

    Karan: yeah, I’m gonna chalk that one up to IME user error. Fixing it now.

  7. Brendan says:

    Ages ago, I saw a 歇后语 in a collection that I thought would translate very well into English: 屎壳郎见屎:滚!Which I would translate as “make like a dung beetle and roll the shit on out of here.”

  8. About the joke itself, wouldn’t the part after the comma be more of a question to the listener?
    As a riddle: “2 naked guys on a stone – what chengyu can you think of ?”

    (seems somewhat superflous to state that the gentlemen considered are actually in the process of imagining a new chengyu… at least to me =)

  9. As it was told to me, it’s simply “两个裸男坐在石头上,打一成语” where the comma denotes a pause. Lacking any other markers I’m inclined to think 打 is referring to what they are doing, not a command to the listener. My translation as “making” was meant to imply that them being there constituted a chengyu, not that they were somehow composing one.

    If you just say “两个裸男坐在石头上” the listener would likely say “so the hell what?” whereas adding “打一成语” seems to cause them to wonder what that might be. It’s the chicken crossing the road. You think about it and in not immediately knowing the answer it’s meant to be funny.

    That’s my interpretation anyway.

  10. Chris says:

    For those who have seen the movie Avatar, you may appreciate knowing that the word on some Chinese web forums was that the take-home message of the movie was quite simple: The guy with the biggest bird gets the girl.

    It all makes sense now.

  11. Chris says:

    By the way, the “打一个什么什么” is a common formulation when telling riddles. It basically means “Guess the X”. 打一本书的名字, 打一部电影名, 等等。(Guess the book, guess the name of the movie, etc)

  12. Greg says:

    The English version of two birds with one stone is about the guy who had one testicle removed, but still managed to make both his girlfriends pregnant. No, it’s not even funny if I tell you the long version of the joke.

  13. blythe house says:

    In czech the word bird “ptak” is slang for penis

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