Unhippest Mandarin word

Forty-year-old, fashion-blind, popular-press-eschewing recluses are generally excused from petty infractions of regulations against fuddiduddiness.

But some violations are inexcusable, apparently. So when I used the word 语言伙伴 (yǔyán huǒbàn, “language partner”) in a piece of writing the other day, my language partner grimaced. Her correction went something like this:

“Maybe you could just use the English word, ‘language partner’.”

“But isn’t the whole point to write Chinese?”

“Or you could use LP.”

“And Chinese speakers would know what ‘language partner’ or even ‘LP’ means?!”

“Well, my friends would. Nobody uses 语言伙伴. It’s sounds so, well, weird — kind of like some old-fashioned made-up word.”

I couldn’t get a more nuanced explanation out of her, but clearly, no matter how straightforward the translation looked, this word was not going to work for a design student in her early 20s.

I changed it. But as I did, I started doubting my sense of the connotations even in English: hell, maybe an American 20-something would find “language partner” just as cringeworthy, an unholy alliance of terms that borrows a bit too much from the ‘marriage lite’ associations of the second word.

Oh well. Since much of my vocabulary is that of a Beijing woman in her late 60s, it’s probably not the unhippest Mandarin word I’ve ever used. Anyway it got me thinking: maybe we could build a list. I don’t have much off the top of my head, but one word I realized I had to change when I moved to Beijing permanently was my use of 计算机 (jìsuànjī) for “computer”. 电脑 (diànnǎo) is the hip term here, as far as my experience goes, except from aforementioned late 60s mother-in-law.

Got better ones?

21 responses to “Unhippest Mandarin word”

  1. Tony says:

    电脑 is not even hip, it’s standard. When you say 计算机 people think you are referring to a handheld Casio calculator.

  2. Tom says:

    计算机 is definitely a calculator.

  3. Syz says:

    Hate to say it, calculator guys (Tony & Tom), but you’ve got to qualify those absolutes. I agree that most people use 计算机 to refer to a calculator. I learned that to my dismay after having confused people by using the word to refer to a computer.

    But without a doubt there’s a certain demographic that is hazier about the whole calculator/computer thing. My mother-in-law (and at least some others of her generation that I’ve paid attention to) consistently refer to computers as 计算机.

    Tony: good point about its not being particularly hip, though. It is just the standard word.

  4. Syz says:

    But now that I think about it… Although 电脑 is not particularly hip, you have to admit that using 计算机 to refer to a computer is decidedly UNhip :)

  5. Windows 7, in Mandarin, calls “My Computer” 计算机. So I think you’re disqualified on it being calculator only.

  6. John B says:

    I was always under the impression the 电脑/计算机 thing was a mainland/Taiwan difference. I guess not (or at least not exclusively).

    I work with a lot of techie people, and to them pretty much any of the actual Chinese words for, say, programming terms, are decidedly unhip. 数据库, 变数, 函数, etc. — all replaced by their English equivalents. It’s unfortunate, too, because a Venn diagram of “kids that learned to code” and “kids that learned English well” seems to have very very little overlap in my experience, and so there have been many instances of conversations like: Him: blah blah Me: 啥? Him: blah blah! Me: 啥?? Him: *exasperated* 字符串. Me: 哦!String! Him: 对,blah blah!!

  7. Sima says:

    I guess Tom and Tony are looking for 计算器, but I’m not sure whether that expression is in, now, or not.

    People who study computing study things like 计算机软件及理论,计算机应用技术, not that there’s anything hip about that. I guess it depends what you’re talking about.

  8. Mark S. says:

    In Taiwan, “LP” would certainly not be used to describe a language partner. Here it’s an abbreviated form of the Taiwanese “lān-pha”, which means “balls” (in the sense of cojones). I guess this usage hasn’t caught on in China.

  9. Syz says:

    Mark S. — so in Taiwan you’re saying that LPs tend to be very close?

    uh, yeah. I was already shying away from trendiness like “LP” — this seals it.

  10. pott says:

    I think the standard word for “language partner” is 语伴 (yǔbànr), not 语言伙伴. Just as “river valley” is 河谷, not 河流谷地. It’s not about being hip or unhip. It’s about speaking normally or speaking jargon.

  11. Chris Waugh says:

    I’m with Sima. A calculator is a 计算器. A computer can be called a 计算机 or a 电脑, although in addition to 电脑 I’m probably more likely to use the term 笔记本, as the computers I’m most likely to talk about in Chinese are generally of the laptop variety (note: that 本 should come with a couple of dozen r’s at the end). I can only speak from my own experience, but my job does require the use of a calculator on occasion over the summer months, for which I go into my boss’ office and ask for the 计算器. If I asked for the 计算机, I would expect to be told there are already four of the bloody things in my office, so I don’t need to take his.

    As for the whole language partner episode, I can only say that some people are just too hip for their own good. There should be bootcamps for that kind of hipness. I mean, to drill it out of them, of course…

  12. Chris says:

    Eh, to get back to unhip words then:

    the first unhip expression I was made aware of and that’s a long time ago… was the use of 马马虎虎 (just soso), as far as i m concerned it is only still used in decidedly strange contexts, where any hip speaker would use 一般 eg: 这个电影就是一般的。 Secondly the only time 马马虎虎is mentioned is with taxidrivers poking fun at foreigners speaking chinese, especially when they are asking me about my level of chinese and then fill in with a smile 马马虎虎的吗?Like checking for my reaction on their little poking fun.

    Something other unhip is using 小姐for adressing any young/unknown lady even though it just means Miss (officially), unofficially it is the term used most frequently to refer to prostitutes, these days the hip thing to do is to adress all girls as 美女 or 小妹/美and the boys as 帅哥。。。even if they are not.

    The old word for cellphone 大哥大is also out of use unless you want to sound 80’s retro-hip or you actually still own an 80’s cellphone of course.

    These are the ones I can come up with without consulting my chinese counterpart, but undoubtedly there are many more. Love to see some more instead of the discussion on 计算机or 计算器。。。

  13. Tony says:

    I believe 马马虎虎 is still used normally to mean carelessly or sloppily, perhaps an extension of 马虎? 我做数学题经常会有马虎错误。做的马马虎虎。

  14. Syz says:

    My experience with 马马虎虎 backs Chris: I’ve only heard it used with reference to foreigners speaking Chinese. That said, my experience is pretty limited, so maybe it pops up elsewhere.

    Otherwise, 小姐 is great; it has gone out of style very quickly here in the capital, anyway. Less than 10 years ago it was commonly used when hollering for a waitress, but I don’t recall hearing it once in the last two years. 大哥大 is classic too — try it on your friends!

    @pott: according to my, uh, LP, 语伴 is even more jargony than 语言伙伴. She said if she was talking to friends, the latter would at least be understood while the former would have to be explained. I’m not sure that counts for it being “the standard word” :)

  15. Tony says:

    I just checked with a local Beijinger, turns out Sima and Chris are right on the 计算器 / 计算机 issue, as far as modern usage is concerned. Interestingly, a dictionary lookup yields “calculator, computer” for both, although 计算器 also has “calculating machine” in its entry.

  16. ze says:

    When I lived in China (2003/4), 小姐 was still acceptable (at least in the relatively rural Zhejiang area I was in). I know it is now decidedly unhip in that area–a fairly rapid change, though it was already developing while I lived there. I’m not as clear about its usage in Taiwan.
    马马虎虎 I think may be a different case, i.e. textbook influenced Zhonglish rather than ‘unhip’ Chinese (he says with hesitancy…). When I learned it in my textbook and began using it in China, people laughed, which only encouraged me to say it more often–too often. That said, I’ve never had the sense that it is particularly ‘unhip’ or totally neglected by natives, rather that the situations foreigners use it in (e.g. describing their abilities) and the frequency are both odd.
    Another similar textbook influenced oddity is 哪里 as a compliment deflector (which I’m sure has come up in these discussions previously). Natives use it, but not particularly often. It’s only one of many ways available to them to deflect compliments. Additionally, when I’ve heard natives use it, it carries exaggerated intonation as if to emphasize the denial of the compliment. Foreigners typically deliver it straight (assuming tones are present), and it comes off as memorized, mechanical and insincere.
    Is my analysis at all in line with your experience? Living in the US, I no longer know what real Chinese are saying in China. It’s hard for me to know how to approach such things in teaching. I don’t want to be part of the cause of foreigners being the butt of taxi-cab jokes, but even the newest textbooks are always dated by a few years.

  17. pott says:

    After 15 comments, I start to believe that this is not a game of silence and folks here actually don’t know the rather common meaning of LP in Internet Chinese. So here’s a piece of advice: before you refer to someone as “我LP”, do a google search for it.

    @Syz: You’re right that 语伴 is less transparent than 语言伙伴 and I might have gone too far to claim the standardness of the former. Still 语伴 sounds more natural in my ears and is more frequent, I think, at least in oral communication. In fact, the first time that I ever see the phrase 语言伙伴 might be in your post, but I can imagine this word being used in some awe-inspiring academic publication on language learning. The situation may be comparable to that of 空调 (air conditioner). How many times have you heard real people say 空气调节器?

  18. Shelley says:

    When I lived in Beijing, all the Chinese people I knew said 语伴儿。

  19. Syz:

    You’re actually running into a fairly interesting intersection of a few related phenomena. First I’d to say that my experience was that there was no “word” for “language partner” in Chinese when I lived there. 語伴兒 was something that was used, but most people didn’t know about it and had to have the idea explained to them. I’m sure it’s written sometimes, but I would bet the ratio of postings requesting language/convesrsation partners written in english to chinese is 100 to 1. I believe in Taiwan, where preference for English is taken to the N, if “language partner” in English isn’t used, some strange formulation (certainly not obeying any language’s rules of grammar or sense) of LE (language exchange) is used: (Looking for LE, English/Chinese LE, etc). But I can’t say to have much experience, paid much attention, or have much memory.

    I almost never hear anything (outside of occasionally the english term (language partner)) used broadly (something a college kid would say to their parents) (yes, some groups stick with LE or 語伴兒, but it hardly seems dominant). There, the concept is always something like, 英文老師, or foreign friend, or just the persons name and 我叫他中文.

    I got lots left to say about this, but I’ll end with this: the notion of “partner” or “partnership” seems so out of place in terms of “modernity” (ie not hip) in both china and usa, but I think there’s more to the idea that there’s not much of the western sense of “partnership” in the activity going on there (in the mind, or at least the practice, of the chinese side very often). I think the “lang partner” thing is often to “get better english” or to “get a foreign friend”, with the grudging acceptance that in order for that to be free, some vain attempt to “teach chinese” has to be made. Anyway, this is too long already.

  20. Chris says:

    I would agree with SYZ that language partner has become unhip because it’s connotation to superficial attempts at teaching something but ending up doing a lot of other stuff very quickly. For anyone out there looking for a teacher go to a school and get a real teacher, pay them…that’s just the same for chinese wanting to learn english as it is the other way around.

  21. I just thought of one: the “awesome” meaning of 盖 gài is pretty uncommon and uncool nowadays.

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