Horses and Tigers

In the comments of a recent post, the Mandarin phrase “mama huhu 馬馬虎虎” came up. Used by first-year Chinese teachers when telling students how to say “so-so”, it is arguably not used much among actual native speakers.

In my opinion, that’s for good reason. It sounds absurd. It’s not some cool chengyu 成語 idiom with a neat story. It’s not bad ass in any way.

And, it turns out, it’s only just barely Chinese. It’s actually from Manchu lahū meaning unskilled, particularly in terms of hunting. Norman gives the following definition:

1. not adept, unskilled (especially at hunting and dealing with livestock) 2. scoundrel, hoodlum

The next entry in his dictionary is lahūta which means ‘a type of small, rather incompetent hawk’. I pray the two words are related.

Due to Manchu influence on Northern Chinese dialects, lahu was borrowed in and redupicated to lalahuhu which evolved into mamahuhu, horse horse tiger tiger.

25 responses to “Horses and Tigers”

  1. Carl says:

    Why is it that first year language teachers always teach you junk no one really says and leave out the absolutely must-use phrases?

    • For example 棒 which to my knowledge is never taught in classes but probably should be by the second semester for sure.

    • Jason S. says:

      I was just told the other day that 棒 was originally a euphemism for a man’s well…stick, and specifically that 好棒 meant a man that was good in the sack. And now interesting we have 屌 being used the same way.

  2. laubis says:

    This term is a pretty good litmus test for weeding out bad teachers.
    When I was trying to find a good Chinese teacher, I would ask them to translate “so-so” in Chinese. I would not recommend having any future classes with anyone who introduces the unnatural “mamahuhu”.

    • An interesting approach. I do this with food, always ordering baingan bharta the first time I try an Indian restaurant, but can’t say I’ve actively applied it to language learning. I may steal that.

  3. Lao Lo says:

    What would be a reasonable term for “so-so”, if mamahuhu is not recommended. The MDBG dictionary contains mamahuhu as so-so. Is it wrong?

    • Kong says:

      The reason 马马虎虎 is used so often for “so-so” is probably because it is the only Chinese words that means “so-so” uniquely. Other terms have other meanings and could confuse a beginning student. Not that that’s really an excuse.

      不怎么样 (on the negative side of “so-so”)

  4. Julen says:

    Interesting post, and nice to see some Chinese etymology.

    But I disagree about the term being unnatural or not used among natives. Sure it is not as popular these days as some students imagine, but then all these colloquial expressions come and go, they are subject to fashions and some age groups may be more likely to use it. I have heard it used at least a few times from very local Chinese completely unprompted, even in shanghainese ( here they seem to prefer the single mahu, not doubling the syllables, or rather “mafu” ).

  5. ze says:

    In defense of teachers: mamahuhu is like vocabulary crack-cocaine–it’s so easy to remember (repeated syllables, animals, absurdity) that once learners hear it, they can’t help but abuse it. Textbooks almost always include it somewhere. As a teacher myself, I’ve tried in recent years not to introduce it, but it often comes up anyways–it is, after all, a real Chinese word (I’m on board with Julen here), and one that native speakers like to share with learners. I’d like to prevent its overuse, but that’s no easy task due to its memory-stickiness. In the end, it’s a much lesser pedagogical issue for me than helping beginning students develop accurate tones, character recognition, cultural understanding and well, many many other basic issues. Still, I appreciate Kellen’s post and the suggestion to include 棒 earlier in the curriculum–just ease up on teachers a bit.

    • Katie says:

      But why? Why do books include it? Why do people like to teach it to foreigners? Does anyone know? Is it just because it’s kind of an interesting little phrase? (Even more interesting than I knew–thanks Kellen!) If so, fair enough … but then why not introduce it that way, along with more common ways of expressing the idea? Not saying you don’t teach it this way, but I think it’s fair enough to say that, at the very least, books that include it don’t teach it this way.

    • Kellen says:

      It may be worth remembering that learners of most languages request a translation for “so so”. A 13 year old me demanded it of Albanian (ashtu-ashtu or ashtu-kështu for those keeping track) and I distinctly remember learning it in Italian 101 (cosi cosi) at a classmate’s request. In Arabic as well it was a demand made by students. Oddly the answer is يعني yaʿnī which might as well just be “um…”.

      That may be part of why it’s taught. It’s fun may be the other. I too would like to hear more about this from teachers.

    • ze says:

      Kellen is absolutely correct that students request a word for ‘so-so’–at that point, a teacher is confronted with an option: tell them that, in fact, almost no one ever says that (even though the student is right now desiring to say it), introduce phrases that, while more natural, aren’t really the same as so-so (hái kěyi, hái hǎo, xíng, còuhé, etc.), or take the easy route and introduce the phrase currently being derided.

      I think the answer to Katie’s why questions is simply that mamahuhu it’s an extremely memorable phrase. People love animal words. If I could design a course to teach animal words, I’m guessing student retention would be amazing. When Chinese New Year rolls around each year, I’m always astounded by how quickly students pick up the 12 animals. The only other lexical area as memorable (perhaps more) is vulgarity. For these two areas, learners remember the items extremely fast. I just heard an interview with a language acquisition expert who noted that, in every language examined so far, children have immense animal vocabularies. After sifting through a large corpus of parent-child conversation, researchers found that In the top 100 words parents use with children, a surprising number are animals (I don’t recall the exact number, but it was around a dozen for English).

    • Kellen says:

      “People love animal words. … The only other lexical area as memorable (perhaps more) is vulgarity.”

      To that I say “牛屄”.

  6. hanmeng says:

    “it’s only just barely Chinese”. So we’re going to ban words and expressions that originate from other languages?

  7. Kellen says:

    @Lao Lo – I’d just say something like 还可以. Then again I’m a strong believer in never answering “how are you” with anything too positive or too negative, regardless of language. That said, I can’t recall many times where a Chinese person actually asked me how I was.

    @Julen – I can buy mahu/mafu in Shanghainese. Then again that’s not Mandarin so instances spoken in Wu may not be relevant to the Mandarin learners as much, 晓得 for 知道 being another example. It’s much more common in Wu than in Mandarin but I always got weird looks when I used it in Mandarin.

    @ze – Apologies if I came off as against the teachers. I’m certainly not. Most Mandarin teachers I know are quite good, well grounded in the classics and with a very solid understanding of modern usage. If anything I think the get-rich-quick kind of language book publishers are more to blame, in both Mandarin and English texts.

    @hanmeng – That was hyperbole. I never said anything about banning any word. I say 沙发 and 拿铁 nearly every day in Mandarin and 十三点 is still a Shanghainese favourite. Anyway I only meant to suggest that the etymology of such a commonly taught phrase may be far from what people would expect.

  8. Sima says:

    I might be missing something here, but it’s always struck me that 马马虎虎 is an excellent match for ‘so-so’, on the basis that I rarely here native speakers use either.

    It seems that every Chinese student of English learns to say ‘just so-so’ when asked how they are, just as every foreign learner seems to be taught 马马虎虎 in their first year, though not necessarily for quite the same purpose.

    Do any of you use ‘so-so’, or ‘just so-so’, regularly?

  9. Chris Waugh says:

    But why is “so-so” so commonly used in China? Aren’t teachers of English here doing something similar teaching Chinese people a phrase native speakers almost never use? Or is “so-so” a lot more common in other dialects than I realise?

    @Kellen: I learnt “晓得”from 老舍’s 《骆驼祥子》. “知道” is also used in the book, and they seem to me pretty interchangeable, although I may be missing some subtle nuance. I don’t think 老舍 could reasonably be accused of having being influenced by Wu.

    And in scanning 《骆驼祥子》 to make sure I wasn’t inventing some false memory, I came across on page 108 of my edition:


    Also, if “马马虎虎” is derived from Manchu, then surely, at least historically, it would be more common up here in the north?

    So maybe as @Julen suggested it may be more about different generations and the vagaries of fashion than Mandarin vs Wu?

  10. Kellen says:

    Sorry I may have not been clear. I don’t mean to imply that 晓得 is exclusive to Wu. It’s certainly not. I just mean it’s more commonly used in Wu than in Mandarin, in my experience. I agree with Julen that generation plays a huge part in this sort of thing. My best audience for conversation is the 20 something crowd only because that’s the slang set I learned. I just meant that lahu in Shanghai might be over-represented in comparison to the rest of China. Just might.

    And I totally agree with Sima and Chris in that the number of Asia-based English learners who are using so-so is way out of control. I, in my time teaching English, worked hard to keep students from relying too heavily on “so so” or similar nonsense like “nothing special”.

    It was an oversight on my part to not include the rarity of “so-so” in English in the original post, thought I was certainly on my mind.

  11. TS says:

    So is there any way to just look up data about usage of this term in spoken Mandarin? Or even better, has anyone produced a ranked list of the top 1000 or top 5000 words one should learn in order to understand basic conversations? Any pointers to data sets?

    My own experience has been that I seem to focus too much on learning things (animals, household objects, etc) and too little on “vocabulary about social interactions” (discuss, offend, prevent, forgive, excuse, etc.) where there are also many ambiguities in the precise meaning that dictionaries do not fully reflect.

    • Kellen says:

      It’s easy to come up with lists of the most common characters. Much harder to come up with lists of ‘words’ int his sense.

      The best thing to do, I feel, is to just have more conversations.

  12. pc says:

    Looking at something like Jun Da’s online corpus*, we get the following stats:

    (Number of hits out of 973,338 bigrams for general fiction and 730,067 for news)
    马马:8 News / 51 Fiction
    虎虎: 8 News / 72 Fiction
    马虎:31 News / 127 Fiction

    Pretty much shows that at least no one is writing it. Obviously, this doesn’t mean much for Chinese (that, I guess, is another discussion in it of itself – learning vocabulary from written works…), but it’s interesting nevertheless.

    Perhaps other people who know how to use Jun Da’s works better can come up with more meaningful data.

    *bigram is the longest search I could find

    On the note about learning 马马虎虎 in class, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone use it a non-sarcastic way, much like how people jokingly say 你好吗. We definitely learned 棒 and other similar phrases very early on. Hell, I think we use 他妈的 in class more than any of the traditional positive adjectives. Could just be us though.

  13. Peter says:

    I’m a fan of 一般般. I think it’s closer to the meaning of “so-so” than 还可以 is. I’d place it about at “meh”.

  14. shan says:

    To the point about hearing/using 马虎 in Wu (I believe the original comment was stating how s/he hears 马虎 more often than 马马虎虎): the higher frequency is probably right, but the comparison doesn’t really make sense because the two terms mean completely different things. 马虎 isn’t being used as a short form of 马马虎虎; the two aren’t interchangeable. 马虎 is more along the lines of “careless,” as in someone did a shoddy job.

    @pc – I don’t think you’d find the term “so-so” very often in written English, either.

  15. caitlin says:

    I always thought that as I was taught 马马虎虎 so early on, it was something that was used often in Chinese as ‘so-so’ didn’t make sense to me in English!

    I use either 马马虎虎 as a bit of a joke or 不错 when asked how I am. Like Kellen, I never usually give either a positive or negative response in any language!

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