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10 Common Cantonese Words with no English Equivalent

You’re bound to come across untranslatable words in learning Cantonese, and understanding untranslatable words will help you know more about the culture of a place and the mindset of its native speakers. It also facilitates conversation with locals. What are you waiting for? Let’s check out the ten most common untranslatable Cantonese words below together!

Table of Contents

  1. 面 (min6 or min2)
  2. 加油 (gaa1 jau2)
  3. 人山人海 (jan4 saan1 jan4 hoi2)
  4. 老屎忽 (lou5 si2 fat1)
  5. 熱氣 (jit6 hei3)
  6. 手尾 (sau2 mei5)
  7. 走數 (zau2 sou3)
  8. 無交帶 (mou5 gaau1 daai3)
  9. 圍威喂 (wai4 wai1 wai3)
  10. 舉手之勞 (geoi2 sau2 zi1 lou4)
  11. Bonus: Learn More Untranslatable Words from around the World
  12. Conclusion: How CantoneseClass101 can Help You Learn More Cantonese

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1. 面 (min6 or min2)

Bowing

1- Literal Translation

面 (min6) literally translates as “face” in English.

2- Meaning

This may be one of the more beautiful Cantonese untranslatable words. 面 (min2) describes one’s status, dignity, and integrity. You can also refer to 面 (min2) as the feeling of being respected and honored by others.

3- Example Situation

There are several ways to use the word 面 (min2):

  • 畀面 (bei2 min2):
    • Literal translation: keep face
    • Meaning: hold back (usually when criticizing someone) so as to make that person feel respected
  • 有面 (jau5 min2):
    • Literal translation: have face
    • Meaning: feeling respected and proud
  • 冇面 (mou5 min2):
    • Literal translation: no face
    • Meaning: lose face; feeling disrespected; lowering one’s credibility and image

4- Usage in a Sentence

Example 1: 我鬧佢嗰陣完全冇畀面。

  • Romanization: ngo5 naau6 keoi5 go2 zan5 jyun4 cyun4 mou5 bei2 min2.
  • Meaning: I didn’t hold back to make him feel respected at all when I scolded him.

Example 2: 連大老闆都出席,佢超有面。

  • Romanization: lin4 daai6 lou5 baan2 dou1 ceot1 zik6, keoi5 ciu1 jau5 min2.
  • Meaning: Even the big boss is here; he should be feeling respected and proud.

Example 3: 佢冇話我知搞到我冇面。

  • Romanization: keoi5 mou5 waa6 ngo5 zi1 gaau2 dou3 ngo5 mou5 min2.
  • Meaning: He didn’t inform me, which makes me lose face.

5- Additional Notes

(min6 or min2) is a crucial concept that you should learn, especially if you want to do business with locals here. 畀面 (bei2 min2) and making your business partners 有面 (jau5 min2) will help you foster your relationships with them.

(min2) is closely tied with a number of unique concepts governing the culture of Hong Kong and Chinese communities: 關係 (gwaan1 hai6) or “relationship,” 中庸 (zung1 jung4) which is a prevailing mindset from Confucianism of “not going for the extremes,” and 人情 (jan4 cing4) which means a sense of human touch and affection/owing someone a favor. Feel free to click the above links if you want to know more.


2. 加油 (gaa1 jau2)

Man in Suit Thumbs Up

1- Literal Translation

(gaa1) is “add” and 油 (jau2) is “oil.” Together, the phrase literally means “injecting fuel into a tank.”

2- Meaning

You can use the word 加油 (gaa1 jau2) when you want to encourage someone to keep his or her spirit up. It’s similar to “come on,” “keep it up,” “you can do it,” “cheer up,” and “good luck” in English. However, instead of focusing on the outcome, 加油 (gaa1 jau2) focuses more on the effort one puts into work and the endurance of their spirit.

3- Example Situation

  • To cheer someone up when he or she has just encountered a setback
  • To wish someone good luck when he or she is taking an exam soon
  • To encourage a colleague when he or she is meeting the big boss

4- Usage in a Sentence

We usually use the phrase by itself.

Example 1:
Your friend: I am having an important interview this afternoon.
You: 加油 (gaa1 jau2)!

Example 2:
You: I am going on a date with my crush tonight.
Your friend: 加油 (gaa1 jau2)!

5- Additional Notes

加油 (gaa1 jau2) is the origin of the “Hong Kong English” expression “add oil,” which shares the same meaning as 加油 (gaa1 jau2). We use both 加油 (gaa1 jau2) and “add oil” interchangeably in our daily lives. Even though “add oil” is grammatically incorrect and probably makes no sense to a native English speaker, the phrase has recently been added to the Oxford English Dictionary.


3. 人山人海 (jan4 saan1 jan4 hoi2)

Crowd by a Metro Train

1- Literal Translation

人山人海 (jan4 saan1 jan4 hoi2) literally translates to “people mountain people sea.”

2- Meaning

人山人海 (jan4 saan1 jan4 hoi2) is a metaphor describing huge crowds of people: “There are so many people here and it looks like mountains and the sea from afar.”

人山人海 (jan4 saan1 jan4 hoi2) essentially means “crowded” in English.

3- Example Situation

  • To describe the number of people in a parade
  • To emphasize the crowds in a market

4- Usage in a Sentence

Example 1: 呢度人山人海。

  • Romanization: le1 dou6 jan4 saan1 jan4 hoi2.
  • Meaning: There are so many people here.

Example 2: 個Party人山人海。

  • Romanization: go3 Party jan4 saan1 jan4 hoi2.
  • Meaning: The party is so crowded.

5- Additional Notes

人山人海 (jan4 saan1 jan4 hoi2) is the origin of another “Hong Kong English” expression “People Mountain People Sea, on top of “add oil” introduced above.


4. 老屎忽 (lou5 si2 fat1)

Boss Holding Papers

1- Literal Translation

(lou5) is “old” and 屎忽 (si2 fat1) is “bottom.” 老屎忽 (lou5 si2 fat1) can also be written in Hong Kong English as “old seafood.”

2- Meaning

老屎忽 (lou5 si2 fat1) refers to people who think they’re superior because of their seniority. These people are usually snobbish and narrow-minded as well.

3- Example Situation

  • To describe your big boss, who’s reluctant to adopt new ideas and technology
  • To describe older colleagues who jeer at or tease you just because they’re senior to you

4- Usage in a Sentence

Example: 個老屎忽喺開會嗰陣屈我。

  • Romanization: go3 lou5 si2 fat1 hai2 hoi1 wui2 go2 zan6 wat1 ngo5.
  • Meaning: That old seafood (the snobbish and narrow-minded guy) framed me up in the meeting.


5. 熱氣 (jit6 hei3)

Chicken Wings

1- Literal Translation

熱氣 (jit6 hei3) literally translates to “hot air.”

2- Meaning

This phrase is related to a concept in Chinese medicine. The symptoms that indicate a person is 熱氣 (jit6 hei3) include a sore throat, acne, mouth ulcer, nose bleeding, and sore eyes.

3- Example Situation

  • To describe a person who’s having symptoms including a sore throat, acne, mouth ulcer, nose bleeding, and sore eyes
  • To describe food that can lead to the above symptoms (e.g. spicy food, fried food)

4- Usage in a Sentence

Example 1: 我呢排好熱氣。

  • Romanization: ngo5 le1 paai4 hou2 jit6 hei3.
  • Meaning: I am feeling “hot air.”

Example 2: 薯條好熱氣。

  • Romanization: syu4 tiu2 hou2 jit6 hei3.
  • Meaning: French fries are really “hot air.”


6. 手尾 (sau2 mei5)

File Folders

1- Literal Translation

手尾 (sau2 mei5) literally translates to “hand tail.”

2- Meaning

手尾 (sau2 mei5) refers to work or other stuff that’s left behind. It can also be used to describe a person who’s tidy and responsible.

3- Example Situation

  • To refer to the work that a colleague left behind
  • To describe a friend who didn’t pick up his or her own rubbish

4- Usage in a Sentence

Example 1: 成日要人幫你執手尾,點解你唔做好份內事?

  • Romanization: sing4 jat6 jiu3 jan4 bong1 nei5 zap1 sau2 mei5, dim2 gaai2 nei5 m4 zou6 hou2 fan6 noi6 si6.
  • Meaning: Others always have to do extra follow-up for you, how come you don’t finish your work properly?

Example 2: 你份人好冇手尾。

  • Romanization: nei5 fan6 jan4 hou2 mou5 sau2 mei5.
  • Meaning: You are irresponsible and always get leftover work / stuff that others need to follow up on .


7. 走數 (zau2 sou3)

Woman with Crossed Fingers

1- Literal Translation

走數 (zau2 sou3) literally translates to “go number.”

2- Meaning

走數 (zau2 sou3) describes a person not honoring a promise, usually out of fear or terror. It’s similar to “chicken out” and “eating one’s word” in English.

3- Example Situation

  • To refer to a friend who promised to dance in front of a crowd but changed his mind last minute
  • To call your boss who failed to honor his promise of promoting you

4- Usage in a Sentence

Example 1: 佢走數呀,明明話會唱但係最尾都冇。

  • Romanization: keoi5 zau2 sou3 aa1, ming4 ming4 waa6 wui2 coeng3 daan6 hai6 zeoi3 mei5 dou1 mou5.
  • Meaning: He chickened out. He promised to sing but in the end he didn’t.

Example 2: 我老細走數,話會升我但係最尾都冇。

  • Romanization: ngo5 lou5 sai3 zau2 sou3, waa6 wui2 sing1 ngo5 daan6 hai6 zeoi3 mei5 dou1 mou5.
  • Meaning: My boss ate his words, he didn’t promote me even though he promised to.


8. 無交帶 (mou5 gaau1 daai3)

Man with Tape Over his Mouth

1- Literal Translation

無交帶 (mou5 gaau1 daai3) literally translates to “no give bring.”

2- Meaning

無交帶 (mou5 gaau1 daai3) describes a person who failed to update someone on the latest progress when he or she should have. It’s similar to “irresponsible,” “sloppy,” and “negligent” in English.

3- Example Situation

  • To describe a person who’s irresponsible and failed to update his or her colleagues on the project before he or she left for vacation

4- Usage in a Sentence

Example: 佢做人無交帶,唔適合做經理。

  • Romanization: keoi5 zou6 jan4 mou5 gaau1 daai3, m4 sik1 hap6 zou6 ging1 lei5.
  • Meaning: He’s not suitable for the position of team manager as he is irresponsible and sloppy.


9. 圍威喂 (wai4 wai1 wai3)

A Woman Apart from a Larger Group

1- Literal Translation

Literally, it means nothing but is a different tonation of the word wai.

2- Meaning

圍威喂 (wai4 wai1 wai3) describes a situation where things are done in a very loose manner within a closed group and they won’t let outsiders know what’s going on.

3- Example Situation

To describe how politics or fake charities work
To refer to a terrible project where some groupmates team up against others and dominate the decision-making process

4- Usage in a Sentence

Example: 佢地成班圍威喂無人鍾意佢地。

  • Romanization: keoi5 dei6 sing4 baan1 wai4 wai1 wai3 mou4 jan4 zung1 ji3 keoi5 dei6.
  • Meaning: No one likes them because they are very cliquey.


10. 舉手之勞 (geoi2 sau2 zi1 lou4)

1- Literal Translation

舉手之勞 (geoi2 sau2 zi1 lou4) literally translates to “raising hand’s work.”

2- Meaning

舉手之勞 (geoi2 sau2 zi1 lou4) is similar to “no trouble at all” and “it was no big deal.” It’s a way to reply to someone who expresses his or her gratitude to you, usually because of the help that you previously offered.

3- Example Situation

  • To reply to a lady who just thanked you for helping her with math
  • To reply to a man who just thanked you for helping him out with art homework

4- Usage in a Sentence

We usually use this phrase by itself.

Example 1:
Your friend: Thanks for lending me your book!
You: 舉手之勞 (geoi2 sau2 zi1 lou4)

Example 2:
You: Thanks for fixing the door!
Your friend: 舉手之勞 (geoi2 sau2 zi1 lou4)


11. Bonus: Learn More Untranslatable Words from around the World

Wondering what untranslatable words there are in other countries? Check out our list to find out what they are!


12. Conclusion: How CantoneseClass101 can Help You Learn More Cantonese

We hope that you found this article on untranslatable words in Cantonese language learning helpful.

Now that you’ve mastered the common untranslatable Cantonese words, it’s time to move up to the next level! With CantoneseClass101.com, you can have your daily dose of Cantonese whenever and wherever you want, either through your mobile apps, desktop software, or even our website. We offer entertaining, engaging, and effective lessons on various aspects of the Cantonese language and culture.

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