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Cantonese Proverbs and Idioms

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Proverbs allow us to articulate our ideas and ways of thinking in a fun way! Like quotes, they provide us with wisdom and insight—they can even serve as a window into other cultures!

Inspiration - a Woman with a Light Bulb above Her Head

Do you want to put some Cantonese proverbs and idioms in your pocket? Without further delay, let’s review our top thirty selections!

Log in to Download Your Free Cheat Sheet - Beginner Vocabulary in Cantonese Table of Contents
  1. Animal-Related Idioms
  2. Ghost-Related Sayings
  3. Food-Related Sayings
  4. Sayings About People
  5. Tree-Related Proverbs
  6. Other Sayings
  7. How CantoneseClass101.com Can Help You Learn More Cantonese

1. Animal-Related Idioms

An Elephant

There are plenty of Cantonese proverbs and idioms featuring animals. Below, we’ll introduce you to our favorites! 

豬乸會上樹

  • Romanization: zyu1 naa2 wui5 soeng5 syu6
  • Literal Translation: A sow can climb trees
  • English Equivalent: When pigs fly
  • Meaning: This phrase is used to refer to something that will never happen.

Imagine that Martin is really bad at math, but claims that he’ll get full marks on the upcoming calculus exam. In this situation, you might reply with this phrase. 

掛羊頭賣狗肉

  • Romanization: gwaa3 joeng4 tau4 maai6 gau2 juk6
  • Literal Translation: Hang up a sheep’s head and sell dog meat
  • Meaning: Palm off
  • Additional Notes: Hong Kong prohibits the slaughtering of dogs or cats for use as food; you won’t actually find shops selling dog meat!

If Lucy claims that the designer bags she’s selling are real (but they are indeed fake), you might say this phrase.

大石砸死蟹

  • Romanization: daai6 sek6 zaak6 sei2 haai5
  • Literal Translation: A big rock weighs down on a crab
  • Meaning: To be overpowered by overwhelming force

Imagine that Nick asks you to perform a task that’s totally outside the realm of your job responsibilities, but you still have to do it because he’s a powerful member of the company. You could then express your frustration with this phrase.

牛唔飲水唔撳得牛頭低

  • Romanization: ngau4 m4 jam2 seoi2 m4 gam6 dak1 ngau4 tau4 dai1
  • Literal Translation: If a cow doesn’t want to drink, you can’t force its head down.
  • English Equivalent: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. 
  • Meaning: A person is responsible for their own actions. While you can give them advice, it doesn’t mean they’ll take it. 

Imagine that Christy entered a relationship knowing full well that the guy is in love with someone else. She later complains to you that she is the victim, to which you reply with this phrase. 

老貓燒鬚

  • Romanization: lou5 maau1 siu1 sou1
  • Literal Translation: An old cat burns its whiskers.
  • Meaning: This idiom is used when someone makes a careless mistake in their area of expertise.

You might use this phrase after Rick (who’s an English teacher) makes a silly grammatical mistake while giving a lesson. 

拉牛上樹

  • Romanization: laai1 ngau4 soeng5 syu6
  • Literal Translation: To pull a cow up a tree
  • Meaning: This phrase refers to an impossible goal that would simply require too much effort. 

You could use this phrase after being tasked with helping an ignorant coworker become a high-flyer. 

企喺城樓睇馬打交

  • Romanization: kei5 hai2 sing4 lau4 tai2 maa5 daa2 gaau1
  • Literal Translation: Standing on a fort and watching horses fight each other
  • Meaning: This one refers to keeping oneself out of a serious matter.

Imagine that James initiates a fight, but then walks away from it immediately while others continue to argue. This would be the perfect occasion to use this idiom! 

騎牛搵馬

  • Romanization: ke4 ngau4 wan2 maa5
  • Literal Translation: Riding a cow looking for a horse
  • Meaning: This idiom refers to using one’s current job to look for a better opportunity.

You might say this phrase when Shirley accepts a job offer for a position she doesn’t really like, because she needs a stepping stone toward something better. 

扯貓尾

  • Romanization: ce2 maau1 mei5
  • Literal Translation: Pull a cat’s tail
  • Meaning: This refers to putting on a show or colluding. 

Imagine that Anthony knows his project is going to fail, but his friend Ivan covers for him so that everything looks smooth. You could describe the situation with this phrase.

捉到鹿唔識脫角

  • Romanization: zuk1 dou2 luk2 m4 sik1 tyut3 gok3
  • Literal Translation: Got hold of the deer but can’t remove its antlers
  • Meaning: This refers to being unable to make the most of an opportunity.

When Sunny knows the answer to a question but fails to speak up, you could describe her situation with this phrase.

豬籠入水

  • Romanization: zyu1 lung4 jap6 seoi2
  • Literal Translation: Water enters a pig basket
  • English Equivalent: To make a fortune
  • Meaning: This phrase means that someone has made a lot of money. 

You could use this phrase after your friend Gary makes a huge gain in the stock market. 

打蛇隨棍上

  • Romanization: daa2 se4 ceoi4 gwan3 soeng5
  • Literal Translation: Hit a snake and it crawls up the stick
  • Meaning: This phrase means to exploit a situation to one’s advantage.

Imagine that Denise learns her colleague is in a rift with their shared boss, and she volunteers to help out in hopes of getting promoted. This phrase would perfectly describe the situation.  

邊有咁大隻蛤乸隨街跳

  • Romanization: bin1 jau5 gam3 daai6 zek3 gaap3 naa2 ceoi4 gaai1 tiu3
  • Literal Translation: Why would there be such a big frog hopping around the street?
  • Meaning: This is a rhetorical question suggesting that a deal is too good to be true.

When Johnny offers you a million dollars for no apparent reason, you could question his intentions with this phrase.

2. Ghost-Related Sayings

A Ghost

Ghosts come up surprisingly often in Cantonese sayings. Here are just a few examples. 

有錢使得鬼推磨

  • Romanization: jau5 cin2 sai2 dak1 gwai2 teoi1 mo4
  • Literal Translation: If you have money, you can make a ghost push a millstone.
  • English Equivalent: Money makes the world go round.

You and Ian are discussing the importance of money, and this phrase comes up during the conversation. 

多個香爐多隻鬼

  • Romanization: do1 go3 hoeng1 lou4 do1 zek3 gwai2
  • Literal Translation: An extra incense burner would attract an extra ghost.
  • Meaning: This saying refers to inviting losses through giving someone the chance to share in your profit. 

When Jeff asks Michelle whether they should invite Raymond to the meeting, Michelle says no because Raymond is not on the same team. She then backs up her decision by saying this phrase.

鬼揞眼

  • Romanization: gwai2 am2 ngaan5
  • Literal Translation: A ghost covers one’s eyes.
  • Meaning: This phrase refers to a Freudian slip, where a person misspeaks and thus reveals their subconscious thoughts or mindset. 

Imagine that you and Michael are talking, when he accidentally says he’s going to the bar. But you know that he actually needs to go back to work. By using this phrase, you would be implying that what he wants to do is go to the bar. 

呃鬼食豆腐

  • Romanization: aak1 gwai2 sik6 dau6 fu6
  • Literal Translation: Cheating the ghost to eat bean curd
  • Meaning: This refers to tricking someone or luring them into a trap.

You might use this phrase when Ben tells you he loves you, but you know he’s been lying to and exploiting you.

3. Food-Related Sayings

A Table of Food

Considering the significance of food in Cantonese culture (and really, any culture), it should come as no surprise that many Cantonese sayings reference food!

食鹽多過你食米

  • Romanization: sik6 jim4 do1 gwo3 nei5 sik6 mai5
  • Literal Translation: Ate more salt than rice
  • Meaning: This idiom refers to someone who is more experienced at something than another person is.

When Felix says he’s a relationship expert but has only dated once, you might reply with this phrase if you’re more experienced than he is.

食碗面反碗底

  • Romanization: sik6 wun2 min2 faan2 wun2 dai2
  • Literal Translation: Eat from a bowl and then turn it over
  • Meaning: This one refers to betraying someone.

You could use this phrase when Teddy promises you that he’ll come back, but he never does.

禾稈冚珍珠

  • Romanization: wo4 gon2 kam2 zan1 zyu1
  • Literal Translation: Rice stalks covering pearls
  • Meaning: This refers to concealing one’s ability or wealth.

You could say this after Celia shys away from a swimming contest even though she’s the best swimmer in town.

4. Sayings About People

A Group of People

No two people are exactly alike, but we all share some similar life experiences. Here are a few Cantonese idioms and proverbs on the topic! 

和尚擔遮

  • Romanization: wo4 soeng2 daam1 ze1
  • Literal Translation: Monk holding an umbrella
  • Meaning: This means to do whatever one pleases.

When Arthur teases a woman without consent and walks away just because he’s powerful, you could say this in response. 

一竹篙打一船人

  • Romanization: jat1 zuk1 gou1 daa2 jat1 syun4 jan4
  • Literal Translation: Hitting everyone on a boat with a punt pole
  • English Equivalent: Tarred with the same brush

When Queenie claims that Sally is bad just because Sally is friends with Stephen, you could use this phrase.

醜婦終須見家翁

  • Romanization: cau2 fu2 zung1 seoi1 gin3 gaa1 jung1 
  • Literal Translation: An ugly woman still has to meet her husband’s father
  • Meaning: This saying means that one needs to deal with an outstanding issue eventually, even if they don’t want to. 

You might use this phrase when your friend Sophie confides in you that her ex is dating someone new, but she doesn’t want to yet. 

皇帝唔急太監急

  • Romanization: wong4 dai3 m4 gap1 taai3 gaam1 gap1
  • Literal Translation: The emperor is not in a hurry, but the eunuchs are.
  • Meaning: This refers to being more anxious about someone’s business than the person concerned is.

Imagine that Victor has homework to do but is currently relaxing. Kelvin keeps urging him to finish his work, which would be an example of someone being anxious over another’s work. 

5. Tree-Related Proverbs

A Tree

People often look to nature for wisdom and to seek out correlations with our own lives. Here are a couple of Cantonese proverbs that use trees as a metaphor! 

樹大有枯枝

  • Romanization: syu6 daai6 jau5 fu1 zi1
  • Literal Translation: A big tree has some dead branches.
  • Meaning: There are good and bad people in every group.

Sam assumes that all higher-ups within an institution are competent, but you comment otherwise using this saying. 

刀仔鋸大樹

  • Romanization: dou1 zai2 geoi3 daai6 syu6
  • Literal Translation: Use a little knife to saw down a tree.
  • Meaning: This phrase refers to using little capital to make a big profit.

You might say this when Sarah invests money in a stock, and its value increases fivefold. 

6. Other Sayings

To wrap up, here are just a few more Cantonese sayings on a variety of topics. 

打橫行

  • Romanization: daa2 waang4 haang4
  • Literal Translation: Walking across
  • Meaning: This means to do whatever one pleases.

When Richard fires a lady just because she doesn’t brownose, you might describe his action with this phrase. 

過橋抽板

  • Romanization: gwo3 kiu4 cau1 baan2
  • Literal Translation: Pull up the planks after crossing the bridge
  • Meaning: This means to betray one’s friends once the crisis is over, or to abandon one’s friends once one is safe. 

Imagine that you’ve helped Nicky a lot in tough times, but she cuts ties with you once she meets someone richer without any explanation. This phrase would describe her action. 

摸門釘

  • Romanization: mo2 mun4 deng1
  • Literal Translation: Scrape the door nails
  • Meaning: This refers to trying to visit someone, but not being able to find him or her at their place.

Imagine that Simon goes to visit Tony, but Tony isn’t at home. This phrase could be used to describe the situation. 

風水輪流轉

  • Romanization: fung1 seoi2 leon4 lau4 zyun2
  • Literal Translation: The wheel of fortune turns.
  • Meaning: Just because someone is successful now, doesn’t mean they will be in the future. 

You might say this when Rex and Nicholas brag about their achievement and behave cruelly to their teammates.

7. How CantoneseClass101.com Can Help You Learn More Cantonese

Cantonese proverbs and idioms are interesting, aren’t they? Do you want to dive deeper into Cantonese after learning these popular sayings?

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