When you’re learning a language, it’s almost impossible to directly translate everything into your mother tongue. This is certainly true for native English speakers studying Chinese. Today, I’m going to introduce you to some interesting Chinese words that really require you to think in Chinese, as they cannot be translated directly into English.
东西 (dōng xī)
This word – meaning “thing” or “stuff” – directly translates into English as “East/West.” However, it is not used to talk about direction. Here’s the most common phrase associated with this word: “go shopping” or “buy something” (买东西 – mǎi dōng xī). Way back in the Han Dynasty, Luoyang (洛阳 – luò yáng) and Chang’an (长安 – cháng’ān – now Xi’an) were the two biggest commercial cities in China. At that time, Luoyang was referred to as “East Capital” (东京 – dōng jīng – now the Chinese name for Tokyo) and Chang’an was called the “West Capital” (西京 - xī jīng). If people went shopping in Luoyang, they’d say “buy East” (买东 – mǎi dōng) and if they headed to Chang’an, they’d say “buy West” (买西 – mǎi xī). Over time, this evolved into the simple expression that we have today – 东西. Here are a few examples of this Chinese word in action:
我想去超市买东西 – wǒ xiǎng qù chāo shì mǎi dōng xī
I want to go to the supermarket to buy things.
这是什么东西？- zhè shì shén me dōng xī
我要吃东西 – wǒ yào chī dōng xī
I want to eat something.
左右 – zuǒ yòu
At first glance, you might translate this simply as “left and right.” While it’s true that’s one way you can use this, it can also mean “about”/”approximately.” There isn’t an interesting story attached to this word, but you will hear it quite often in daily life. Here are a few examples:
走路十 分钟 左右 – zǒu lù shí fēn zhōng zuǒ yòu
About a 10 minute walk.
我们的公司一共有三百人左右 – wǒ men de gōng sī yì gòng yǒu sān bǎi rén zuǒ yòu
Our company has approximately 300 people.
他身高1点5米左右 – tā shēn gāo yì diǎn wǔ mǐ zuǒ yòu
He’s about 1.5 meters tall.
马上 – mǎ shàng
Although it’s certainly possible to use these two characters in their direct translation – “on the horse” – it’s more common to hear them used in oral Chinese meaning “right away”/”quickly.” As the story behind this word goes, there was a general who heard that the Emperor was gravely ill. He was so worried that he remained on his horse and headed to the capital immediately. Here are a few common examples for you to put to use:
我们马上就走 – wǒ men mǎ shàng jiù zǒu
We’ll leave at once.
音乐会马上要开始了 – yīn yuè huì mǎ shàng yào kāi shǐ le
The concert is going to begin soon.
看起来马上要下雨了 – kàn qǐ lái mǎ shàng yào xià yǔ le
It looks like it’s about to rain.
酒鬼 – jiǔ guǐ
Chances are you’ve probably never seen an “alcohol ghost,” but you have probably encountered a “boozehound,” “wino,” or “drunkard” at some point. If you’re like me and you’re nursing a cocktail at the moment, then you might just be able to describe yourself as such. Or if you’ve got a roommate like mine who always has Bloody Marys ready on Sunday mornings, you could say:
他是个酒鬼 – tā shì gè jiǔ guǐ
He’s a boozehound.
Of course, this word can also be used more seriously, meaning “alcoholic:”
我的父母都是酒鬼 – wǒ de fù mǔ dōu shì jiǔ guǐ
My parents were both alcoholics.
老板 – lǎo bǎn
This one translates directly as “old board.” Bet you’d never guess that this one actually means “boss” in Chinese. Well, it does! I’m sure plenty of folks out there feel like their boss is about as exciting as an old piece of wood, so I guess this one makes sense after all. Let’s look at a few sentences with this word:
我的老板让我加班 – wǒ de lǎo bǎn ràng wǒ jiā bān
My boss makes me work overtime.
今天老板很生气 – jīn tiān lǎo bǎn hěn shēng qì
The boss is very angry today.
我们的老板是美国人 – wǒ men de lǎo bǎn shì měi guó rén
Our boss is American.
These are just a few examples of words that can’t exactly be directly translated into English. It wouldn’t make much sense if you said in English, “My old board is a real alcohol ghost.” It also wouldn’t make any sense if you said “I’m going to the mall on the horse to buy East/West.” Learn the Chinese words and how to use them the Chinese way, and forget about trying to translate everything into your native language. Before we go, here’s one more word that should motivate and maybe also confuse you – 加油 (jiā yóu) – which literally means “add oil,” but can also be used to encourage (as in “go team!” or “you can do it!”) So add some oil and keep working on your Chinese.