Every culture has its taboos and, like any other languages, Cantonese also has many so-called forbidden words. In fact, South China Normal University’s Cao Xiaoyan once said that, compared with other Chinese languages and varieties, Cantonese has a large number of such taboos. That’s because Hong Kong and Guangzhou are particularly focused on commerce, so there is a tendency to focus on auspiciousness.
To document this interesting linguistic phenomenon, educator and Cantonese-language researcher Wong Chun-hei recently published a book based on an in-depth study exploring the fascinating reasons behind these taboos. We’ve digested the text and picked a few of our favorite so you’ll know when to avoid them and why.
Don’t say “Happy New Year” to those working in finance
It might sound pretty harmless to wish your friends and family “Happy New Year” (新年快樂) to usher in a new year, but you might want to think twice if they are working in the finance industry. That’s because the lok (樂) in faai lok (快樂), which means “happy”, is pronounced in the same way as lok (落), which means “fall”. A falling stock market — definitely a no-no for those working in finance.
Medical professionals tend not to use McDelivery
Many medical professionals are often so busy with work that they can’t go out for meals, so delivery comes in really handy for them. But there’s one delivery service that they tend to avoid — McDelivery; the reason being the Cantonese name for McDelivery is mak mak sung (麥麥送) Mak mak (麥麥) sounds similar to mat mat (密密), which can mean “frequently” and sung (送) means to deliver/send, so this inevitably leads medical professionals to think of “frequently spending final moments with patients” or “frequently sending patients to the wards”, which is a rather unappetizing notion.
“Candies” =/= sweets for those working in hospitals
When those working in hospitals talk about a packet of candies, they’re not talking about the confectionery. According to Wong, due to taboos related to death, hospital staff tend to use the euphemism of “candies” — tong (糖) — to refer to dead bodies instead. So wrapping the corpse is known as baau tong (包糖) instead, which is often understood as a packet of candies in other contexts.
“Auspicious” instead of “vacant” possession
When buying or selling a property, the term “vacant possession” is commonly used to mean the property is ready to be occupied. While there is also such an expectation in Hong Kong, the phrase is not exactly a direct translation. That’s because “vacant” in Cantonese is hung (空), which sounds the same as hung (凶), referring to something fierce and unfortunate. When it comes to dealing with properties in Hong Kong, hung (凶) is especially forbidden as it is associated with hung zaak (凶宅), a property that has been stigmatized because it is haunted, or someone was murdered or committed suicide there. Hence, instead of gaau hung (交凶) for “vacant possession”, people in Hong Kong will say gaau gat (交吉), as gat (吉) means “auspicious”.
Why are there different terms for pigs liver and goose liver?
The word for “liver” is gon (肝), but people seldom say zyu gon (豬肝) when referring to a “pig’s liver”, opting for zyu yuun (豬膶) instead. That’s because gon (肝) sounds like gon (乾), meaning “dry”. The state of dryness is undesirable in Cantonese as it means a lack of water, which is associated with fortune. Hence, “pig’s liver” — a popular Cantonese dish — is known as zyu jeon (豬膶), with jeon (膶) associated with being rich.
But interestingly, most refer to the goose liver as ngo gon (鵝肝) instead of ngo jeon (鵝膶). Wong explains that it is because goose liver, or foie gras, tends to be served in French cuisine and foreigners are not so familiar with the taboos associated with the word “liver” — gon (肝) in Cantonese. Moreover, when foie gras, which is a relatively new gourmet dish, was brought into Hong Kong, people’s taboo towards gon (肝) was not as strong. In fact, there are still a number of Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong that refer to goose liver as ngo jeon (鵝膶).
No-no to talk about “large hotels”
This is an interesting two-fold taboo. Calling a luxurious hotel, or a physically big hotel, a “large hotel” — daai zau dim (大酒店）was not always an issue. But because it’s taboo to talk about funeral homes in Hong Kong, people came up with the term “large hotel” as a euphemism. Slowly, “large hotel” was no longer used to refer to luxurious accommodation in Hong Kong, but only exclusively to funeral parlors. Hence, it became taboo to even talk about “large hotels”. So people had to find other linguistic means to talk about such hotels, such as hou waa zau dim（豪華酒店）— “luxurious hotels”, or simply zau dim（酒店））— “hotels”.
While a lot of such taboos began as superstitions, Wong notes that many people no longer have such beliefs as society changes. But fortunately for us culture buffs, these unique linguistic usages have been retained as part of the politeness norms and traditions of certain professions, allowing us to appreciate the colorful and multifaceted nature of Cantonese.