The ever-expanding use of the Internet and other popular media in Taiwan has brought with them a whole host of new Taiwanese terms. Pop culture jargon can be highly expressive and apparently infectious in this new age of the Internet, spreading new colloquialisms and slang faster than ever before.
In the recent issue of Taiwan Panorama, an article highlighted some of today’s popular Chinese online slang. Since many of the terms are translated from Chinese, although the idea might be conveyed, the humor is less so. In Taiwan, one of the top new terms often used in sha hen da – “kill very big” – which is derived from a TV commercial for an online game “Sha Online.”
Today, we use many expressions that do not make sense when taken at face value. Often they can be grammatically awkward. However, if the story behind these new words is known, or the development of these new terms is understood, usually they make more sense. One of China’s more popular expressions is da jiangyou which means “buy soy sauce.” Just hearing the phrase, we understand the literal meaning, but why is it popular?
According to Taiwan Panorama the story comes from a Guangzhou, China, television program. When people on the street were interviewed regarding a nude celebrity scandal, one man responded, “Ain’t any of my business, I’m just trying to buy some soy sauce.” Since then, the term has spread across the Internet and has become a common response to stupid questions or questions that are of no concern.
In a vote of China’s top ten online slang in 2008, the top ones were also widely used in Taiwan. Number one was shanzhai to refer to a knock-off product or something pirated. Although it initially had a negative meaning, it now has a positive spin and is used to signify “anti-establishment.” Lei meaning “thunder” in English, came in second, it has since morphed into a verb and an adjective to indicate shock and alarm.
Earlier this year, on the television show “Britain’s Got Talent”, a frumpy woman called Susan Boyle captivated the audience and judges with her singing. Afterwards, she repeatedly said she was gobsmacked by the whole experience. 100 million YouTube downloads later, people now understand the term gobsmacked. Derived from “gob” meaning mouth in British-English slang, it means being so flabbergasted that you smack your hand over your mouth.
Jargons stays with us, long after the knowledge of its origins has faded, but the most popular ones are easily understood. In Taiwanese, troun twa kwee literary means “take big breath”. Although in a yoga class, this might be a good thing, in Taiwanese, it actually means the opposite. It refers to someone who sighs often, feeling put upon by life.
As colloquial terms become more widely circulated they inevitably end up being added to our dictionaries. Ten years ago, if someone were to “Google” a name, the majority of readers would be perplexed by the meaning. Today, Google has also become a common verb and a noun. If you were to look up the word in the eleventh edition of the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, it will define Google as a “search engine” and also “to obtain information about (as a person) on the World Wide Web.” It is unknown how long Google might remain in business as a company, but even if the company disappears, the usage of the word “Google” will likely remain.
According to Yu Kuang-chong, a well-known poet in Taiwan, slang is like pepper – when used appropriately, it adds a little flavor, but used in excess it can make a dish inedible. Language evolves with culture. It not only allows us to communicate, but is indicative of someone’s age, and socio-economic level. A person referring to his or her upbringing as a Brady Bunch childhood, a wholesome and popular television show would have been raised in the 1970s in the US. Whereas if you heard the expression talk to the hands, this person would likely belong in the generation that followed, since the term was commonly used by teens in the 1990s to mean “I’m not listening.” New expressions are very indicative of a specific time and region. Some are incorporated into everyday speech while others, are historical time stamps.