6 Cantonese taboos in Hong Kong and their eye-opening linguistic origins

Don’t say “Happy New Year” in Cantonese to people working in finance because it sounds like you’re cursing the stock market to crash. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Feeiduhjudy
Don’t say “Happy New Year” in Cantonese to people working in finance because it sounds like you’re cursing the stock market to crash. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Feeiduhjudy

Every culture has its taboos and, like any other languages, Cantonese 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 taboos. That’s because Hong Kong and Guangzhou are particularly developed in 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 favorites so you’ll know when to avoid them and why.

Don’t say “Happy New Year” to those working in finance

Stock photo of Exchange Square in Hong Kong. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Feeiduhjudy

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 another character, “lok” (落), which means “fall”. “Faai” (快), on the other hand, also has the meaning of ”quick”. A quickly falling stock market — definitely a no-no for those working in finance.  

Medical professionals tend not to use McDelivery 

Stock photo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/SKWTAM8

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 is that the Cantonese name for McDelivery, “mak mak sung” (麥麥送), sounds similar to “mat mat” (密密), which can mean “frequently”, while “sung” (送) means “to deliver” or “to send”. This inevitably leads medical professionals to think of frequently sending patients off to their final resting place or frequently sending patients to the ward — both not desirable thoughts.

“Candies” =/= sweets for those working in hospitals

Stock photo. Photo: Pixabay/Daria Yakovleva

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 “candies” — “tong” (糖) — to refer to dead bodies instead. So wrapping the corpse is known as “baau tong” (包糖), which is often understood as “a packet of candies” in other contexts. 

“Auspicious” instead of “vacant” possession

File:Housing @ Causeway Bay, Hong Kong (1901577582).jpg
Stock photo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Rob Young

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 used is not a direct translation. That’s because “vacant” in Cantonese is “hung” (空), which sounds the same as another character, “hung” (凶), referring to something fierce and unfortunate. When it comes to talking about 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 saying “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 pig’s liver and goose’s liver?

File:Food 炒豬肝麵, 廣東汕頭牛肉店, 基隆 (15177854762).jpg
Stock photo of a dish with pig’s liver. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/bryan…

The Cantonese word for “liver” is “gon” (肝), but people seldom say “zyu gon” (豬肝) when referring to a pig’s liver, opting for “zyu jeon” (豬膶) instead. That’s because “gon” (肝) sounds like another character, “gon” (乾), meaning “dry”. The state of dryness is undesirable in Hong Kong as it means a lack of water, which is associated with fortune. Hence, pig’s liver — commonly used in Cantonese cuisine — is known as “zyu jeon” (豬膶), with “jeon” (膶) associated with wealth. 

But interestingly, most refer to the liver of geese as “ngo gon” (鵝肝) instead of “ngo jeon” (鵝膶). Wong explains that it is because goose’s liver, or foie gras, tends to be served in French cuisine and foreigners are not so familiar with the taboo associated with the word “liver” — “gon” (肝) — in Cantonese. Moreover, when foie gras was brought into Hong Kong, people’s taboo toward “gon” (肝) was no longer as strong. In fact, he says there are still a number of Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong that refer to the liver of geese as “ngo jeon” (鵝膶).

No-no to talk about “large hotels”

File:HK NP Hong Kong Funeral Home.JPG
Stock photo of Hong Kong Funeral Home. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Huang Kong Hing

This is an interesting two-fold taboo. Calling a luxury hotel, or a physically big one, a “large hotel” — “daai zau dim” (大酒店)— was not always an issue. But because it is a taboo to talk about funeral homes in Hong Kong, people came up with the term “large hotel”, or “daai zau dim” (大酒店), 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 a taboo to even talk about “large hotels”. So people found 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 features have been retained as part of politeness norms in Hong Kong and traditions of certain professions, allowing us to appreciate the colorful and multifaceted Cantonese language.

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