Get us in your inbox

Search
‘Can You Canto’ Cantonese slang explainer series
Illustration: Time Out Hong Kong‘Can You Canto’ Cantonese slang explainer series

The Cantonese slang you need to know right now

A not-so definitive guide to local phrases you should add to your vocabulary

Catharina Cheung
Written by
Time Out Hong Kong
&
Catharina Cheung
Advertising

Looking to impress your Cantonese-speaking friends? Or do you just want to get down with the cool kids and show off your knowledge of popular Canto sayings? Whether it's commonly used words or the latest new slang, we've got them all. Get started with this handy guide featuring our picks of Cantonese phrases you need to know!

RECOMMENDED: Head into the city and discover the top attractions to visit in Hong Kong

Cantonese slang you need to know right now

Raise a flag

🔊: laap flag

When someone ‘raises a flag’, it means they were being vocal about their plans or goals, but the end result is completely opposite to what they said they would achieve. The ‘flag’ is a reference to the anime series The Tower of Druaga, where it is a common foreshadowing trope that any character who claims they ‘will go home to get married after this battle’ inevitably ends up dead. So if you tell your friends you’re going on a diet, but end up eating ice cream in front of the telly, that’s a ‘raised flag’.

Wear a green hat

🔊: daai luk mo

You won’t ever catch a Chinese man wearing green-coloured hats or caps, because this symbolises that your significant other is cheating on you! Notably, it applies to men with unfaithful wives or girlfriends; you’d rarely say a girl is ‘wearing a green hat’. If you’re the one who cheated on your man, you can also say you’re ‘giving them a green hat to wear’. Makes you wonder about those poor Irish leprechauns…

Advertising

That’s right

🔉: ngaam aa

Though this Cantonese phrase is regularly used to show agreement, Gen Z have recently co-opted it and given it a condescending twist. If you’re ever speaking to someone annoying but can’t be bothered to refute them, simply do what the kids do and deadpan ‘That’s right’ to everything. While on the surface you’re agreeing, this phrase shows innate disapproval by being patronising.

Return water

🔉: wui shui

To ‘return water’ means to refund money to a customer. In Cantonese slang, the word ‘water’ can have several meanings, but in this application it is used to reference money – $100 is colloquially referred to as ‘one clump of water’ (yaat gau shui; 一嚿水). To ‘return water’ therefore also often signifies a certain level of dissatisfaction with services, products, or performance.

Advertising

Waste water

🔉: fai seui

Originating from Macau, ‘waste water’ refers to Taiwanese-style sugary drinks that are high in calories and not much else, such as bubble teas, black sugar milk teas, or fruit teas that so often line our streets. The implication is obviously that these drinks are just rubbish for our health – even if they taste good. Another similar slang term for these drinks is ‘fatty water’ (fei jai seui; 肥仔水).

Romance Recc Split

🔉: gum geen fun

Originating from online forums where people post about their relationship problems and ask for advice, this phrase is short for ‘When it comes to romance, my recommendation is always to split up’ (關於情的問題,我一律手). This pessimistic view on relationships stems from the tendency of forum participants to disregard advice even after engaging in lengthy, heated debates. Frustrated netizens now commonly comment ‘Romance Recc Split’ on posts related to romance.

Advertising

Sodiasm

🔉: sou dei aa sum

Don’t let the -ism fool you, this isn’t a new cult or a Tiktok trendy school of thought! Sodiasm is actually a transliteration of 掃地啊嬸 (sou dei aa sum), which is the Cantonese term for the cleaning lady who drops by your office to tidy up while you’re doing overtime. ‘So di a sm’, get it? This texting slang can be used to refer to any cleaner, janitor, or custodian, really.

Complete ultimate

🔉: juet juet zee

This is a heightened variation of 絕了 (zyut liu), which already means the absolute best, so the phrase is used to heap praise on something. However, as with plenty of modern slang, sayings are often used ironically, so you can also use 絕絕子 (juet juet zee) to emphasise how something is just completely, utterly awful. Gotta use your contextual knowledge for this one!

Advertising

Auntie, I don’t want to work hard any more

🔉: aa yee ngo but seung no lick lew

Originating from Mainland China (hence the formal sentence structure used more in Mandarin Chinese than in Cantonese), this phrase blew up after being seen in replies to cougars who would offer money to younger men in return for their time and attention. The heavily memed chat screenshots and situations usually feature a young man who is initially resistant to her advances, then has a hard time making money, and eventually returns to the older woman saying, “Auntie, I don’t want to work hard any more”. This phrase is now used regardless of gender, by anyone who is tired of the capitalist rat-race we’re all stuck in.

Collect skin

🔉: saau pei

To be used with some caution, telling someone to ‘collect skin’ equates to telling them to shut the f*ck up. The phrase allegedly originated from street vendors who would display their wares on wooden or cardboard mats, which they called pei (皮; skin). The act of packing up and clearing out when police arrive was therefore called ‘collecting skin’.

In its modern usage, this phrase is now used to stop someone when they are talking or acting in a manner that isn’t appreciated. If someone got owned or put in their place, you can also say they’ve ‘collected skin’ (收咗皮; saau jor pei). 

Advertising

Make yourself fat

🔉: “jee fei”

Popularised by the ViuTV programme Error Selfish Project (Error自肥計畫 in Chinese), to ‘make yourself fat’ means using sneaky or unscrupulous means to benefit yourself or line your own pockets. Though obviously it’s kind of a negative thing, people usually accuse others of ‘making themselves fat’ with an envious tone.

Polly Shum

🔉: “por lee sum”

A homophonic rendition of 玻璃心 (bor lei sum; heart of glass) in mock English pronunciation. To describe someone as a Polly Shum means they are sensitive and easily hurt – much like a fragile piece of glass. The phrase is less condescending than calling someone a snowflake.

Advertising

Had been positive

🔉: “yeung gwor”

As you might already be able to guess, to have ‘had been positive’ means you’ve contracted and recovered from Covid-19. This phrase is also a play on words as it’s pronounced the same as the protagonist character Yang Guo from Jin Yong’s novel The Return of the Condor Heroes in Cantonese.

mm7

🔉: “M M qat”

This is more for online usage, though we’re sure it has seeped into IRL parlance, just as people are now using ‘LOL’ out loud. mm7 is used to describe something being awesome, as those are the symbols used to type the character 正 (really good) in the Cangjie input method, which utilises the standard English keyboard layout. This slang usage was popularised by Jer Lau, a member of the popular Hong Kong boy band Mirror.

Advertising

Naughtier than Yuen Ting

🔉: “waai gwor yuen ting”

Simply put, this is a phrase used to describe someone as very bad or very naughty. Its original version is 壞過凱婷 (naughtier than Hoi Ting) – a meme derived from a 2017 copypasta, where the original poster claimed that they and Hoi Ting are the ‘baddest’ female students in their grade.

This meme went viral and was referenced by Hong Kong Youtuber Loui5ng, gaining even more mocking prominence after the Hong Kong police also used the phrase in their anti-drug campaign. It’s not exactly clear why, but since then, Gen Z has adapted the slang phrase to become 壞過婉婷 (naughtier than Yuen Ting), emphasising even worse behaviour than Hoi Ting’s.

Primary school chicken

🔉: “seew hok gai”

If you hear someone calling you a ‘primary school chicken’, just know that you’re probably acting immature and foolish. This phrase can be applied to both dumb people or situations – for example, if a fancy event turns out to have all the classiness of a Teletubbies show at a mall, that’s ‘primary school chicken’ too.

Advertising

Big loss of blood

🔉: “daai chut hyud”

Don’t worry – this phrase doesn’t refer to a violent act of murder. The only thing that’s bleeding out here is your wallet. A ‘big loss of blood’ occurs when you go shop frivolously and end up spending way too much money. For best results, exclaim with a deep sense of despair.

https://media.timeout.com/images/106034429/image.jpg
Catharina Cheung
Section Editor

Catching worms

🔊: "juk chung"

This term means to get yourself into trouble, causing unnecessary difficulties. It may seem like an odd phrase, but this slang is often used as an abbreviation of the full saying – 捉蟲入屎忽 (juk chung yup si fat) – that involves putting said worms up your rear end. Which, to anyone's imagination, definitely spells trouble indeed.

Advertising

A chicken talking to a duck

🔊: "gai tung aap gong"

How do a chicken and a duck communicate, you ask? Unsuccessfully. This phrase describes people who are unable to properly communicate with each other, whether due to language barriers or different values. No matter what is said, the chicken and duck just can’t seem to understand each other.

Buddhist style

🔊: "fut hai"

A term to describe someone who takes a nonchalant attitude towards life. If you are having a Buddhist-style love life, it means you do nothing to rush and just wait to be approached as you believe whatever will be, will be!

Advertising

Kicking the ball

🔊: "seh boh"

A metaphor for sloughing off all your responsibilities to someone else. The phrase is most commonly used to describe someone who fakes an illness and skips a day at the office in order to avoid work and responsibilities.

Trap

🔊: "fuk"

Literally meaning trap, this word is an adjective used to describe something that's of questionable or misleading quality, and thus likely to cause someone to fall into a 'trap'. A close English translation would be the word 'dodgy'.

Advertising

To ride an ox while looking for a horse

🔊: "keh ngau wun ma"

This phrase describes the situation when a person is working one job but is actually on the lookout for something better at the same time. This saying can also be applied to relationships.

Driving a bus

:🔊: "jah ba si"

This term is used to describe someone who has had one too many drinks and is about to be sick in the toilet. The way they’re gripping the toilet seat resembles the way bus drivers hold a steering wheel. 

Advertising

Collecting soldiers

🔊: "sau bing"

Used to describe the process by which a girl accumulates many male 'friends' with the sole purpose of friend-zoning them and utilising them to help her run tedious errands or even getting them to buy her expensive gifts.

Release sparkles

🔊: "fong seem"

Frequently seen on social media – though you can use it in person too – this phrase describes the blinding radiance emitted by a pair of lovebirds openly displaying their affection for one another.

Advertising

Drop dog poo

🔊: "lok gau si"

No, not something you say when you want your mutt to do his or her business. Rather, this expression is the English equivalent of ‘raining cats and dogs’ – just not as cute.

Pretend to be a pig to eat a tiger

🔊: "baan ju sik lo fu"

A fairly common phrase, the phrase means to manipulate someone into a false sense of security. It is usually used to describe a backstabber who appears to be innocent or even dim but turns out to be utterly devious.

Advertising

Licked something

🔊: "lai yeh"

A multipurpose phrase used to describe a person who has gotten themselves into some sort of spectacular disaster. Similar to exclaiming ‘you’re screwed!’. 

More things uniquely Hong Kong

Recommended
    You may also like
    You may also like
    Advertising