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Chinese Slang Series – Lesson 7: 牛

August 13, 2011

Today’s Word: 牛

What do Jay-Z, your class valedictorian, and a Scrabble champion all have in common?  他们都很牛 (pīnyīn: Tāmen dōu hěn niú; English: They are all so impressive)!As is the case often in translation, there isn’t one perfect word that describes “牛” in English.  Literally meaning “cow”, the term now refers to someone who is competent, capable, and powerful; in other words, any one who excels in their own field.

Of course, if someone calls you 牛, they admire you and think you are cool. ‘Cool’, however, has a specific meaning in English which 牛lacks – that is to say, there is something about being ‘cool’, like Fonzie, which is off the beaten path.  If you are cool, you have excelled in some sort of non-traditional way; Bill Gates isn’t cool, he’s successful, but 牛at once communicates the sort of admiration one has for Bill Gates and The Fonz.  牛 then reflects a difference between what Chinese and Western cultures consider a virtue: in the West, individuality and ‘marching to the beat of your own drum’ is a prized quality, while in China the ability to cultivate excellence in appropriate social roles draws the adoration of all.

Throughout China’s history and continuing in many parts of the country today, the cow has been revered as a hardworking animal, as farmers have relied on them to plow their fields.  The cow symbolizes perseverance and work ethic, things certainly needed to become a 牛人(pīnyīn: niú rén; English: cow person, cool person).  While most scholars agree that this animal symbolism is not the linguistic origin of the slang term 牛, it certainly helps perpetuate the slang term’s popularity by underlining the connection between hard work and success.

For an example of how to use 牛 in context, check out our weekly Youtube video series.  Here is the link to this week’s video: