Paul learned how to speak Taiwanese and use its idioms after he married a Taiwanese in the 1970s.
Acquiring Taiwanese in the 1970s
During the 1970s, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to live and work in Taiwan. In that decade, I was living in the southwestern port city of Kaohsiung in a predominantly Taiwanese-speaking neighborhood. When I arrived, I only knew Chinese Mandarin, but by the time I left in 1979 to return to the States, I had already picked up spoken Taiwanese from my family and neighbors. Luckily, the language I picked up has remained with me all my life. In this article, I will share some colorful Taiwanese expressions and idioms. I hope you find them very interesting and useful.
Taiwanese Expressions With English Translations
The following is a listing by categories of different Taiwanese adjectives, idioms, colorful expressions, verbs, and other expressions that I heard and used often during my years in Taiwan. If possible, I have included the literal translation of some expressions. I have not used any single romanization standard because many are in use in Taiwan today.
Colorful Taiwanese Adjectives:
- Ang gi-gi - bright or brilliant red
- Beh shek-shek - very, very white
- O so-so - extremely black
- Dam di-di - extremely wet
- Chio si - very, very funny
- Sui dang-dang - extremely beautiful
- Chingki lyu-lyu - extremely clean
- Pai go-go - very ugly
- Am mo-mo - very dark
- Chi geng-geng - very bright
- Sio hu-hu - extremely hot
- Ling gi-gi - extremely cold
- Gong tui-tui - very stupid
- Bui sut-sut - very, very fat
- Sang pi ba - very, very thin
- Tsao go-go - very stinky
- Phang gong-gong - very fragrant
The first syllable of each expression is the adjective. For all but two expressions, the last two syllables are reduplicated. The reduplication of the syllables puts the adjective into the superlative degree or approaching the superlative.
- Gong lang gong hok - fool's luck; it means stupid luck (for) the stupid person
- Thi gong thia gong lang - to be fortunate; it means God loves the stupid person.
- Chit hun chit; Nng hun nng - be straight forward; Literally, it means one is one and two is two.
- Ji oo si kha; lang oo nng kha - You can't get enough money; it means money has four legs, (but) people have two legs.
- Mm bat chingki - to luck out in gambling; Literally, it means to have never been clean.
- Than ji bo beng chiat - to be very poor; it means to not make enough money to eat.
- Mm bat ho phai - to be naïve; it means to have never known good or bad
- Mm bat tai chi - to be naïve; it means to not be aware of things in the world.
- Pha chew ching - to masturbate; it means to shoot the pistol.
Colorful Taiwanese Expressions:
- Tsuikhi thia e be hai hi - to have an extremely bad toothache
- Wai ji tswa - to be crooked and not straight forward
- Hoan e be hoan - to be very naughty
- Jian si bo lang - to be very naughty
- Bo boa jing - to have no common sense
- Hoan lo e be si khi - to be worried to death
- Bakjew oo sai go - to be blind; it means to have excrement in your eyes.
- Hikang oo sai tak khi - to be deaf; it means to have excrement in your ears.
- Hoahi e be hai hi - to be extremely happy
- Yin cui yin ji - to talk back to a parent or a teacher
- Tui bao zu - a very stupid person
- Gong siao wei - to talk stupid
- Boetsat gui tou - a liar
- Sa mi boa mi - in the middle of the night
- Bo boa sen - to be broke; to have no money at all
- Cui dang cui sai - to look all over; it means to search east and search west.
- Ho kha ho chiu - to be handy; it means to be good with feet and hands.
- Bo kha bo chiu - to be clumsy; it means not to have legs or hands.
- Bo lo eng hei - a useless person
- Gao sang a - a very thin person; it means a skinny monkey.
- Khao bei - a cry baby
- Gei su a - a person living in a low-level shack
- Ho tsui - good civilized talk; it means to (use) a good sounding mouth.
- Phai tsui - bad talk; scolding; Literally, it means to use a bad sounding mouth.
- Gong boe thia - to not listen to someone
- Siu li - to scold; to take to task; to settle a score with someone
- Si thao lo - to get fired
- Gwun thao gei - my husband; it means my head (boss)
- Khan chiu - my wife; it means (the one you) hold hands with
- Lanjiao kiel kiel - an erection; it means the penis is standing up
- Pha za bo - chase women
- Sho gan - to have sexual intercourse
- Chio ha-ha - to laugh
- Sei li long - to turn and twirl around
- Dao sa gang - to help
- Dao kha chiu - to help; it means to use legs and hands.
- Siu gia - to exorcise fear from a baby or child
- Chua bo - to take a bride
- Gei ang - to get married to the bride
- Khia thi be - to ride a bicycle; it means to ride an iron horse.
- Toe hoe a - to join a lending circle
- He he haw haw - to be indecisive; not come to the point when speaking
Other Taiwanese Expressions:
- zo jio - a once in a lifetime village celebration
- Suai siao - an expression of being very upset
- Sei i - a mistress; it means a minor wife.
- Bu ni - a taxi dance hall girl
- Diao dit - to be very honest and straight forward
- Khi mo pai - be extremely angry
- Boe gian siao - shame on you
- Tswa jit diao - to be startled
- A dok ga - a westerner; it means a person with a big nose.
- Ang mo a - a westerner; it means a person with red hair.
- Ang e a - an infant; baby
- Iao Siu - Oh My God!
The above are just a few of the colorful expressions and idioms which I can recall. I hope to add to these lists in future articles and settle on a standard romanization system. Anyone traveling to Taiwan cannot help but hear these expressions and idioms.
Hokkien (Taiwanese) Conversation with Idioms
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn
Anonymous on April 26, 2020:
"I have not used any single Romanization standard because many are in use in Taiwan today."
Why??? Why not just choose one????? It would be so helpful if you used a Romanization system that actually fully transcribes the sounds involved and the necessary phonemic distinctions. The way you transcribed these leaves out the nasal vowels, tones and the three way phonation distinction of stops; how the heck is anyone supposed to get anything reliable from this? I'm trying to go through these and look them up in Southern Min dictionaries to actually figure out how they're pronounced, but it's almost impossible with the way you transcribed them.
"In future articles, I hope to add to these lists and also settle on a standard Romanization system."
So did you ever get around to doing this?
Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on May 29, 2015:
Thanks for commenting. That would be expected since Taiwanese as a branch of Minnan is only spoken in Southeast China.
mikeydcarroll67 on May 29, 2015:
Definitely different. The phrases were vastly different than a lot of those that I heard from Chinese in Changchun!
Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on March 26, 2014:
I have been busy moving these past few days, but I will ask my son and pass on the Pinyin you gave me. After I hear from him, I will let you know.
Trevor on March 18, 2014:
Thanks Paul. On a page for Colorful Taiwanese idioms, this one simply has to be included. :) So I found a Taiwan native in my building and she recognized the idiom and corrected my pronunciation. I recorded her saying it and a pinyin-ization would be closer to "jia (v) liu (\) bui (/) bui (/), ji (-) kou (\) tui (/) tui (/)". The tones are my best approximations to mandarin since taiyu has so many tones I'm not familiar with. She told me that she could only speak Taiyu not write the characters because it would need a special character not commonly used. I hope your son can rediscover this phrase. It always got a good laugh after we had been treated to a sumptuous meal and were asked, "Chi bao le ma?"
Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on March 14, 2014:
&Trevor The only thing I can think of is "goa jia jin ba. Which means in English "I am really full." I'm not aware of saying "so full I'm going stupid", but I'll ask my son in Taiwan. His Taiwanese is better than mine! Thanks for commenting.
Trevor on March 13, 2014:
Sorry I messed up the translation, should be "so full I'm going stupid". There may be a metaphor to a bird in there. Too vague in my memory now to recall correctly.
Trevor on March 13, 2014:
I've been trying to search the net for the correct pronunciation and tones of a Taiwanese idiom I learned and used while in Taipei from '97-'99. Said after a very filling meal the basic meaning was "so full I'm going to explode." I'll try to write phonetically what I remember of the phrase: Jee ho bwee bwee, Gee ho twee twee. If you could help me out here I would really appreciate it! Thanks.
Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on July 20, 2013:
I last visited Taiwan in 2009 to see my son. He is living in Changhua and teaching English. I'll tell you more when I email you. Paul
tastiger04 on July 19, 2013:
Yes, my father was in the Navy too which brought us there in the first place, then he worked for the state department. Seems to be a common theme over there. Both cities are great, Taipei has changed so much in the last few years. Have you had a chance to return?
Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on July 19, 2013:
I was in Kaohsiung from 1973-1979 and in the Taipei area 1984-1985. Actually, I first got to Taiwan in 1968 when I was in the Navy,
tastiger04 on July 18, 2013:
I was in Kaohsiung from 1988-1990, and in Taipei from 1990-2000. You know how expat families are! It was a great country to spend so much time in.
Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on July 18, 2013:
Thank you very much for reading this Taiwanese idiom hub. I'm very happy that you liked my idioms and found them interesting. When and where did you live in Taiwan?
tastiger04 on July 17, 2013:
These are great, I lived most of my life in Taiwan and I didn't know a lot of them! Thanks for writing a great, fun hub! Voted up and interesting! :)
Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on May 26, 2013:
Thank you very much for reading and commenting on this hub.
Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on May 26, 2013:
Thank you very much for reading and commenting on this hub. Within the next month I will write a hub on everyday words and expressions in Chinese Mandarin which are helpful to travelers for getting around. By the way, where are you travelling in China? In 1998 I spent two months in Beijing. I appreciate you sharing and pinning this hub.
self-counsel on May 26, 2013:
Thanks for sharing!
Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on May 25, 2013:
Very interesting Paul. But remembering them will take some work. Since I'm going to China in mid July and I have no idea of Chinese language and simple expressions, I'd be very interested as well as thankful to you if you can make a collection of everyday use words and sentences that a traveller might encounter and find useful in getting around. Since you know Chinese Mandarin, I'd be most obliged if you can do it.
Thanks for this useful hub. Voted up, useful, interesting. Shared and pinned.
Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on June 05, 2012:
Thanks for reading, the favorable comment, and sharing. My son is in Taiwan now teaching ESOL now. I think he could give you some pointers on getting a contract there one day.
Brett C from Asia on June 04, 2012:
A fun hub. Some of the expressions actually sound like their meanings lol. I've never been there, but hope to go there for a teaching contract one day!
Shared, up and interesting.
Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on May 11, 2012:
Wesley, Thanks for reading and commenting. In Thailand, the Thais call all white westerners "farang" which is short for "Frenchman."
Wesley Meacham from Wuhan, China on May 11, 2012:
Wow, I already find it annoying sometimes when I hear wai guo ren, or loa wai from someone in public. But a dok ga? Person with big nose?
Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on December 04, 2011:
Thanks molometer. The Taiwanese language has always been one of my passions. Hopefully, I can come up with some more expressions when I have more time to research what I know from my experiences.
Micheal from United Kingdom on December 04, 2011:
As a person with a big nose, let me congratulate you on a wonderfully interesting and useful hub.
I found it most illuminating.
Voted up interesting and useful.