Colorful Taiwanese Idioms

Updated on December 20, 2017
Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul learned how to speak Taiwanese and use its idioms after he married a Taiwanese in the 1970s.

Political Map of Taiwan

Political Map of Taiwan 1992
Political Map of Taiwan 1992

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 which has remained with me all my life. In this article, I will share with you some colorful Taiwanese expressions and idioms which I hope you find 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 which 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 one Romanization standard because many are in use in Taiwan today.

Colorful Taiwanese Adjectives:

1. Ang gi-gi - bright or brilliant red

2. Beh shek-shek - very, very white

3. O so-so - extremely black

4. Dam di-di - extremely wet

5. Chio si - very, very funny

6. Sui dang-dang - extremely beautiful

7. Chingki lyu-lyu - extremely clean

8. Pai go-go - very ugly

9. Am mo-mo - very dark

10. Chi geng-geng - very bright

11. Sio hu-hu - extremely hot

12. Ling gi-gi - extremely cold

13. Gong tui-tui - very stupid

14. Bui sut-sut - very, very fat

15. Sang pi ba - very, very thin

16. Tsao go-go - very stinky

17. 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.

Taiwanese Idioms:

1. Gong lang gong hok - fool's luck; Literally it means stupid luck (for) the stupid person

2. Thi gong thia gong lang - to be fortunate; Literally it means God loves the stupid person.

3. Chit hun chit; Nng hun nng - be straight forward; Literally it means one is one and two is two.

4. Ji oo si kha; lang oo nng kha - You can't get enough money; Literally it means money has four legs, (but) people have two legs.

5. Mm bat chingki - to luck out in gambling; Literally it means to have never been clean.

6. Than ji bo beng chiat - to be very poor; Literally it means to not make enough money to eat.

7. Mm bat ho phai - to be naïve; Literally it means to have never known good or bad

8. Mm bat tai chi - to be naïve; Literally it means to not be aware of things in the world.

Colorful Taiwanese Expressions:

1. Tsuikhi thia e be hai hi - to have an extremely bad toothache

2. Wai ji tswa - to be crooked and not straight forward

3. Hoan e be hoan - to be very naughty

4. Jian si bo lang - to be very naughty

5. Bo boa jing - to have no common sense

6. Hoan lo e be si khi - to be worried to death

7. Bakjew oo sai go - to be blind; Literally it means to have excrement in your eyes.

8. Hikang oo sai tak khi - to be deaf; Literally it means to have excrement in your ears.

9. Hoahi e be hai hi - to be extremely happy

10. Yin cui yin ji - to talk back to a parent or a teacher

11. Tui bao zu - a very stupid person

12. Gong siao wei - to talk stupid

13. Boetsat gui tou - a liar

14. Sa mi boa mi - in the middle of the night

15. Bo boa sen - to be broke; to have no money at all

16. Cui dang cui sai - to look all over; Literally it means to search east and search west.

17. Ho kha ho chiu - to be handy; Literally it means to be good with feet and hands.

18. Bo kha bo chiu - to be clumsy; Literally it means not to have legs or hands.

19. Bo lo eng hei - a useless person

20. Gao sang a - a very thin person; Literally it means a skinny monkey.

21. Khao bei - a cry baby

22. Gei su a - a person living in a low level shack

23. Ho tsui - good civilized talk; Literally it means to (use) a good sounding mouth.

24. Phai tsui - bad talk; scolding; Literally it means to use a bad sounding mouth.

25. Gong boe thia - to not listen to someone

26. Siu li - to scold; to take to task; to settle a score with someone

27. Si thao lo - to get fired

28. Gwun thao gei - my husband; Literally it means my head (boss)

29. Khan chiu - my wife; Literally it means (the one you) hold hands with

Taiwanese Verbs:

1. Chio ha-ha - to laugh

2. Sei li long - to turn and twirl around

3. Dao sa gang - to help

4. Dao kha chiu - to help; Literally it means to use legs and hands.

5. Siu gia - to exorcise fear from a baby or child

6. Chua bo - to take a bride

7. Gei ang - to get married to the bride

8. Khia thi be - to ride a bicycle; Literally it means to ride an iron horse.

9. Toe hoe a - to join a lending circle

10. He he haw haw - to be indecisive; not come to the point when speaking

Other Taiwanese Expressions:

1. zo jio - a once in a lifetime village celebration

2. Suai siao - an expression of being very upset

3. Sei i - a mistress; Literally it means a minor wife.

4. Bu ni - a taxi dance hall girl

5. Diao dit - to be very honest and straight forward

6. Khi mo pai - be extremely angry

7. Boe gian siao - shame on you

8. Tswa jit diao - to be startled

9. A dok ga - a westerner; Literally it means a person with a big nose.

10. Ang mo a - a westerner; Literally it means a person with red hair.

11. Ang e a - an infant; baby

12. Iao Siu - Oh My God!

The above are just a few of the colorful expressions and idioms which I can recall. In future articles, I hope to add to these lists and also settle on a standard Romanization system. Anyone traveling to Taiwan cannot help but hear these expressions and idioms

Hokkien (Taiwanese) Conversation with Idioms

Questions & Answers

    © 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn

    Comments

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      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        Thanks for commenting. That would be expected since Taiwanese as a branch of Minnan is only spoken in Southeast China.

      • profile image

        mikeydcarroll67 

        3 years ago

        Definitely different. The phrases were vastly different than a lot of those that I heard from Chinese in Changchun!

      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        Trevor,

        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.

      • profile image

        Trevor 

        4 years ago

        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 Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        &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.

      • profile image

        Trevor 

        4 years ago

        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.

      • profile image

        Trevor 

        4 years ago

        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 Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        tastiger,

        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 profile image

        tastiger04 

        4 years ago

        Paul,

        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 Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        tastiger,

        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 profile image

        tastiger04 

        5 years ago

        Hi Paul,

        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 Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        tastiger,

        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 profile image

        tastiger04 

        5 years ago

        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 Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        self-counsel,

        Thank you very much for reading and commenting on this hub.

      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        rajan,

        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 profile image

        self-counsel 

        5 years ago

        Thanks for sharing!

      • rajan jolly profile image

        Rajan Singh Jolly 

        5 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

        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 Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        Brett,

        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.Tesol profile image

        Brett Caulton 

        6 years ago from Thailand

        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 Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        Wesley, Thanks for reading and commenting. In Thailand, the Thais call all white westerners "farang" which is short for "Frenchman."

      • Wesley Meacham profile image

        Wesley Meacham 

        6 years ago from Wuhan, China

        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?

        Interesting hub.

      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        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.

      • molometer profile image

        molometer 

        6 years ago from United Kingdom

        As a person with a big nose, let me congratulate you on a wonderfully interesting and useful hub.

        I found it most illuminating.

        Thank you

        Voted up interesting and useful.

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