As a learner of Mandarin Chinese, I often come across words or phrases that just sound plain funny when translated to English.
If you think about it though, most languages have words that sound a little strange when you examine their meaning. For example, people might give you a strange look if you said you were going to use your “far voice” to call the bank about a “dead pledge”. But if you talk like a normie, nobody will bat an eye when use your telephone to ring up the bank about a mortgage.
Perhaps the language with the funniest words when translated to English is German with its “Kummerspeck” (gain weight from comfort eating) and “Innerer Schwienehund” (inner pig-dog responsible for your slovenly behavior).
But Mandarin Chinese is not without its own vocabulary that is sure to get a chuckle or two from any Western listener. Here are 15 of my favorite funny Chinese words.
1. Phoenix Pear – 鳳梨 (fènglí)
Contrary to popular belief, pineapples do not grow on trees. They grow directly from the ground surrounded by their leaves, a little like cauliflower. To me they kind of look like the bomb plants in the original Zelda game.
Perhaps that’s why the Chinese word for pineapple is Phoenix pear, a pear rising from the earth just as the mythical Phoenix rises from its ashes.
2. Dragon Shrimp – 龍蝦 (lóngxiā)
Being called a shrimp is a not-so-pleasant way to be called puny. Do you know what isn’t puny? A friggin dragon.
That’s why the shrimp’s bouncer-like big cousin, the lobster, is called a dragon shrimp in Chinese.
3. Business Goose – 企鵝 (qì’é)
To make this English translation of a Chinese word really funny we have to cheat a bit. The modern Chinese word for “enterprise” (something an entrepreneur would start) is 企業 (qǐyè). So with the penguin’s snazzy get-up and all, you could be forgiven for translating its name as “business goose”.
The true translation is still worth a chortle though. 企’s standalone meaning is “upright”, so the Chinese for penguin is just “upright goose”.
4. Change Color Dragon – 變色龍 (biànsèlóng)
The English name for this lizard traces back to the Greek for “lion”, I personally think “dragon” is more apt and the Chinese language agrees. While a chameleon might not be the size of a dragon, it certainly does change color, so this Chinese name is spot on.
5. Cat Head Eagle – 貓頭鷹 (māotóuyīng)
I can’t say that I really get this one. I would call it a “Ghost Faced Eagle”. But I guess because its eyes are flat on its face instead of towards the sides, in Chinese, the owl gets associated with predatory cats.
6. Washing Bear – 浣熊 (huànxióng)
Bears can be trained to do many things, and I suppose doing the laundry would be a hilarious (and inhumane) circus trick. Fortunately, this funny Chinese word just refers to an animal that moistens its food before eating, the raccoon.
7. Bear Cat －熊貓 (xióngmāo)
So, what do you get when you mix a bear and a cat together? According to the Chinese, a panda.
8. Water Dragon Head – 水龍頭 (shuǐlóngtóu)
This is one of my favorite Chinese terms due to its sheer poetic nature. Once you know what it means you’ll agree that it’s also one of those pretty funny Chinese words.
What’s something we all had to open, put our hands under, and sing “Happy Birthday” to multiple times daily during the pandemic? Why a faucet, of course.
9. Suckling Sea Pig – 海豚 (hǎitún)
Let’s see… What are some characteristics of a sweet baby pig? Are they cute? Absolutely. Are they plump? Check. Are they pretty smart and playful. You bet they are. Are they what’s for dinner? No, that’s going too far.
What would we get if we throw a cute pig in the sea? That would be a dolphin.
10. Horse Bucket – 馬桶 (mǎtǒng)
Why? I don’t get it. Why is the Chinese name for toilet “horse bucket”? If their movements are that big over there in Beijing, maybe they need to lay off the honey.
Well, I did a little research on Wiki, and it turns out it was all to spare the feelings of some emperor’s grandfather. Chamber pots used to be called 虎子 (hǔzi), and the person in question also had “hǔ” in their name. So they changed the name of the toilet to 馬子 (mǎzi) in an extraordinarily clairvoyant move to piss off present-day KMT ex-president and turncoat Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
11. Mouth Water – 口水 (kǒushuǐ)
Hey, mouth breather. Close that thing. Your mouth water is running down your chin.
12. Crocodile Pear – 鱷梨 ( è lí)
Actually, this used to be a name for avocado that was often used in English as well. Many people in China call it a “cow oil fruit” (牛油果 niúyóuguǒ). Here in Taiwan, we call it “cheese pear” (酪梨 luòlí). All hilarious.
13. Fire Chicken – 火雞 (huǒjī)
If you guessed that this is the Chinese word for “phoenix”, you are wrong. The brave, majestic phoenix is in no related to the cowardly chicken.
Because of the color of its plumage, the turkey gets this colorful name in Chinese.
14. Spear Shield – 矛盾 (máodùn)
This term for contradiction may not but so much of a funny Chinese translation, but rather an interesting one. Sorry about that.
It comes from a story written by a fella called Han Fei. There was a merchant selling both a spear that could penetrate anything and a shield that could not be penetrated by anything. When the protagonist of the story pointed this contradiction out, the poor merchant’s head exploded or something. I don’t know, I didn’t really read it to the end.
15. Worm Cow – 蝸牛 (guāniú)
OK, you caught me. The first part of this word rounding of this list of funny Chinese words doesn’t really mean “worm”. But if I used the real translation you would already know the answer, snail.
In Chinese, they add the cow part to “snail cow” just to emphasize how cute those little eye-stalk things that snails have are.