Thursday, November 19, 2009

"The Beefiest" (最牛) and "It Sucks"

Yesterday, Damjan of the Asia Healthcare Blog had an interesting comment on my post "The Beefiest Translation." He asked, "[H]ave you explored the possibility that this vulgar expression has been coopted into a more socially acceptable form due to its popularity with Chinese youth?"

The Beefiest Tug-of-War, with100,000 Participants 
(最牛的拔河 from

It made me wonder. Are there similar examples in English, of expressions that were once considered vulgar but have come into mainstream use in the same or a slightly modified form and divorced from their past vulgarity? I asked Bob the question, which seemed to fascinate him. He was pretty sure that accepted vulgarisms existed in English, but couldn't come up an example right away.

Bob then asked a good friend whose college major was English. The friend passed the question to his librarian wife. The knowledgeable librarian mentioned the word "sucks", which used to be prohibited in polite company but is a common word today (as in "This book sucks").

The friend inspired me to dig around the internet a bit further and I found a Slate article titled "Suck It Up – A defense of the much-maligned word" by Seth Stevenson. It is so curious that all the reasons the author listed in defending the word "sucks" can be applied to the case of '最牛'.  Stevenson's defense begins with the following:

Sucks is here to stay. And what's more, it deserves its place in our lexicon, for a couple of reasons. First, it's impossible to intelligently maintain that sucks is still offensive. The word is now completely divorced from any past reference it may have made to a certain sex act. When I tell you that the new M. Night Shyamalan movie sucks (and man, does it suck), my mind in no way conjures up an image of a film reel somehow fellating an unnamed beneficiary.

The similarity between the two cases in two different languages is striking. Even the way each expression's past reference to vulgarity is alike, as well as the ways in which their current usages are divorced from that past. The most notable disparity might be that "sucks" is used only with negative connotations, while '最牛' can be used either negatively or positively, with a slant toward the latter.

The librarian friend also mentioned a big change in young adult literature over the past five years: it has gone from being very straight laced to being much more explicit in language and in situations. This is equally interesting. Does this mean a cultural trend toward more tolerance for vulgarity, or more indulgence of our youngsters, than ever?

Whatever it means, how an expression becomes socially acceptable is independent of one's will. In the case of '最牛', because it has already been broadly used in China, I'm more interested in finding a better translation for it. So far, based on the discussion stemmed from my previous post, we have a few good candidates:

"the niuest" (h/t Matthew)
"the ballsy-est" (h/t Mouseneb and Anonymous)
"the beefiest"

But again, which translation will be most accepted is beyond our will. We can only propose and see. For now, I'll probably continue to use "the beefiest."

By the way, I asked my sister Maple, who lives in Shanghai, to help me find the origin of '牛逼' (niu bi), and she sent me this link  For those of you who know Chinese, have fun reading.


马猴尔 said...

Wouldn't 'bullish'' be a correct translation, both for the meanings of 最牛 you suggest and for staying true to the Chinese?

As for English profanities that have become acceptable over the years, and which have both positive and negative connotations, have you considered 'bollocks' (I'm staying true to the sex theme here :-).

In general 'bollocks' has negative connotations but the expressions 'the dog's bollocks', as in 'that gig was the dog's bollocks' invariable means 'fantastic', 'awesome', et cetera.

Perhaps both 'bullish' and 'bollocks' are used in British English more than they are in the States..?


Xujun Eberlein said...

Hi, what you said is very interesting. However I do think 'bollocks' is used in British English more than in the US. "Bullish" usually means optimistic in American English, so it is somewhat different.

coljac said...

Ever heard an Australian, or possibly a Brit, use a variation of the word "bugger"? A phrase such as "bugger off" is considered mild, hardly more unmentionable than "sucks" despite the literal meaning of the word.

Anonymous said...

Buggered's original meaning meant to have been sodomised. No one can say, "I'm buggered" and it doesn't mean they have been sodomised nor does it conjure up such an image when this expression is used. It simply means that one is tired.

Australian youth are increasingly using the word "cunt" to be a positive, such as calling their friends "sickcunts", meaning their friends are really cool. Variations of this abound, but the original, highly offensive meaning of the word it being replaced with a far less jolting meaning than the original. This is yet no mainstream, but I can see it going that way, with more and more profanities being used on radio in Australia over the years.

Anonymous said...

how would you translate 'it sucks' to chinese please?

Xujun Eberlein said...

Good question. When used to describe a specific object or situation, "it sucks" can be translated as '太糟糕', or another slang with a similar meaning, for example '太臭'. When used in a more general sense, as in "life sucks," it has the connotation of sharing misery, similar to "life is unfair," and in this case it can be translated as "不公平."