I Should Check a Dictionary Before Using Words…

In The Art of Travel Fall 2017, 2. Communicating, Shanghai by Yuka Niwa1 Comment

Between my mother speaking Chinese to me while growing up and me figuring out the meanings of words through the context in which they are used when my native Chinese friends spoke, I thought that at the very least the words that I thought I “knew”, meant the things I thought they did.

After coming to Shanghai and having been living here for a few weeks now at the time I am writing this post, I have realized two things in terms of communication. Especially if it is a language that you have some background in. First of all, looking up words (in my case, slang) in a dictionary is important if you aren’t a hundred percent sure what they mean. In China a lot of young students and people use the word “傻逼” (sha-bi) when describing people or things. I thought that even though the word had a negative connotation since I knew the word “傻” meant “idiot” that it was not bad enough  since the people whom I witnessed using the words with each other were pretty good friends and neither party seemed too upset. I correlated it with a word that people in Taiwan use commonly “傻瓜” (sha-gua) which starts with the same word and means “silly”. In this case, I just thought that “sha-bi” was just another word for ‘idiot’ but fine to use express slight annoyance or when joking with someone. Naturally, I added it to my vocabulary, proud that my usage of words was becoming more “native” in comparison to before. However, it turns out that “sha-bi” has a much more negative connotation than I originally guessed.

Just recently one of my good friend’s family came to Shanghai to visit. When we went out to dinner that night the word “sha-bi” slipped out when I was describing the driver of a car ran that ran through a red light when I was crossing the street. From the the moment I used “sha-bi” in front of my friend’s parents, I knew that something was wrong by the look on their faces. Embarrassed yet not sure what exactly I had done, I excused myself to the restroom to look up the word “sha-bi” on Baidu (China’s version of Google) to discover that it had the same connotation as words that could get you suspended in high-school. Although both my friend and his parents were surprised that after all this time I didn’t really have a clue as to what the word meant they ended up finding it pretty funny by the end of dinner. From now on, no matter how much I “think” I understand the language, I will definitely double check before using it so casually.

On another note, my second realization so far is the degree to which a person’s language influences a person’s way of thinking and how language can reveal an aspect of a society. In Chinese, there are a lot of of idioms that become a lot more interesting if you look into where they came from and what characters are used. For example in Chinese class we recently went over the idiom “一身是胆” (yi shen shi dan) which literally translates to “A body made of spleen”. In the Chinese history and culture the spleen or “guts” represented your courage. Therefore, in the case of this idiom it basically means that you are fear less or incredibly “gutsy” because your whole body is made of “spleens”. This is one example of many, but it is one that I found funny and easy to understand in terms of how language can reveal a person’s thinking and culture.


  1. Hey Yuka! I totally relate, I grew up understanding some things just from context. You bring up so many interesting points in this post, particularly about the kind of expressions that don’t exist cross-language, and ideas that can only be made cross-cultural through explanation. I find that saying, that you should not use words without knowing what they mean, slightly false. In the end, meaning is at least a bit situational, determined by those around. You may have had a sense of the word, perhaps not it’s common understanding, but your own meaning drawn from the environment. I think that counts for something, and it’s really cool you observed like that.

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