Language have always found its way to change through the years. From academic articles to Whatsapp conversations, we alter and create new ways we express our ideas through words, images and videos.
Our languages are evolving as we speak. From the daily news we read to memes on the internet, we can see the emergence of new vocabularies in this era. Since the Anti-extradition protests in 2019, Hongkongers have come up with a range of slangs and phrases to use when talking about the social movement. Likewise, during these difficult times of COVID-19, they have also created many slangs and sayings when they refering to the pandemic.
Here are the top 10 common slangs about COVID-19 you should know in Hong Kong.
1. “Wuhan Pneumonia” (武漢肺炎)
武漢肺炎 [mou5 hon3 fai3 jim4]
Also known as “武肺” [mou5 fai3], the term is equivalent to COVID-19. As the virus was first heard originated from Wuhan, China, Hongkongers often refer coronavirus as “Wuhan Pneumonia”, sometimes even taking the “武” [mou5] out of “武漢” [mou5 hon3] (Wuhan) and the first Chinese character of “肺” [fai3] out of 肺炎 [fai3 jim4] (pneumonia), to make “武肺” [mou5 fai3]. We often see the term in local news media outlets when reporting on news about pandemic.
Abbreviation for Work From Home Forever.
Since the start of the year, the government has announced that employees would work from home, in order to reduce the flow of people and social contact. However, with the third wave of COVID-19 in Hong Kong, many believed that they would have to work from home forever.
3. “Speculation of Masks” (炒罩)
炒罩 [caau2 zaau3]
炒罩 [caau2 zaau3] Back in early January when the COVID-19 situation in Hong Kong has started to get more severe, there was an insufficient supply of surgical masks. Local pharmacies in Hong Kong with limited stock would raise the selling price of these face masks in order to make more money. In Hong Kong, this behaviour was referred to as “炒” [caau2] (speculate), and is often used to say “炒樓” [caau2 lau4], which means speculation in housing market. In this case, we would say “炒罩” [caau2 zaau3] (speculation of masks).
4. Two boxes, thanks (兩盒，thanks)
兩盒 [loeng5 hap6] thanks
Because of the insufficient supply of face masks, people went online to look for suppliers themselves. When they saw a Facebook post selling surgical masks, they would quickly comment “兩盒，thanks” to indicate that they would like two boxes of masks. Ever since these comments, memes and whatsapp stickers of a hamster with a peace sign were widely used among the public. Eventually, people would say “兩盒，thanks” when they ask someone to buy something for them, like souvenirs from another country.
With the same sentence structure, Hongkongers have also started saying “三萬，thanks” [saam1 maan6], meaning thirty thousand, thanks. The number here refers to the number of Hong Kong police, and the phrase is used to curse the entirety of the Hong Kong Police Force to be infected by the coronavirus, to express their dissent.
5. “Underwear Mask” (底褲口罩)
底褲口罩 [dai2 fu3 hau2 zaau3]
After the crazy panic-buying spree for surgical masks, the Hong Kong government has come up with a new reusable mask, named CuMask+™, for Hongkongers. Every Hong Kong citizen is eligible to register and get a CuMask+™ for free, which was designed by the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA). Though it seemed like a sensible replacement for typical surgical masks, some have pointed out that the shape and colour of the CuMask+™ looked like a pair of 底褲 [dai2 fu3] (underwear). Therefore, people have started calling the mask as “Underwear Mask”.
6. “Hotpot family” (邊爐家族)
邊爐家族 [bin1 lou4 gaa1 zuk6]
While Hong Kong was supposed to be practicing social-distancing, some still decided to ignore the risks and planned family gatherings during the Chinese New Year holidays. The “Hotpot family” refers to the family in Hong Kong that ate hotpot with 19 family members during the festival. Out of the 19 people, 11 were diagnosed with COVID-19. Since then, Hongkongers have been referring to this case as “Hotpot family”. We would also say, “I don’t want to be the next ‘Hotpot family’!” sarcastically when referring to what have happened to that family.
7. “Hiking Bank” (行山銀行)
行山銀行 [hang4 saan1 ngan4 hang4]
“Hiking Bank” refers to Hang Seng Bank. Similar to “Hotpot family”, “Hiking Bank” also carries a sarcastic meaning.
When the Hang Seng Bank announced their “Working from Home” arrangements, 6 Hang Seng Bank management trainees, instead of working, decided to go hiking and uploaded a post about it on their social media. After people found out those employees were not working from home, and because the bank’s name 恆生 [hang4 saang1] (Hang Seng) sounds similar to the words 行山 [hang4 saan1] (hiking), they have been calling Hang Seng Bank as “Hiking Bank”.
8. “Believe in the Government” (相信政府)
相信政府 [soeng1 seon3 zing3 fu2]
Also from the earlier months of this year, video footage from a TV interview of a few Guangzhou citizens was widely spread on the Internet. In the interview, a group of Guangzhou citizens were happily dancing on the streets, celebrating Chinese New Year. However, they were not wearing any face masks, and said that they were not worried about pandemic situation because they believed in the government.
Youtube Video interviewing Guangzhou citizens without masks and they said they are not worried about the pandemic because they believe in the government Video/ Cable TV
Many Hongkongers tried to recreate this ridiculous scene, and have made whatsapp stickers and even uploaded photos online to mock the group of Guangzhou citizens.
9. “See words drink water” (見字飲水)
見字飲水 [gin3 zi6 jam2 seoi2]
In times like this, staying heathy is an important matter. Another common saying we see on social media sites is “見字飲水” (see words drink water). Whenever people post on their social media sites, they will use the #見字飲水 to remind people to drink water and stay healthy. A local singer/songwriter, Roy Tsui, even wrote a song named “見字飲水”.
A song named “見字飲水 written by Roy Tsui/ Lam1Hey
Blending of “stay” and “vacation”
Like hangry and chillax, many new words are created by blending old words together. Because of the pandemic situation worldwide, people were not allowed to travel during the summer holidays. To satisfy their travelling needs, they have come up with a new form of travelling: that is to stay in their home town and find a decent hotel to spend the holidays.
So… how do slangs affect a language?
With the rise of these new vocabularies and phrases, a question that comes to mind is whether the slangs created in a language is a good addition or not. Has it made a language worse by causing confusion and offending people? Or is it actually an innovation that can show diversity in a language?
“As a linguist, what we do is descriptive,” said Kwok Hoi Tsz, who is an undergraduate Linguistics student majoring at the City University of Hong Kong. “We shouldn’t say whether language change is absolutely good or bad. It is a neutral thing.”
True, what linguists have been doing for centuries is descriptive, meaning that they didn’t judge whether something is good or bad. But when asked whether these kind of slangs were good or bad for language change in general, Kwok said it was a positive phenomenon. “If I have to pick a side, I personally think this is a good thing,” said Kwok. “These slangs created are evidence of what is happening in the society. So, in a way, they are recording the society’s change as well.”
Similarly, Ki On Lee, a postgraduate student studying MA in English (Applied English Linguistics) at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, also believed that the creation of these kind of slangs were actually a good thing. Ki said, “This (language change) is actually an interesting phenomenon. Just like from ‘Two boxes, thanks!’ to ‘Thirty thousand, thanks!’, this kind of modification is proof that language is creative.”
She explained, in a sociolinguistic point of view, that the slangs created are in fact related to our identity as Hongkongers. “If you do not know any of the slangs, it would seem like you are not a member of the group.” said Ki. “Because of the common language we share, this, substantially, enhances our solidarity, especially in these difficult times.”
(Featured image by Harvey Kong)