A FEW LINGUISTICALLY minded writers have recently engaged in an entertaining back and forth about the range of insults that can be expressed in Chinese.
The conversation began when New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote on Feb. 28 that “American high school students tease nerds, while there is no such concept in the Chinese vocabulary.” This prompted longtime Brooks critic (and occasional Ideas contributor) Tom Scocca to lash out on Gawker against the whole idea of claiming “that a concept is so foreign to this or that culture that people cannot even use their language to describe it.”
Scocca, who wrote the book “Beijing Welcomes You” and knows a thing or two about modern China, went on to explain that indeed there are plenty of ways to say “nerd” in Chinese, including: fáwèi de rén (a dull and tasteless person), diànndomí (someone excessively enthusiastic about computers), and shudaizi (a “pedant” or “bookworm”).
Scocca’s post prompted Victor Mair to reply: not so fast. Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote on Language Log that while there are a number of words in Chinese that circle around nerd, none hit it exactly. Some Chinese words may capture the bookish or intellectual dimensions of the term, but there are none, Mair argued, that simultaneously convey the social ineptitude and square-ness that nerd connotes.
There may be no exact Chinese synonym for nerd, but Mair goes on to show that there are plenty of ways to call out people in Chinese for possessing nerd-like qualities. To appreciate the full spectrum of pejoratives, you’ll have to read Mair’s post, but from Mandarin alone, they include chunrén (dolt), daizi (fool; sucker; idiot; goon; gawk; simpleton; calf; blockhead), chunhuò (stupid goods), and the memorable shagua (muddle-headed melon).
Kevin Hartnett, a freelance writer, lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.