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  • A Dictionary of Cantonese Slang: The Language of Hong Kong Movies, Street Gangs and City Life
  • Hugh D. R. Baker (bio)
Christopher Hutton and Kingsley Bolton. A Dictionary of Cantonese Slang: The Language of Hong Kong Movies, Street Gangs and City Life. London: C. Hurst & Co., 2005. xxiv, 492 pp. Hardcover £45.00, ISBN 1-85065-419-0. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2005. xxiv, 492 pp. Paperback $28.00, ISBN 0-8248-1595-5.

Hong Kong Cantonese is a language that invents, savors, and discards slang at an ever increasing rate, especially under the insatiable demands of television, cinema, and comic books.

Yet a stabilizing influence is at work. Almost alone and certainly preeminent among the regional dialects/languages of Chinese, Cantonese has its own quite widely current system of writing. Thus slang can be captured for posterity and perhaps it could be given sufficient exposure that it could transcend its ephemerality. The problem lies in the nature of the writings that make use of Cantonese: almost all are themselves ephemera: cartoon speech bubbles, advertisement copy, human interest stories in newspapers, radio scripts, pornography. The main exception is the Bible, but that eschews slang in the interests of solemnity.

While standard written Chinese may be to some extent constrained by the need to be intelligible to all levels of Chinese society throughout the Chinese world, written Cantonese enjoys the luxury of being aimed at limited audiences, being mostly confined to materials that try to represent the lively, uninhibited speech of “the man on the Shaukeiwan tram,” but the vehicles for its writing do not assist greatly in preserving its unique flavors and ingenious quirkiness for later generations to enjoy or puzzle over.

This dictionary attempts to rectify the situation, and the compilers have amassed a significant body of material. Their prime sources are comic books, magazines, a few popular newspapers, and films, but use has also been made of police collections of secret society jargon, and here and there can be found reference to slang in use among taxi drivers, lorry drivers, and other trade groups. Inevitably, there is a heavy emphasis on obscenity and swearing, and, with a few exceptions, the translations offered are uncompromisingly appropriate.

Entries are arranged in alphabetical order using the Yale Romanization system, which is currently as close to being a standard system as any. Users need to be alert to the correct but counterintuitive displacement of low pitch words caused by the insertion of low-pitch indicator -h-, so that bahn is separated from other ban-pronounced words by four other entries and sahp is seven pages from sāp. A stroke-count character index at the back refers to the appropriate Romanization: like the main entries, it is only helpful in locating the first character of an entry. [End Page 114]

The layout could have been better thought out, a confusing flaw being the lack of indentation when an entry runs on for more than one line: where this puts Romanization in bold type at the beginning of a line it is indistinguishable from a new Romanized entry (there are two examples, chāa mūi and chaan mūi, among the aa entries on page one). From page 272 all the way to page 342, the typesetter has completely forgotten to use bold typeface for Romanization, making it hard to distinguish headwords from text. The use of the compilers’ own conventions is not totally consistent; < , > and / all apparently indicate derivation from English, though the summary of symbols on page xxiv gives only >. Also somewhat wayward is the desultory use of → to indicate hit hauh yúh 歇後語, “tail-less puns”. There are not a few editorial slips, from “to full up” on page 14 (a simple typo? or careless editing of input from research assistants?) to the headword “fēi 非 [negative]” when the only entry under the word is the (not marked with →) tail-less pun fēi jāu wòh séung 非洲和尚 in which fēi is used phonetically and without negative value. It is a strength that the majority of entries carry source references, but there is no clear explanation given for why some do not...


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