April 30, 2007

nigger, nigger…(nei ge, nei ge…)

Filed under: China,language — Kim @ 6:02 am

It’s a rum old world where the Mandarin (world’s most spoken mother tongue) for “umm” “ah” “hmm” “well” “erm” “er” happens to sound exactly like what is perhaps the worst insult in English (world’s most spoken language) for a big and understandably touchy community.

The Pinyin is “nei ge” but when spoken it sounds exactly like “nigger”.

In some (prissy/politically correct) circles “nigger” is simply referred to as “the N-word.” In some circles it’s used as a greeting/term of endearment. In any case, it’s not a word I would ever use lightly – I mean in banter – because it just has too much baggage, and because I’m a Sussex countryside boy who’s lived in Hungary and Asia and so hasn’t really got any black friends, perhaps.

I was reminded of the whole issue this during my debate classes last week. My students, who are good at English and by and large did a great job of debating difficult topics, would often fill in their nervous pauses with “nigger,nigger’ or sometimes just “nigger’. I told them it sounded weird and tried to discourage them from saying it when speaking English.

When I first heard this Putonghua “vocal filler”, I really couldn’t believe it. First off, it’s two syllables for Christ’s sake. To my mind, fillers should be an economical one syllable: Hungarian “Haht”, French “hein”, “ben”, “Errrrrrr” (shrug shoulders), German “doch”. Though there are doubtless some languages where the main vocal filler is five syllables or something. Anyone know? But also it’s just such an unfortunate coincidence that one of the most common words in Mandarin should cause a cringe for most anglophone listeners.

My Chinese wife knows this and tries her best not to use “nei ge” when speaking Mandarin in England. On one occasion in a “Chinese circle” in Brighton she got quite uncomfortable when a white British girl kept on using it. “Doesn’t she know she shouldn’t say that in England?” she asked me later. Too sensitive? Perhaps, and I told her I thought so, but at least she’s trying not to offend people.

And I can’t help wondering whether it has as yet caused offense in America. Some Chinese yakking away near a group of black people who keep on overhearing the word “nigger” and decide to do something about it? Total incomprehension and indignation on the part of the Chinese; conflict ensues…perhaps. A silly scenario, but that, or something similar, does not seem so implausible to me.

And “the N-word” can cause real trouble, even when embedded in another word! One notorious example is when “David Howard, a white city official in Washington, D.C., resigned from his job in January 1999, when he used niggardly in a fiscal sense while talking with black colleagues, who took offense at his use of the word.” (Wiki)

It’s still a loaded word then, and I hope the Putonghua filler doesn’t cause trouble. I also hope that if any disputes do occur over this, the parties concerned will later check out this post and see that no offense was meant.

Hah! And I also hope to be made President of North Korea when Kim Jong-il pops his platform clogs.


As a loosely connected postscript, here’s a Jackie Chan anecdote from


Everybody I know shares the same favorite moment from the movie Rush Hour starring Chris Tucker (who’s as black as the ace of spades) and Jackie Chan (a slanty-eyed type). Tucker’s character has entered a bar and is passing out some friendly greets to his brothers, slapping palms and using the phrase “whaassup, mah nigger?” Later in the scene, Jackie’s character—who is fresh off the plane from Hong Kong and new to this American jive—attempts to perform a common maneuver practiced by mankind for millennia: imitate someone else’s culture to fit in better. He flashes a silly grin at the bartender, says “what’s up, my nigger?”, and almost gets a barstool broken across his teeth.


  1. It simply washes over me these days now I can speak Chinese but this does take me back to my early days in Hangzhou when I was cringing over our ABC intern helping us order in Starbucks by yelling (what sounded like) “Eager nigger, eager nigger” whilst pointing at the refrigerator.

    She did concede that doing so in Starbucks in her native Los Angeles might be a bit of an issue…

    Comment by Ambling Sheep — May 17, 2007 @ 5:32 am

  2. british people are fucking brilliant.

    Comment by dylan — May 18, 2007 @ 10:00 am

  3. I think there’s a 5 syllable crutch word in Malay predominantly used in the K.L. area which is “Apa nama dia?” (meaning: What’s it’s name?)

    Comment by Allan — May 19, 2007 @ 2:22 pm

  4. “When I first heard this Putonghua “vocal filler”, I really couldn’t believe it. First off, it’s two syllables for Christ’s sake. To my mind, fillers should be an economical one syllable.”

    I want to clarify something. Nei ge doesn’t mean “umm”. First of all “umm” isn’t a word, it’s a subconcious noise, so why would we have a word for it? Chinese people say “errr, ahh, etc.” as vocal filler in conversation too. “Nei ge” is an actual word, which literally translated means “that one” (nei = that, ge = singular expression). In conversation, it would be used in the same situations “that” is used in english. Example: Wo yao nei ge pin guo = I want THAT apple. However it is used as vocal filler because it’s a commonly used word that can be inserted for stalling purposes while thinking of what to say next. The concept is the same as people saying “like” a lot in sentences. Don’t believe everything you hear from word of mouth, and if your wife told you this, tell her to give second thoughts and she will realize “nei ge” is actually a legitimate word.

    Comment by A Chinese-Canadian — June 3, 2007 @ 10:19 pm

  5. Thanks Chinese Canadian…can I call you CC?

    I know that nei ge has the “that” meaning (my Chinese is not THAT bad you know!), but my gut instinct is that the usage of nei ge as “that” is small compared to the amount of times it’s used as a filler.

    I’ve been in China a while now and I can’t say I’ve heard much umming and erring and ahing for fillers, or stalling if you want. It’s mostly nei ge nei ge, but you might not know this if you hang out with mostly Chinese Canadians…have you been back to China recently? (Apols if you live here!)

    Nei ge is not quite as ubiquitous though as the american filler “like”. It’s like, I’ve heard, like, people use “like” like 5 times in a sentence. And I’m all like, that’s, like, too much. Wo bu like it.

    Um, and I think you’ll find “um” in most dictionaries codified as a word to represent a sound for hesitation. You can use it in scrabble too you know so it must count!

    Comment by Kim — June 4, 2007 @ 2:59 am

  6. I guess it’s like how some people use, “you know” a lot. That’s two syllables as well.

    Yao Ming mentions the delicate nature of using “nei ge” around the locker room when he first joined the NBA in his book. And I can understand how it might be uncomfortable for his teammates at first. Imagine if you’re a black teammate, and your Chinese teammate is talking to his interpreter in Chinese and you don’t understand a word of it, except that you keep hearing, “nei ge…nei ge…” In the back of your mind I’m sure you would be thinking, “Is he talking about me?”

    Comment by Fred — June 7, 2007 @ 8:49 pm

  7. This topic is hilarious! I realized that my chinese co-worker, who sits directly opposite me, kept saying this term whenever she was on the phone. I am from New Jersey, USA. I didn’t know what it meant, until I heard about a comedian talking about this word in his stand-up routine. Well, he explained exactly what nei-ge means, and I still raise my eyebrows when i hear her saying it. Should i tell her that she should be careful of saying that? as we have african-american co-workers in my office, and like previously mentioned it could be misunderstood.

    peace out my… …nei ge… …friends.

    Comment by HE from NJ — March 31, 2008 @ 9:07 pm

  8. Wait a minute! This is from Russell Peter’s “outsourced” right? One of the most hilarious Canadian Indians I have ever seen. Must be on Youtube somewhere or maybe gone because of copyright infringments.

    Anyway lovely piece but you should refer to Russell unles he maybe got his inspiration here?

    Comment by Ciaran — February 23, 2009 @ 10:26 am

  9. Hi Ciaran

    Thanks for the link to Russell Peter. I just spent a happy couple of hours watching his stuff on Youtube. Well, it’s not such a big coincidence that we (Russell and I) both noticed the same thing. I can assure you I’d never heard of Russell before your comment.

    Comment by Kim — February 23, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

  10. He is a hell of a funny dude. I really thought that you picked it up from his show. His version with the Nigerian women at the KFC is pretty hilarious.

    Anyway good to see he has another fan.


    Comment by Ciaran — February 24, 2009 @ 12:07 am

  11. Hi there. I could use some good advice about teaching English in China and Kim Wilcox seems like a very important person to me.

    I am a convicted pedophile and registered sex offender and have decided to teach English in China as a last resort since the stupid chinks don’t do a criminal background or credential check. Okay.

    First question. I’ve read on other sites that it helps if you are alcoholic. I want to know if that’s true. I had a smack habit in the joint but I kicked it before getting out. I don’t care for hard liquor but I enjoy beer. Can you become an alcoholic on beer alone? Second question. Where is the best place to find jobs teaching kids, especially little boys?

    Thank you for this amazing website. It’s fantastic that a man as important as Kim Wilcox can find the time to keep it going. I guess the personal satisfaction in helping other foreign losers like himself find refuge in the only place in the world that is decrepit enough to accept other countries’ foreign garbage is thanks enough. Still, thank you Kim Wilcox for giving the world’s refuse their very own place to come and express themselves.

    You are a hell of a guy and an inspiration to all the lowly foreign losers in the world.

    Comment by Ralph — April 23, 2012 @ 7:31 pm

  12. You told your Chinese wife not to say that word in Chinese? Lol that’s not English at all, but it sounds it that way. If you go to china, you’ll hear thousand of time of ne-gaaaaa.

    Comment by Yukkk — April 11, 2014 @ 6:10 am

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