No, I’m not blowing bull

Jade cow from China First Capital blog post

As far as linguistics experts are concerned, there is no direct relationship between English and Chinese. The world’s two most-commonly spoken languages emerged independently, not from some common root in the way, say, Sanskrit is a basis for many of the world’s other European and Asian languages. 

Any examples of common syntax in English and Chinese are rare, and a source of fascination for me.  I always liked, for example, the fact that both English and Chinese have at least one metaphorical saying that is nearly identical, word-for-word, in both languages. In English, we say “speak of the devil” when a person we are talking about unexpectedly arrives. In Chinese, the phrase is “说鬼子鬼子来” and while less common than the English counterpart, it’s meaning and word choice is basically the same. 

As far as anyone knows, neither language borrowed this phrase from the other one. It likely arose independently in both English and Chinese. 

I’ve now found another, even more pleasing example of this parallelism in English and Chinese.  In English, we use the verb “to bullshit” in two different senses. It can mean to chat amiably with a friend, and can also be used to describe someone exaggerating, lying or intentionally deceiving, as in “you are bullshitting me”. 

In China, a similar phrase is used to capture both meanings. It is 吹牛,chuiniu (CH-WAY NEE-YO), or, literally, “blow the bull”. It also has both meanings, of having a friendly chat, and also as an accusation when someone is talking nonsense, or deliberately trying to deceive. So you can say, “let’s get together and qiuniu”, and also say to someone who you believe is trying to con or mislead you, “you are chuiniu-ing me”. 

While I was excited to discover this similarity in syntax, my CFC colleague Ryan arrived at the even more pertinent point. As he put it, “what is about bulls? Why does anyone use this animal to describe these kinds of behaviors.” 

Of course, as anyone who knows even a little Chinese can attest, there is another, more commonly used phrase using “niu”. Note, though, this same Chinese word, “niu”, is used for both bulls and cows. 

This other phrase is 牛逼 “niubi”, which is the word for cow genitalia. In Chinese, “niubi” is commonly used to describe something as being truly outstanding, of the highest quality, as in “that movie we saw is niubi.”

I can’t hear that phase “niubi” without laughing, and without wondering how this particular body part of this particular animal has become a form of high praise and approbation. 

And no, I’m not “chuiniu-ing” you.