Weird regional usages of English

Published: Wednesday, 20 April 2016. Last updated 19 Jun 2017.

A collection of unique regional usages of the English language in non-English-speaking places.

Always under construction, always deconstructed, always hilarious.

In alphabetical order by language speakers and the words or phrases:—

  • Chinese speakers
  • French speakers
  • Indian speakers
  • Italian speakers
  • Japanese speakers
  • Spanish speakers


red blue pencils 5 rings


THE biggest problem is twofold for English learners and users in China. First, there is a widespread and deep absence of English-language use at all levels of society there, and this makes it very hard for people to get to realistic grips with English. Second, modal and phrasal verbs just don’t have a counterpart in the Chinese language.


Linguists and language teachers employ error analysis to fathom the four main characteristic features of Chinglish mistranslations (Liu et al. 2004: 18–20):—

  • Cultural meanings — The English idiom “work like a horse” means ‘work hard,’ but in China horses are rarely used as draft animals so the equivalent Chinese expression uses niú 牛 (‘cattle’).
  • Problems of direct translation — Some Chinglish menus translate dòufu 豆腐 as “bean curd” (which sounds unappetizing to English speakers) instead of the more familiar tofu.
  • Wordiness — Unnecessary words and convoluted sentences are hallmarks of Chinglish translation. The Civil Aviation Administration of China once announced “CAAC has decided to start the business of advance booking and ticketing.” That could simply say “CAAC now accepts advance booking and ticketing.”
  • Wrong word order — A host in Shenyang toasted a group of foreign investors with “Up your bottoms!” instead of “Bottoms up!” (Liu et al. 2004: 23).

Chinglish reflects the influence of Chinese syntax and grammar (Li 1993). Chinese verbs aren’t necessarily conjugated and there’s no equivalent article for English “the,” both of which can create awkward translations.

Common causes of mistranslations include:—

  • Lack of inclusion of native speakers of English in the translation or editing process
  • Dictionary translation:— translating Chinese to English word for word
  • Use of machine translation or word-for-word translation from a dictionary with no post-editing (Simon-Kennedy 2012)
  • Competently translated text that has been subsequently edited by non-native speakers
  • Linguistic differences and mother-tongue interference (Mair n.d., Li 2006)
  • Different thinking patterns and culture (Wang n.d.)
  • Outdated Chinese–English dictionaries and textbook-style English [1]
  • Mediocre English-language teaching and lack of English-language environment (Wang n.d.).


Vocabularywise, modal verbs are a headache for Chinese learners. English commonly expresses nuances (shades of meaning) with modal verbs. For instance, there is increasingly politeness in the instructions below:—

Open the window, please.
Could you open the window, please?
Would you mind opening the window, please?

Chinese modals don’t convey such a wide range of meanings and nuances. Chinese learners end up failing to use English models properly or sufficiently, and this results in them coming across as peremptory (abrupt, brusque, high-handed, overweening, arrogant) when making requests or suggestions and the like.

Another problem is the phrasal verb — English uses a number of short verbs that very commonly combine with particles (adverbs or prepositions), e.g. take on, give in, make do with, look up to. This kind of lexical feature is non-existent in Chinese, so Chinese learners often experience serious difficulty in comprehending texts containing phrasal verbs and avoid using them themselves.


Increasing globalisation means the Chinese language will absorb more foreign loanwords. Two chief ways of rendering the loanword into Chinese:—

Direction translation of the concept is the most usual way of naturalising the foreign word. This creates a new compound phrase to denote the concept — computer as diannao 電腦 | 电脑 (literally ‘electric brain’), telephone as dianhua 電話 | 电话 (‘electric speech’), and television as diànshì 電視 | 电视 (‘electric vision’). This is unproblematic for physical objects, but runs into brick walls for abstract concepts such as due diligence, promissory estoppel and the like.

Transliteration is the only alternative, but this is problematic in Chinese on linguistic and cultural issues. The linguistic issue is that the same character can be pronounced differently in different dialects. So there could be several different transliterations (and translations) of the same foreign word. The cultural issue is that Chinese characters represent meaning, not sound. The transliteration won’t have sensible Chinese meaning (or, more dangerously, a completely opposite meaning to the original foreign word). This requires the Chinese reader to ignore or suspend the underlying meaning of the Chinese character, and this isn’t easy to achieve. Only some places in China have a fairly long history of using foreign loanwords (e.g. Hong Kong) so only people in those places are culturally conditioned to realise something nonsensical in Chinese should be read as a transliteration. See English Loan Words in the Chinese Language.


In Hong Kong, where residents freely insert English words into their Cantonese dialect, they tend to have more transliterated English words than other Chinese speakers. However, since 1997, critics have noticed the government itself is neglecting the official use of English (therefore contravening the law) by favouring the Chinese language in public and media communication.

More importantly, there is a huge amount of L1 to L2 (Cantonese to English) negative language transfers in Hong Kong English (or ‘Honglish’), such as the proverbial oddball misuse of outlook for 外貌 ngoi miao (‘outward appearance), body check (for medical checkup), and open/close (for switch on/off). For details of the negative transfer patterns, see Kevin Tang’s  “Honglish, not Chinglish” (Smacademia, 24 Apr 2010).


CHINA, TAIWAN — BBS means an Internet forum or message board, as opposed to an actual bulletin board system of the 1970s to the early 1990s.

be careful — look out vs. watch out

Many transpose one for the other. In Chinese, xiǎo-xīn 小心 (literally, little heart) is look out (be careful of), and dāng-xīn 當心 | 当心 (literally, heed/regard heart) is watch out [for] (to be mindful of).

body check

HONG KONG — Perversely body check gets repurposed to mean a medical checkup (medical examination). In regular English phraseology, a body check in fact is a frontal or flanking contact blow from a fighting or sparring opponent. Literal mistranslation from the Chinese 驗身 (literally, 驗 yim: check + 身 sun: body).

can you speak vs. do you speak

Lots of Chinese speakers get into frightful social situations because of their inability to distinguish the senses conveyed by do vs. can.

  1. Do you speak English? (你會說英文嗎?)
  2. Can you speak English? (你能夠/可以說英文嗎?)

Question 1 is asking if the person knows English (你會說英文嗎?). But Question 2 is asking whether or not the person has the ability to speak English. They’re two different questions.

Can you speak…? is only suited to a dialogue between people who are familiar with each other, such as “Hey, Jimbo, can you speak German?” “Yeah, I know it.”

The can can sometimes be used in a rhetorical question (or an insult disguised as a rhetorical question).


HONG KONG, MACAU — A chop is a seal or stamp (a rubberstamp). A “company chop” is the seal or stamp of a company. Originally a colonial Indian English term, now used in some other Commonwealth countries as a non-official term.

common sense vs. general knowledge

This is a big source of misunderstanding between Chinese and English speakers. To the English speaker, common sense and general knowledge are two completely separate concepts. However, the distinction between the two is often lost on the average Chinese person because unfortunately both are denoted by chángshí 常識 | 常识 (‘common knowledge’).

General knowledge in Chinese is usually the individual’s zhī-shì miàn 知識面 | 知识面, whereas common sense is merely judging matters in a pragmatic way. That means English common sense focuses on one’s good sense and sound judgment but not a focus on knowledge as it does in Chinese. Indeed, common sense as a phrase and a concept is near impossible to translate according to its English-language meaning.

Having said that, something like 法律常識 (fǎlǜ chángshì) would always be translated as “general legal knowledge” or “general knowledge about law” rather than “legal common sense.”


TAIWAN — Similar to Japanese speakers, Taiwanese people frequently use cost-down to mean cost reduction or cost cuts (for 降低成本 jiàngdī chéngběn: to lower the costs) and for cost savings (節省成本 jiéshěng chéngběn: to be thrifty in costs). See also entry under JAPANESE SPEAKERS(via RM, week 14, 2016)

cut down cost

CHINA — Mainland Chinese have a tendency to use cut down cost as a compound noun rather than a verbal phrase for cost reduction, cost savings or cost cuts.


CHINA — Means a flyer, brochure or generally junk mail. From “direct mail.”

from vs. coming from

The difference in from vs. coming from presents a special difficulty for the Chinese. Since most of them have problems handling verb phrases generally, many end up using the from construction for nearly every situation. Many don’t realise that simply thinking in the ‘opposite’ direction can easily solve if something more is needed to go with the ‘from.’

Here’s a typical scenario:— Angie waits at the airport to pick up Betty, who is arriving from Chicago. A long time goes by. Angie starts asking arriving passengers “Are you from Chicago?” She gets “No” from practically everyone, even on flights from Chicago. After a long time, Angie realises she’s been asking the wrong question.

A Chinese question like 你是從芝加哥來的? (nǐ shì cóng zhījiāgē lái de?) in English could be either “Are you from Chicago?” or “Are you coming from Chicago?” Chinese is much more context-driven than English. English is also context-driven but not nearly as high as Chinese, so Are you from Chicago? is asking if the person is a Chicago native (a Chicagoan) whereas Are you coming from Chicago? is asking whether the person is travelling (en route) from the city of Chicago.

Angie was asking people if they were Chicagoans. If she only thought in reverse — Are you going to Chicago? — then the opposite has to be coming from.

If you’re from Beijing, you are a Beijinger. If you’re coming from Beijing, you could be an Englishman who is just travelling from Beijing.


HONG KONG, MACAU — A godown is a warehouse. It’s pronounced “go down” with a flat, falling ‘down.’ From the Malay gudang (per Cassell Giant Paperback Dictionary, 1994). One of the worst and unfathomable additions to the English language in our opinion. (via RL, ca. 1975)


CHINA, TAIWAN — A karaoke establishment with private rooms. Called karaoke box in Japan.

latest vs. newest

HONG KONG — Newest remains normal as something most recent (which is also latest in regular English). Perversely, latest as a Hongkongism is wrongly used for oldest(via RM, 15 Apr 2016)


SOUTHERN CHINA — Now naturalised into the English language, look-see means a brief examination, a peek or glance (I’ll just have/take a look-see at the problem and come right back, then we can go to lunch). Attested by the Oxford English Dictionary as from Chinese Pidgin English from the 19th century. (via EBC, ca. 1976)


CHINA — MIT means “Made in Taiwan,” not the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

no money, no talk

HONG KONG, GUANGDONG — A famous Chinese Pidgin English phrase is “No money, no talk” from the colloquial Cantonese phrase 冇錢冇得傾 moh tseen moh duk king (‘no money no chance talk’), which simply means “If you don’t have the cash, don’t try to bargain with me” — or the American phrase “Show me the money, and then we’ll talk.” (via LMT, ca. 1971–72)


HONG KONG — A nullah is a concrete water conduit. However, it’s often laboriously described as a concrete-lined/-reinforced canal or creekbed used for containing rainwater or similar runoffs — exactly what a water conduit is! Entered the English language from Hindi during British colonial times, and one of the worst additions in our opinion. The word is used almost exclusively in Hong Kong.

on/off, open/close

HONG KONG — Surrealistically, practically any appliance or equipment isn’t switched on/off (or turned on/off, shut off, etc) — instead only open or close. Anyone in any other country (including China) will turn on/off taps, switch on/off TVs, turn on/out the lights, turn up/down the volume, and open/close cupboard doors. In Hong Kong, it’s just “on/off” or “open/close.” This is because in Cantonese the same character hoi 開 (open’) represents both open and turn on, and the same character kwan 關 (‘close’) for both close and turn off. There is a huge amount of L1 to L2 (Cantonese to English) negative language transfers like that in Hong Kong English (or ‘Honglish’).

or not?

Indeed, the “or not?” question construction isn’t limited to Chinese speakers. It’s all too common in questions from practically everybody in Asia-Pacific — Do you want this or not? This is fine from an Asian or Far Eastern language viewpoint (because this format is usual in many Asian languages). Unfortunately in English (and to the English speaker’s ear), this is incredibly offensive and the source of many arguments, lost sales and even fights. The only solution is to remain in the world of regular English phraseology — Would you like this or perhaps something else? or some other modal construction. (via RL, 20 Jan 1986)


In regular English, outlook is a person’s point of view or general attitude to life. Because of that, the word often means the prospect for the future. Less usually, it can mean a view or a vantage point.

  • Broaden your outlook on life. (General attitude to life)
  • The two men were wholly different in outlook. (Viewpoints, attitudes)
  • The deteriorating economic outlook. (Future prospect)
  • A pleasant outlook from the lodge window. (View or vantage point)

Perversely from many Chinese people, outlook can end up with various Chinese meanings for outward appearances — 外貌 wàimào | ngoi miao (appearance), 外觀 wàiguān | ngoi kwun (exterior), 外面 wàimiàn | ngoi mien (outside), 外表 wàibiǎo | ngoi biu (external), etc. This is an artefact from the Chinese habit of combining the meanings for the independent words “out” and “look” (out as 外 ngoi: external and look as 貌 maio: appearance). Even Google Translate still gives this rubbish.

The proper translations for the word outlook are 前景 qiánjǐng | tseen ging, or 遠景 yuǎnjǐng | yuen ging, and 前途 qiántú | tsin toh.

per each

HONG KONG — This is a really irritating habit of Honglish especially in the retail context. Per each is just bad motherfathering misusage for each (which is the same as a piece, a unitper unit, per piece, etc). Either use each, or use per something(via RL, 01 Jan 1986)

remind vs. warn

This is a source of dangerous misunderstanding between Chinese and English speakers. The Chinese mix up remind and warn because both are tí-xǐng 提醒. So something like 讓我給你提個醒 could mean either “Let me remind you that…” or “Let me warn you that…” depending on the context or intonation. However, when a policeman is giving a warning, it is always jǐng-gào 警告 (warning). We highly recommend Chinese speakers use remind for the reminding sense of tí-xǐng 提醒 and warn for jǐng-gào 警告 to avoid problems.


The Chinese overuse the formal word seldom in informal English — often to mean rarely or hardly ever that are the regular English phraseology. It’s often used in ignorance of its true meaning (which is not usually, rarely or hardly ever because of dislike).


HONG KONG — Originally colonial Indian English. A cashier (in the sense of a cashier’s desk or counter) in a hospital, government office or a car park.


HONG KONG — It means subsidy. See entry in Indian Speakers. A direct import from India during Victorian times. In Hong Kong, used in the context of education.


CHINA — Doesn’t mean venture capital. It only means Vitamin C.


Plenty of Corks 001


  • la box — Internet access device. Follows the trend of brandnaming that started with Free Telecom’s “Freebox” and then imitated by others (Livebox, Neufbox, etc).
  • le brushing — This means blow dry.
  • le building — A skyscraper. Le bâtiment is the normal French word for building.
  • le caddie — A shopping trolley. Word derived from a brand name.
  • le dressing — A dressing room.
  • fashion — Used as an adjective rather than a noun.
  • le foot — Football, but Association football is le soccer.
  • de grand standing — High class (of property) or luxury (of a flat or apartment).
  • le night shop — (Belgium) A grocery shop that opens till late hours.
  • le paper board — This means a flip chart. Paperboard itself in French is le carton.
  • les people (alt. pipeuls, pipoles to reflect the pronunciation /pi.pœl/ or /pi.pɔl/) — Celebrities. Also used as adjective (“Il est très people”). Derived from the U.S. celebrity magazine People.
  • le pressing — Drycleaning shop.
  • le recordman, la recordwoman — This means a record holder in sports.
  • le relooking — Means makeover (also relooker: give a makeover to)
  • le smoking — Dinner jacket (the tuxedo jacket). Smoking itself in French is fumeur.
  • le speaker, la speakerine — announcer, news anchor
  • le(s) warning(s) — Car hazard lights.
  • zapping — (TV) channel-surfing, channel-hopping
  • zoning — (Belgium) An industrial estate.


prepay in advance



In regular English, revert means to return to a previous state or position (i.e. going back to the default). In the Indian regions, it means to reply, and this is highly confusing for all English speakers elsewhere. So we get dangerously hilarious stuff from the Indian subcontinent like “We be pleased if you revert us as soon as possible.” — when it should’ve been “We shall be most grateful if you reply as soon as possible.”


This unlovely, pretentious Victorian-era word subvention merely means subsidy. Its traditional use in Britain was mostly in the context of religious or church groups subsidising certain schools. So basically the word was used as a separation between church subsidies (subvention) and any other kind of commercial or state subsidy (subsidy). In India, the word gets used all over the place — even in the most unreligious of things, such as “central bank interest-rate subvention.”




  • l’autogrill (m) (It. /autoˈɡril/) — motorway snack bar (any brand, not just the Autogrill chain)
  • baby killer, babykiller — juvenile murderer
  • il bar — café (the English “bar” is called “pub” in Italy)
  • la beauty-case or beauty — vanity bag
  • Block-Notes or Bloc-notes — notebook (il taccuino, il quaderno)
  • body rental — temporary staffing firm
  • la box doccia — shower cubicle (la doccia)
  • il cargo — cargo-boat (or cargo aircraft)
  • il cotton fioc — cotton swab [il bastoncino cotonato]
  • lo Charleston — Hi-hat (musical instrument)
  • il custom — custom motorcycle (il custom motociclistico) but very often used to indicate cruisers instead
  • il discount — hard-discount supermarket or store (il negozio di sconto)
  • la fiction [la fiction televisiva] — TV miniseries
  • la golf (diminutive: golfino) — sweater/jumper (la maglia, maglione)
  • la hostess — female flight attendant, stewardess (l’assistente di volo)
  • job on call — il contratto di lavoro intermittente: sort of casual employment, whose intermittent working times are based from day to day on the needs of the employer (cf. Zero hours contract in the UK, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand)
  • la luna park — amusement park (from name of an amusement park in New York)
  • il mister — football coach
  • Montgomery — duffle coat
  • il night — nightclub
  • la plum cake — loaf cake
  • pungiball — punching bag
  • il sexy shop — sex shop
  • social — social network (using the English adjective as a noun)
  • spot — TV advert
  • il stage (It. /staʒ/ from Fr. stage ‘internship’ but also /steidʒ/ via mistaken connection to the English stage) — internship (il tirocinio)
  • talent — talent show (using the English adjecive as a noun)
  • Telefilm — filmed TV series
  • il ticket [il ticket sanitario] — cost associated to a service provided by the Italian national healthcare system
  • il tight or il tait morning suit
  • il trolley (It. /ˈtrɔllei/) — trolley case
  • Tutor or Safety tutor — SPECS (speed camera) (Il SICVE: Sistema informativo per il controllo della velocità)
  • videobar — a coffeehouse (café) or bar focused on entertainment based on music videos
  • il water (It. /ˈvater/) [il vaso sanitario] — shortened form for water closet
  • writer — graffiti writer
  • zapping (It. /ˈdzappiŋɡ/) — (TV) channel-surfing, channel-hopping

(Sources: Wikipedia | Vocabolario Treccani on line, Istituto dell’Enciclopedia italiana)


pink motorbike



Cost-down just means cost reduction or cost cuts. From Japanese kosutodaun コストダウン (cost reduction) and hiyō sakugen 費用削減 (cost savings). Similarly, Taiwan also uses cost-down for cost reduction (q.v. Chinese speakers). Interestingly, cost increase isn’t “cost-up.” So we get strange sentences from the Japanese (and the Taiwanese) like “Our company wants to cost down” or “How to cost down?” — they’re just saying “Our company wants to reduce costs” and “How do you reduce cost?”


A pseudo-anglicism that actually means cheating (infidelity) in personal relationships in Japanese (kan’ningu カンニング) and Korean (keoning 커닝).

karaoke box

karaoke establishment with private rooms. Called KTV (q.v.) in China and Taiwan.

sharp pencil

The mechanical pencil in both Japanese (シャープペンシル shāpupenshiru) and Korean (샤프펜슬 syapeupenseul). Known in old days as the clutch pencil.

Wasei-eigo (‘Japan-made English’)

See the Wikipedia articles Wasei-eigo (和製英語) and Pseudo-anglicisms.

See also the Wikipedia article on Gairaigo (外来語 ‘loanword’).

See also the Wikipedia list of Japanese Latin alphabetic abbreviations.

See Wikipedia’s list of gairaigo and wasei-eigo terms.

See Wikipedia’s list of wasei-eigo.

  • Love hotel (ラブホテル rabuhoteru) — a type of short-stay hotel
  • OL or Office Lady (オフィスレディー ofisuredī) — A female office worker
  • Lolicon (ロリコン rorikon) — pedophile (adj), portmanteau of ‘lolita’ and ‘complex’
  • Mansion (マンション manshon) — a condominium apartment
  • New-half (ニューハーフ nyuuhaafu) — a transgender or transsexual woman
  • Salaryman (サラリーマン sarariiman) —a white-collar employee (salaried worker)
  • Style (スタイル sutairu) — a woman’s figure (particularly if slim or skinny)

(Source: Wikipedia)




lady vs. ma’am

Spanish speakers will probably never see the difference between ma’am and lady. This is because señora is the same word for 3 uses (form of address, the title, and singular lady). By contrast, English uses different words — the form of address is ma’am (short for madam), but lady refers to a woman, and the titles are only Mrs, Miss and Ms. In fact, in English it’s rude to address a woman as “lady” —

  • More coffee, lady? (Use ma’am)
  • Will there be anything else, lady? (Use ma’am)


[1] (Author unnamed). (Undated). On objective causes of Chinglish and strategies of error avoidance. (No publication data).

LI, Guangxia [李光霞]. (2006). 中式英语与中介语理论 [Chinglish and interlanguage theory]. 河南机电高等专科学校学报 [Journal of the Henan Mechanical and Electrical Specialist College], 2006(1), 3.

LI, Wenzhong. (1993). China English and ChinglishForeign Language Teaching and Research Journal, vol. 4.

[LIU et al. 2004]. LIU Huimei, Frank FEATHER & WEI Qian. (2004). Lost in Translation: Millions of Tourists to China are Confused by a Myriad of “Chinglish” Misinterpretations, US-China Foreign Language, 2(10), pp. 18–20.

MAIR, Victor H. (ed). (Undated). Developments in Chinese language and script during the 20th and 21st centuries. (No publication data).

SIMON-KENNEDY, Kira. (2012). Chinglish. Sino-Platonic Papers, no. 224, May 2012.

TANG, Kevin. (2010). Honglish, not ChinglishSmacademia. (An online magazine created by students of Sustainable Development at Uppsala University, Sweden). 24 Apr 2010.

WANG, Weiping. (Undated). Causes of and remedies for Chinglish in Chinese college students’ writings. (No publication data).

YELLOWBRIDGE. (Undated). English Loan Words in the Chinese Language. © J. Lau, 2003–2016.


© Learn English or Starve, 20 April 2016. Last updated 19 Jun 2017.

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First released 20 Apr 2016
Updated 21 Apr 2016 (new material)
Updated 19 Jun 2017 (minor formatting fixes)

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