Top 20 One-Character Adjectives in Mandarin

Here’s my favourite one-character adjectives in Mandarin. Big thanks to Bo and Jee for their help with explanations and translations.

1. 牛 niú. Original meaning: cow. New meaning: awesome. Derives from the common online slang expression 牛逼 niúbī (“cow’s vagina”).

2. 土 tǔ. Original meaning: dirt. New meaning: unsophisticated, especially of rednecks, hicks, bogans, etc.

3. 宅 zhái. Original meaning: residence. New meaning: to like staying at home, nerdy. Derives from Japanese.

4. 俗 sú. Original meaning: common, rustic. New meaning: unoriginal, tacky.

5. 贱 jiàn. Original meaning: inexpensive. New meaning: despicable, bitchy, nasty.

6. 红 hóng. Original meaning: red. New meaning: popular or revolutionary.

7. 猛 měng. Original meaning: strong, fierce. New meaning: awesome.

8. 抠 kōu. Original and current meaning as an adjective: stingy (as in cheap, miserly).

9. 黄 huáng. Original meaning: yellow. New meaning: pornographic.

10.  洋 yáng. Original meaning: ocean. Extended meaning: foreign or fashionable.

11.  黑 hēi. Original meaning: black. Extended meanings: dark, illegal, shady or greedy.

12.  火 huǒ. Original meaning: fire. New meaning: popular.

13.  损 sǔn. Original meaning: to damage. New meaning: immoral, wicked [缺德 quēdé].

14.  阴 yīn. Original meaning: the representation of women in Taoism, opposite of 阳 yáng. New meaning: cunning [狡诈 jiǎozhà].

15.  色 sè. Original meaning: colour. Extended meaning: lewd, dirty.

16.  萌 méng. Original meaning: sprout. New meaning: cute, adorable, especially of young boys or girls. Derives from Japanese.

17.  潮 cháo. Original meaning: tide. Extended meaning: fashionable.

18.  灵 líng. Original meaning: clever/spirit. Extended meaning: effective.

19.  二 èr. Original meaning: two. New meaning: stupid. From the slang expression 二百五 èrbǎiwǔ (“two hundred and fifty”).

20. 臭 chòu. Original meaning: stinky. Extended meaning: terrible, to suck at something.

I think all of these are very useful in everyday conversation, especially with younger people. All feedback and additions to the list are welcome!

33 Comments to "Top 20 One-Character Adjectives in Mandarin"

  1. Tezuk's Gravatar Tezuk
    15/03/2011 - 12:29 am | Permalink

    Are these all used on the mainland? I had previously presumed some of these were Taiwan specific, such as 萌.

    • 15/03/2011 - 8:32 am | Permalink

      Yes all of those are in use on the mainland. 萌 is especially popular with young people at the moment on both sides of the strait.

      • 任天游's Gravatar 任天游
        11/10/2011 - 12:37 pm | Permalink

        萌 (at least among my friends in Shanghai) is pronounced as first tone when being used as “cute”.

  2. 15/03/2011 - 12:46 am | Permalink

    I was wondering where the meaning for 萌 came from. Thanks for that. Interesting stuff!

  3. Josh K.'s Gravatar Josh K.
    15/03/2011 - 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Hen you yisi, Carl;)

  4. 15/03/2011 - 6:25 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been looking for a word my students would understand when translating Nerdy, thanks, very useful list you’ve made.

  5. 20/03/2011 - 2:44 am | Permalink

    Given the root meaning of 潮 cháo, does anybody else think that a better translation might be trendy or faddish?

  6. islandchic's Gravatar islandchic
    23/03/2011 - 8:47 pm | Permalink

    would be nice if you had some examples!

  7. 24/03/2011 - 2:14 am | Permalink

    Nice list. Here’s a couple of possible additions.

    闷 men4 stuffy, boring. Used all the time to describe people, situations
    冷 leng3 originally cold. corny, cheesy. Used after hearing a bad joke “好冷”

    In Shandong or Dongbei, you need to use this word:
    彪 biao1 = 二 er4 stupid or wacky

    I’m hoping the rest of China starts using it.

  8. 24/03/2011 - 7:41 am | Permalink

    Do you know where 二百五 comes from? I’ve always wondered about the story behind it.

  9. 24/03/2011 - 5:26 pm | Permalink

    nice list, and some of the uses are new to me – like 損 i’ve only ever used in words like 損失 or 損害. 棒, 贊 ad 殺 are also a few common ones that could also be added.

  10. Greenplant's Gravatar Greenplant
    25/03/2011 - 3:50 am | Permalink


    “损”also means mean…i.e.你这人也太损了吧(you are so mean)

  11. daofeishi's Gravatar daofeishi
    25/03/2011 - 9:09 pm | Permalink

    I think I’ve also heard 猛 in the context of “having a strong sex drive” or “being wild in bed” (我男朋友很猛,西方人太猛了)

  12. Wenny's Gravatar Wenny
    30/03/2011 - 4:30 pm | Permalink

    haha Carl, nice one.
    I introduce a new word to you, 囧 jiong, pronounced same as 窘(窘迫)
    囧 means odd, stupid, embarrassment. this word also looks like person’s face, like ‘dafeishi’ display image from your reply list.
    This word is very popular these days. 😀

  13. Dickwod's Gravatar Dickwod
    02/04/2011 - 7:16 pm | Permalink

    Hi Carl…another excellent post…my compliments. Just by the way…as you probably are aware the precice character for the bi in 牛逼 is 屄 although I would imagine the other variations of bi used are to get around using what some may consider a lewd character. Thanks for your wonderful dissemination of the Chinese language.

  14. 04/05/2011 - 10:21 am | Permalink

    Oh, and another good one – 凶 xiōng – roughly translated as “agressive”.

  15. F's Gravatar F
    13/05/2011 - 11:24 pm | Permalink

    贱 is a really useful one, but hard to explain. But according to some explanations I’ve heard, means bitchy and maybe two-faced, especially to do with sex or relationships – for example, grinning lewdly at your ex-girlfriend when you have a new one…was recently called 很贱 by onlookers..

    Often used in a joking way, mind.

    Thanks for this post – great stuff!

  16. john's Gravatar john
    20/05/2011 - 2:19 am | Permalink

    Where do you find this stuff? I feel like most Chinese are extremely reticent to teach foreigners slang terms, instead using extremely proper standard Mandarin that isn’t as natural.

  17. 02/06/2011 - 1:58 pm | Permalink

    One of my friends used this one the other day: 翘[翹] qiào. It describes something that sticks out, e.g., an arse. Quite amusing I thought. 🙂

  18. 18/06/2011 - 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Here’s another I forgot: 阔 kuò. It means “rich” or “wealthy”.

  19. lunn's Gravatar lunn
    02/02/2013 - 3:34 am | Permalink

    nice to see a OZ guys like chinese, :)
    but,you may have some mistakes
    for example: 损, In ancient China , it means 缺德,刻薄 as well (《尚书》:“满招损,谦受益”。)
    the new comment like 阴, 贱 ect. have the same issue as well.

    :) have a good day

  20. Shuangquan's Gravatar Shuangquan
    14/08/2013 - 1:33 pm | Permalink

    This is so very interesting!
    I just would like to add one thing. “黄” can mean more than pornographic. It also means “failed”, as in “他的事估计黄了” (“I think his business is gonna go south.”)

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