Cat got your tongue? Feline-inspired Cantonese slang for all kinds of hairy situations

  • Not sure what to say when you suspect someone of cheating or lying?
  • Here are five cat-related phrases for calling out the liars, cheaters and hypocrites you might meet
Sue Ng |

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How important cats are to humanity is evident in how many phrases we’ve created inspired by cats. Photo: Shutterstock

Cuddly and elegant, cats have been human companions for thousands of years, and many of them often become part of the family. The enigmatic feline has also made an impact on different cultures, such as the Egyptians who dressed their beloved cats in jewels and the Japanese maneki neko cat figurine thought to bring fortune and wealth.

In Hong Kong, the fluffy pet has inspired many popular sayings, from describing someone who cheats on exams to an experienced person who makes rookie mistakes. Even if you do not consider yourself a cat lover, you are sure to find a cat-related phrase on this list that is useful for everyday conversation.

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1. Copycat: 出貓

Pronunciation: ceot1 maau1 (chut-mao)

Literal translation: “Out cat”

Meaning: to cheat in an exam. It is said that the slang originated from the English word “copycat”, which refers to someone who copies others’ behaviour or ideas. Just as cheaters take another person’s answers as their own, this Cantonese slang chut-mao from the original English one.

Example: He got caught by the teacher when he was trying to chut-mao during the exam.

Cats are wily predators, stalking their prey slowly until they sense the moment is ripe for attack. Photo: Shutterstock

2. An elaborate scheme to trick someone: 扯貓尾

Pronunciation: ce2 maau1 mei5 (tse-mao-may)

Literal translation: “Pull a cat’s tail”

Meaning: to work with other people to trick someone or cover something up through an elaborate lie

Example: Don’t trust them! The two are just scam artists who are tse-mao-may to gain your trust.

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3. Insincere tears: 貓哭老鼠

Pronunciation: maau1 huk1 lou5 syu2 (mao-hook-loh-shu)

Literal translation: “Cat cries over mouse”

Meaning: to display hypocritical sadness or sympathy. The slang, which means “a cat cries over a mouse’s death”, is the first part of a Cantonese allegorical saying, and the second part translates to “false compassion”.

Example: When the politician addressed the recent tragedy, she was just mao-hook-loh-shu and did nothing to help the victims and their families.

Would you prefer fake sympathy or chilling disinterest? Photo: Shutterstock

4. Homer sometimes nods: 老貓燒鬚

Pronunciation: lou5 maau1 siu1 sou1 (loh-mao-siu-so)

Literal translation: “Old cat burns its whiskers”

Meaning: refers to a situation when an experienced person makes careless mistakes. In the countryside, cats love lying near the cooking stove during winter. For kittens, they may not know when their owners will cook and easily burn their whiskers. But when old cats burn their whiskers, it is usually because they are being careless.

Example: Having been a journalist for more than a decade, Tom always double-checks his articles to avoid loh-mao-siu-so.

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5. Jack of all trades and master of none: 三腳貓功夫

Pronunciation: saam1 goek3 maau1 gung1 fu1 (sahm-gerk-mao-kung-fu)

Literal translation: “Three-legged cat kung fu”

Meaning: describes when someone only has superficial knowledge and skills

Example: He only speaks simple Chinese. His sahm-gerk-mao-kung-fu does not qualify him to be your Chinese teacher.

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