As the Year of the Snake slithers into historic oblivion (well, until its next twelve-year cycle is due), billions of Asians worldwide are busy cheering in festivity for the Year of the Horse to gallop to the front stage.
While “Horse”, or “Ma” in Cantonese, symbolizes health, strength, agility and masculinity, for many Cantonese rooted in Hong Kong, the word does carry richer connotations, which, depending on context and situations, can be well-meaning, abusive, or out-right taboo.
When your Cantonese friend calls someone as his “Ma Tsai” (a small horse), he does not mean “a pony”, but, rather, an errand boy. But in an office environment, “Ma Tsai” has a perfectly neutral meaning of “being a subordinate”.
When you come to a negotiation table with an army of experts, people may complain that you are “Sai Ma” (drying horses in the sun). They are not saying you are having a sun tan, or making dried horse meat. They think you are trying to impress, or intimidate, your opponents by sheer number of people.
But in the same situation, your friends may pay you compliment by saying you are “Daap Ma” (stacking up horses). They simply mean you have a strong team.
If your Hong Kong friends accuse you as “Gi Luk Wai Ma” (calling a deer a horse), they are calling you a blatant liar — they are not very friendly at all…
The phrase “Ngau Tau Ma Mien” (bull head and horse face) has an interesting cultural root. “Ngau Tau” and “Ma Mien” are said to be the harbingers of the Guardian of the Chinese Underworld. Surely spooky “things” they are !
Quite a number of Cantonese in Hong Kong say beauty pageants are “Cho Ma” (horse making), as the outcomes are mostly rigged: the champions are chosen before the races begin.
You may think a groom of horses is a decent profession. It sure is for most parts of the world. But in Hong Kong, a pimp is also called a groom, or “Ma Fu”. Lady readers, beware!
Flatulence is universally repulsive, as is hypocritical flattery. So a “Ma Pei Jing” (a gnome of horse fart) is reserved for the most indulgent sycophant.
On the lighter side, being a metropolis, Hong Kong shares some common notions and usage of the English speaking community.
“Ma Mei” (horse tail) has nothing to do with the skirt of a horse tail; it has the exact equivalent of “ponytail” for girls.
And “Hak Ma” (black horse) is not a coloured horse at all. And again, it has the same meaning of a “dark horse” in contemporary English language.
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