Tracking the Evolution of the Slang Word “Diaosi”

The Chinese slang word 屌丝 (meaning approximately “loser”) has become pretty popular in recent years, thanks to the internet. Of course it’s got its own Baidu Baiku entry (in Chinese), and you can find it in the ChinaSmack glossary (in English) too.

But there are a few weird things about this term. First, sources don’t always agree whether 屌丝 is pronounced “diǎosī” (3-1) or “diàosī” (4-1). [My personal sources usually assure me it’s 3-1.] Second, isn’t a vulgar slang term for “penis”?

Rather than delving into these issues myself, I’d like to direct you to an article on a new blog called Civil China which, as one of its first articles, takes a look at how the term has surged in popularity in recent years, and even how connotations shifted from mostly negative to not-so-negative. The article is Diaosi: Evolution of a Chinese Meme.

The post includes some very interesting textual analysis of the use of the term 屌丝 on Weibo over the past year and a half. (Complete with fancy data visualizations!)

Analysis of the term "diaosi"

For those of you actually trying to learn vocabulary (and possibly too lazy to read the whole thing), don’t miss this conclusion about the meaning of the word 屌丝:

Although “diaosi” is often translated as “loser” in English, our analysis points to a distinction between a Chinese “diaosi” and a “loser”: losers are responsible for their own lack of success, while diaosi are made by larger social conditions. No wonder then, that “loser” remains an indisputably negative term, personal in its injury, while “diaosi” is a true meme: dynamic, complex, and current, cultural rather than personal.

6 Comments to “Tracking the Evolution of the Slang Word “Diaosi”

  1. John, thanks so much for this post and particularly flagging our conclusions at the end!

  2. Stavros says:

    After this type of in-depth analysis, a serious learner of Chinese has only one choice: make Civil Chinese a mandatory read.

  3. Brendan says:

    I’m still waiting on a good translation of “diaosi.” Right now I’m inclined to go with “[ordinary] schmuck,” keeping the “penis” reference while maintaining the focus on the person’s general haplessness — but I’m definitely open to suggestions!

    • I can appreciate what you’re doing with semantics and connotations, but to me, “schmuck” is just too old of a word, too removed from the youngest generation of English speakers. I rarely use it myself, and I suspect a lot of kids these days don’t even know it. Of those that do know it, I suspect another good chunk don’t realize what the word originally meant (the “penis” reference).

      Diaosi, on the other hand, is a very new word, and is used pretty heavily by the new generation (likely unknown to the older generations). I think this generational relevance is a significant issue to take into consideration while translating.

  4. Krysztov says:

    Now that you mention it, I think I remember reading an article in That’s PRD that said the word itself roughly meant “pubic hair” (although one could argue for other interpretations). More interestingly, if I recall correctly, it seemed to indicate that for as many people who were using the term derisively, there was a growing group of downtrodden individuals affectionately claiming the term for themselves.

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