Stupid or Stay?

As academic director at ChinesePod, one of the things I deal with is the language questions of the users. Some of the questions are easy, and others are incredibly difficult. One of the types of questions I enjoy answering most are the ones that I had myself a few years back. Here is one such question (from this lesson):

> Just curious. Why does the transcript use the character 呆 dāi and not the character 待 dāi? Doesn’t the character 呆 dāi mean “stupid” and the character 待 dāi mean “stay”? Am I missing some fine distinction or something?

My answer:

> The character 待 (dāi) would seem to make a lot more sense, meaning “stay/reside in a place,” but 呆 (dāi) is actually the character used. If you look it up in a dictionary, you’ll see.

> And yes, 呆 (dāi) does also mean something like “stupid.” But that’s an adjective [technically, stative verb], and it’s a verb when it means “to stay.”

> Are you imagining the following exchange?

> Chinese Person: 你呆了多久了

> You: 一年

> Chinese Person: Hahaha!

> You: What?

> Chinese Person: You just admitted that you’ve been stupid for a year!

> You: No, wait! I thought you were using the “stay” meaning! Let me take it back!

> Chinese Person: No way, stupid!

> You: NOOOOooooo…

> Don’t worry, that doesn’t happen. 你呆了多久了? (Nǐ dāi le duōjiǔ le?) will always be interpreted as “how long have you stayed” rather than “how long have you been stupid.”

Anyone know why the character 呆 is used to mean “stay?”


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. The 待 entry in my big dictionary gives the definition: 犾呆. 耽搁,停留. For 呆 it’s 待,停留. So they should be exchangeable. There’s a tendency for people to try and find shades of different meanings in words that actually mean the same thing. Even more so in Chinese where some of the historically more colloquial words may have more than one written form – there is still a feeling that because the forms are different, their meanings can’t be completely identical. So it’s possible that actual usage leans one way or another, and that should probably be followed.

    I’m curious about the variant pronunciation ǎi for 呆 (獃) – did that historically encompass both “stupid” and “stay”?

  2. LOL
    yeah, some dialects use, for example 杵、蹲 to express the same meaning.

  3. You say, “If you look it up in a dictionary, you’ll see.” Well, I’ve checked my dictionary, and it just says 呆:同“待”. What does your dictionary say?

  4. I looked it up in my dictionary (Wenlin), and it says:

    呆 was the old form of 保 bǎo ‘protect’. After 保 had 亻(人 rén) ‘person’ added to it, 呆 came to be used as an abbreviation of 獃 ái, dāi ‘stupid’. This happened long ago, so 呆 is used now instead of 獃 among both full form and simple form characters.

    Makes sense to me.

  5. From what I’ve learned at University of Montreal, from an invited 北京语言文化大学 teacher, both verbs can be used with almost the same meaning.

    Meaning : You stayed there for three days. To stay “somewhere”.

    Meaning : You stood there like a wooden rooster.
    Meaning : You stayed at home.
    From what I’ve learned, this “dai” (呆) is mostly used for a non-movement action, such as staying home or standing still. The other “dai” (待) would be used when you stay at another place than your house. Correct me if I’m wrong, I’m still at the end-of-beginner-start-of-intermediate phase in my learning process.

    For the radicals used in 呆, I’ve been told the 口 is there to represent a slow-motion person with an open mouth, quite ressembling to a stupid person.

  6. lof,funny.the meaning depends on special occassion:) so many chinese words just like this,a word has many meanings,but which one in a sentense depends on special occassion.

  7. Maybe because being stubborn and immovable in thought is an aspect of stupidity…

  8. The “staying” meaning of 呆 is linked to its usage in 呆住 or 吓呆, meaning “dumbstruck” or “scared stiff.” Stupidity entails an inability to flee, dodge, or respond.
    That’s my 看法。

  9. John B’s explanation makes sense to me too. Some modern Chinese characters actually contain the meaning of more than one ancient character. This was compounded with the 20th-century simplifications.

    For example, why on earth would something think it’s a good idea to combine 後 (back or after) with 后 (queen)? But now for everyone in the PRC, the character has both meanings.

    Of course this has happened with English words too. Compare the etymology of swallow (gulp) with swallow (the bird). At one time, they weren’t the same word.

  10. Todd,

    It says, “to stay.”

  11. John B,

    呆 was the old form of 保 bǎo ‘protect’. After 保 had 亻(人 rén) ‘person’ added to it, 呆 came to be used as an abbreviation of 獃 ái, dāi ‘stupid’. This happened long ago, so 呆 is used now instead of 獃 among both full form and simple form characters.

    I read that etymology too, but it’s only a piece of the puzzle. 保 does not mean 待.

  12. Bob Mrotek Says: January 27, 2007 at 11:06 am


    You know what’s really spooky? The words for “swallow” (as in “bird”) and the word for “to swallow” are the same in Chinese also. Only the characters are slightly different. Go figure 🙂

    燕 yàn (swallow, as in “bird”)
    嚥 yàn (to swallow)

  13. BMG,

    Well, the dudes who pushed through the simplification on the mainland did a lot of (IMHO) stupid things.

    Presumably, they felt that using “empress” for “after” was a good idea because the “empress” character has fewer strokes. In fact, that seemed to be their one guiding rational under the simple-minded belief that fewer strokes -> easier to learn.

  14. John:

    Well, I can at least see a linkage between “stay” and “protect”. Soldiers staying in a city are protecting that city; a parent staying at home (with the children) is protecting the children from wandering marauding wild animals (or protecting the house from opportunistic robbers), etc.

  15. The Chinese language “implies” a lot. This is a good example. 呆 is used mainly in the North and rarely in the south. When the word is used non-singularily as in 呆了多久 , the word actually implies “boredom”, which translates to inactivity, hanging around, doing nothing, etc. It is often used in special situations such as “at work” or “at school”; 呆了多久 (how long have you been here) actually carry the meaning “how long have you been doing nothing around here”.(Think school or work). Think “lounging” (except inactivity) rather than “staying”. Think 呆若木鸡 as “doing nothing like a wooden chicken”. 呆 is not a direct replacement for 待 as 呆 is used usually in special situations, mostly among friends, describe work, school, or leisure activities. You don’t want to use it on a total stranger. It is not a swear word per say but it could be taken as insulting. The parallel I can draw is “don’t play around with me”, “don’t fool around with me”, “don’t dick me around”, and don’t F— me around”. They all mean essentially the same thing but with a very escalating tone. In this case, 待 is the “play” tone and 呆 is the “dick” tone. Finally, you can translate 呆若木鸡 as in “stuplidly doing nothing with a blank stare like a dumb wooden chicken”. Who said Chinese is a simple language? Wait till you come across more every day use of “idioms” (usually 4-characters phrase) such as 呆若木鸡. Have you come across phrases such as “breaking pot sinking boat” or “guarding tree waiting for rabbit”? The Chinese people use a lot of “idioms” to express themselves. Each “idiom” (4 characters phrase) tells a story and if you don’t know the story, you won’t understand the expression.
    Who said Chiense is an easy language?

  16. The problem is, “play” and “dick” are pronounced differently, whereas 呆 and 待 sound exactly the same. In conversation, how does the listener know which one is being used? This is a bit like “he” and “she” (他 vs 她, both pronounced “ta”), which are distinguished only in written form.

    The explanations by Zhongtang and Ben C are consistent with other comments I’ve seen on the internet. But from a linguistic point of view, I think we need some more evidence that the words are, or once were, differentiated in spoken Chinese. For example, was there a time in the past when the two characters had different pronunciations, or are they still pronounced differently in some dialects?

    Without such evidence, I would be tempted to conclude that the difference between 呆 and 待 is only introduced when written, like the female radical in “she” (她) or, to give an example from English, the apostrophe in “it’s” (vs “its”). (This is pretty much what zhwj suggested above)

    The evidence seems to be mounting, though, that 待 would also be acceptable in the ChinesePod transcript. Or even that it is more appropriate than 呆, given the contexts used in the lesson.

  17. Well, Todd, I’ll be brief. In most dialect, the word 呆 has different pronunciations. Cantonese pronuce 呆 as “oi-r”. Most other dialect pronunce 呆 as “ai-r”, heavy on the “a” as in “ai-r zi” (stupid person). Even in manadrin, rightfully or wrongfully, I have always pronounced the word 呆 as (ai-r) and the word 獃 as (dai).

    With the changes in the simplified Chinese, 呆 has replaced 獃 in the written form. Therefore, most people pronounced 呆 (ai-r) as 獃 (dai). Stupid people are called “dai-zi” from the word 獃 (and not 呆). Since 呆 is used in the written form instead of 獃, the confusion is set. So, it is proepr to pronunce “dai-zi” and not “ai-r zi” dispite the written form showed otherwise.

    The most important point I want to make is that the words 呆 (獃) and 待 came from two different character roots. Try to find a Chinese Character Genealogical Chart and see where the two words came from. In order to learn the Chinese lanaguage properly, one must master the Chinese Character Genealogy (word roots).

    The simplied Chinese in the written form confused things for the new generation of Chinese lanaguage learners. Baomingguang quoted an excellent example: 後 (back or after) and 后 (queen). That is a very good example as they are pronunced the same way but is really two different words, from two very different character genealogy. It was considered an error and in bad form when the two words were interchanged in the old days. It is now acceptable practices.

    I don’t even know if they teach Chinese Character Genealogy any more. Maybe John can answer this as he is closer to the action than anyone of us.

    If you understand the Chinese Character Genealogy, you probably wouldn’t make the comment “I would be tempted to conclude that the difference between 呆 and 待 is only introduced when written”.
    The confusion is not from “呆 and 待” but from “獃 and 待”. Refer back to my comments on the previous post on the use of 呆 instead of 待, as on that post, 呆 and 獃 is one and the same and interchangable.

    The Chinese language is full of “pun” words, they sounded alike but has totally different meanings, forming a majority of the Chinese jokes. It is also full of words that looks alike in written form but would mean totally different thing due to the “root origin” or the “Character Genealogy”.

    To add to the discussion, I found this little gem. This is a Chinese language test, The originator stated that anyone scoring less than 80% is iliterate in Chinese. I wouldn’t be that harsh. The test is made up of a bunch of 2-choices questions. Statictically, you can score 50% with blind luck. The link is below and it is a very safe Excel file. By the way, no dictionary allowed.

    I would venture to say that most who frequent this site will be hard pressed to score 80%, including all the native Chinese speaking people. If you score 80% or better, you are among those who have a very good command of the language. However, I can see most score between 60% and 70%. Anyone scoring less than 50%, however, will have a long way to go to learn and master the Chinese language.

    Good luck with the test and I would love to see the scores posted here.

  18. 我呆(stay and stupid at the same time)在华东师大一年半了。

  19. but every body in china understand “呆” as “stay”

  20. […] 假如我问你在哪过年,是问“呆”哪里呢还是“待”哪里,本来一个挺简单的问题结果被一帮老外一搅合,连我回答起来居然也没自信了~~-_-‖ […]

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