As any intrepid Taiwanese reporter knows, on a slow news day it’s worth sticking a microphone in the face of the Minister for Education, Tu Cheng-sheng, to see what he might blurt out. The plainspoken Tu has gained a reputation for his gaffes, such as getting CNN and the NCC (National Communications Council) mixed up and losing his temper over press questions about his son, while he has also made the headlines for wanting to turn the map of Taiwan sideways in official textbooks and assaulting a cameraman. He also gets more than his fair share of abuse from the opposing parties, for whom he is the person in government they most love to hate (after the president, of course).
This time, however, he hasn’t said anything daft or hit anyone. The reason he is in the news currently is a rebuke he gave to Kuo Su-chun, a female legislator from the opposition KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) in the Legislative Yuan. The exchange went as follows:
Tu: Today you are representing…
Kuo: What the oan2-ko1 are you talking about?
Tu: You shouldn’t say oan2-ko1 – it’s unpleasant. You don’t know Taiwanese – I’m telling you, ladies shouldn’t say that – for a woman to use this word sounds very unpleasant.
Now, ignoring for a moment both the fact that chauvinism is alive and well in Taiwan (certain words aren’t “ladylike”) and that interrupting speeches is par for the course here – this characterisation of oan2-ko1 as vulgar caused some controversy. The standard meaning of the word is a kind of small steamed rice cake, but local station TVBS wheeled out a Taiwanese writer, Iun Chhen-chhak, who attested that the word is indeed coarse – he explained the secondary meaning as “semen”. TVBS however took this question to the streets, comparing oan2-ko1 with another (reasonably mild) Taiwanese obscenity, khau3 iau1 (“crying over your empty belly”), to see which the general public found more offensive – khau3 iau1 won hands down.
Not only did most people not think oan2-ko1 was all that bad according to TVBS, but the network (no friend of the ruling DPP) also dug out a recording of President Chen Shui-bian using the same phrase in a speech about the status of the Republic of China:
Tiong1-hoa5 Bin5-kok4 si7 sahn1-mih4 oan2-ko1?
Taking the side of the writer mentioned above, who deems the phrase most offensive, this would be translated as “What the fuck is the Republic of China?”, but the view of the average Taiwanese speaker (including a quick straw poll of my colleagues) seems to be that it is in fact rather mild, if a bit low-class – something akin to “What the heck is the Republic of China?” In as much as a language is defined by its users, the opinion of the people beats out the opinion of the experts here, to my mind. Although perhaps it just shows that Minister Tu is more educated than the rest of us after all.
In English too, a term with rather offensive origins can end up as an imprecation mild enough that it’s no longer considered vulgar – a good example being “poppycock”, which is apparently derived from a 19th century Dutch dialect term meaning “soft shit”.