Always forgetting your keys at home? Can’t remember where you put your phone? You might just be a “big head prawn” (daai6 tau4 haa1 大頭蝦). This Cantonese expression refers to someone who is careless and absentminded, or perhaps just forgetful and clumsy. Although there is no clear story of where the term first originated, its meaning is no doubt derived from the notion that even though a prawn may have a big head, there isn’t much going on inside.
Don’t be too offended if you’ve been called big head prawn, though – the term is often used endearingly or self-deprecatingly. Nor is it necessarily meant to describe a permanent condition, as you could just be a big head prawn when stressed out.
In the West, being called a prawn (or more commonly, a shrimp) is usually an insult reserved for those who are small, weak or thin. In other circles, a shrimp is someone who has an ugly face but good body – hence the phrase, “keep the body, lose the head.” But in Cantonese, prawn can also mean to bully someone, as in the case of haa1 jan4 (蝦人, literally “prawn person”). The expression caau2 haa1 caak3 haai5 (炒蝦拆蟹, literally “fry prawn, de-shell crab) means to swear or use foul language. As delicious as they may be, it seems that shellfish and crustaceans are quite the rowdy bunch.
These aren’t the only Cantonese slang terms that derive from seafood. With Hong Kong being a seafood-loving population of over seven million who consume more than 70 kilograms of seafood per capita, there are plenty of other slang terms that relate back to the fruits of the sea. Caau2 jau4 jyu4 (炒魷魚) literally means stir-fried squid but actually refers to someone who is being fired. Baan6 saai3 haai5 (扮哂蟹) is used to describe someone who is “acting like a crab” – in other words, bragging about their achievements.
To make things even more delightful, the pronunciation of prawn (haa1 蝦) in Cantonese sounds just like haa1 (哈) as in “haha” – so the next time someone calls you a big head prawn, why not just laugh it off with two prawns?
Photos by VadimVasenin through Depositphoto