If you start to feel like you may be losing a few marbles, if you’re acting funny, hearing things wrong or making multiple mistakes, the Cantonese may rather rudely or jokingly ask, “Are you ci1 ci1 dei1 (黐黐地)?” As in, “Are you kind of sticky?” This seems to make no sense at all, but it comes from the Cantonese term ci1 sin3 (黐線), which literally means sticky lines or lines which have been stuck together. It comes from a comparison of the brain’s nerves, san1 ging1 sin3 (神經線) to telephone lines and cables (din6 sin3 電線). When either of them are piled up or tangled up, the system will not work.
The original ci1 sin3 (黐線), refers to when the phone lines have overlapped or crossed over, leading to static noise, jumbled up sounds or even the intrusion of others on your call, eventually leading to a nonsensical conversation.
The term first originated in the 1960s in Hong Kong. At the time, the telephone was just beginning to enter the average household. It was nowhere near the level of our communications today, nor was it as backwards as in the past, functioning automatically without the need of an operator or line connector. But its development was still in the early stages and often failed.
At times, even though the caller obviously dialled the correct number, it would still end up connecting to another number. The entire Hong Kong network was not sufficient to keep up with growing demand, so if someone wanted to have access faster, they could choose to use a different line and a different number, a process called the “sisters’ line.” The collection fee was slightly cheaper, but the negative aspect was that only one side could speak on the line, meaning the other person, when lifting the receiver could only listen to what the caller had to say, but not respond. This could be useful for urgent messages, but not for a real conversation. Occasionally, when there was a failure or short circuit, both lines would not dial out properly, meaning both sides would be busy talking, thinking they had the main line, but no one could actually hear the other. This is what was officially referred as ci1 sin3.
Gradually, Hong Kongers began using ci1 sin3 to mean something that was not normal, someone that behaved strangely, exhibited crazy behaviour or even to cover mental illness. They would call them the sticky lines guy (ci1 sin3 lou2 黐線佬) or the sticky lines woman (ci1 sin3 po4 黐線婆).
The term is also used more aggressively to scold someone or even offend them. Sometimes in the heat of the moment, the second half of the term sin3 線, is dropped and replaced by a simple ci1 ci1 dei6 (黐黐地) as in a “little bonkers” or ci1 zo2 (黐咗), as in “they’ve lost it”.
In English the simplest way to literally translate ci1 sin3 would be “short circuit,” leading some speakers to perform linguistic acrobatics and appropriate the English term from the Chinese idiom before giving it a new Cantonese twist. From sticky lines, we get short circuit which is then turned into “sot” from “short”. The new improved term is, “are you sot sot dei?”
By the end of the 60s, the term became such a part local tongue that they even produced the Cantonese movie – A Sticky Lines World (黐線世界) in 1968.A movie making fun of local habits from swimming at the beach to finding a new job, during a time of economic boom and changes for a lot of people in the city.
So if you don’t want to hear this term personally thrown at you on a busy street, better keep those straight lines in order – you wouldn’t want to short circuit them.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.