Pop Cantonese: 十下十下 – Ten Down Ten Down

Before memes and GIFs were used to convey feelings and emotions on social media, there was Cantonese slang: always colourful, vibrant, and to the point.

Consider sap6 haa6 sap6 haa6 (十下十下), literally “ten down ten down.” This is an expression that is used to describe a person who is not on top of things, or behaving in a silly manner. It is easily an everyday term: think about parents who carelessly let their children run amok in areas with busy car traffic, coworkers who frustrate the working process by not doing their part in collaborative projects – or even bleary-eyed people at brunch on Sundays after a big one the night before.

To begin to understand what sap6 haa6 sap6 haa6 truly means, we have to first look at the language behind it. In this instance, sap6 denotes “silliness,” while haa6 has several meanings. While it translates as “down,” it is also used in colloquial Cantonese as a word that indicates an activity in present progressive tense. Essentially, sap6 haa6 sap6 haa6 means “being silly” – but its true meaning also runs deeper than that.

The term is said to have originated from a fairly well-known Cantonese expression, saap6 suk6 gau2 tau4, sai6 hei2 paang4 ngaa4 (烚熟狗頭, 噬起棚牙) – literally “when a dog’s head is boiled, its teeth are on show.” This particular turn of phrase means an individual who puts on a fake smile with all their teeth and gums on display, but with no true emotion. There is no definitive origin of this term, and we can only assume this came from the days when dog meat was more widely consumed in China. Eventually, it gave rise to saap6 haa6 saap6 haa6 (烚下烚下)—“boil down boil down” or “boiling”—which describes someone walking around with a toothy grin in a silly manner.

Because saap6 (烚) in the fake smile expression and sap6 (十), or ten, sound so similar, “ten” eventually replaced “boil”, creating an all-new term, sap6 haa6 sap6 haa6. It is interchangeable with some of the more obvious expressions to describe stupid behaviour, like mung5 haa6 mung5 haa6 (懞下懞下) – mung5 referring to someone who is confused, or unclear about proceedings.

One good hot pot restaurant in Hong Kong has taken advantage of the similarities between the pronunciations for “boil” and “ten,” calling itself Sap6 Haa6 十下 in Chinese and Suppa in English. It serves classic hot pot soup bases and ingredients in a setting inspired by a typical Hong Kong grandmother’s home decor. Bring along silly friends and coworkers and saap6 away.

Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.

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