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I stumpled upon this phrase, unfortunately the verbatim meaning was not explained, only how it is used in a sentence:

sentence pattern: 了不得了, sentence. (first 了 read as liao2, second 了 as le)

了不得了 expresses, that the following sentence is a serious matter.

for instance:

了不得了, 你儿子被蛇吃完了。

So, I understand the purpose of this phrase, but i can not understand what the very meaning (ethymology) of this phrase is. Is this phrase modern or classic Chinese, what is the verbatim translation of it?

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It's rare to use "了不得了" in Chinese, but using "不得了了"(Bu4 De2 Liao3 Le0) is more common.

So, "不得了"(Bu4 De2 Liao3) means that cannot be ignored and even extremely serious/important. The "了"(Le0) at last does not have any real meaning but just a short pause of the phrase.

It's proper to say "不得了了, 您儿子被蛇吃了!"

The verbatim meaning of the sentence above:

It can't be ignored that, your son have been eaten by a snake.

Be careful don't confuse "不得了"(Bu4 De2 Liao3) with "不得了"(Bu4 De2 Le0) and "得了"(De2 Le0) and "了不得"(Liao3 Bu4 De2).

  • In Northern China 了不得 is not as common as 不得了 because of the great intensity, but I wouldn't call it 'rare'. Not sure about Southern China though. – NS.X. Nov 29 '14 at 4:54
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No one is sure how it came into being, but it did appear in classic text.

First let's talk about 了得. simply means "to get". could have several meanings, notably:

  • To learn, to know, as in 了解.
  • To finish, to give up, as in 了却.

Both these two meanings are seen in classic usage of 了得:

宋[1] 《朱子语类》卷八:“大凡学者,无有径截一路,可以教他了得。”—— For anyone who is pursuing knowledge, there is no shortcut, that could teach him to learn.

宋 苏轼 《与王定国书》:“某自謫居以来,可了得易传九卷,论语五卷。”—— I've finished 9 chapters of 易传 and 5 chapters of 论语 since I've been demoted.

But we also have 了得 that means "extraordinary, remarkable, capable" in classical text:

唐[2] 李山甫 《游侠儿》诗:“ 荆轲只为闲言语,不与燕丹了得人。”—— It's because of fear of rumors that 荆轲 did what he did[3], not because 燕丹 is a remarkable personality.

So 了得 is quite an ancient word. I couldn't find the origin of the last meaning, but from the first two meanings, you have someone who learns, and you have someone who gets things done, isn't that remarkable?

了得 also exists in 这还了得 as a negative remark on something bad, like saying "How is this for gratitude", which means no gratitude at all:

《红楼梦》第五十回:“这还了得!他(画图)竟比盖这园子还费工夫了。”——How unbelievable! It takes more time painting the garden than actually building it.

[1] Song dynasty, 960 - 1279 A.D.

[2] Tang dynasty, 618 - 907 A.D.

[3] He tried to assassinate 秦始皇, the first emperor of Qin, but failed and was killed.


了不得 is kind of a negative form of 了得. It is also quite old. Here are also some usage examples:

  • Indicates that something bad is happening

    宋 庄绰 《鸡肋编》:“ 徐与同官王昌俱访大节,忽言病来。又曰:‘了不得!了不得!且救我。’遂倒仆。”—— This gentleman Xu suddenly caught sick, saying "My goodness! My goodness! Help me", then he fell flat.

  • Indicates abundance in quantity

    《红楼梦》第九三回:“宝玉喜欢的了不得。” ——宝玉 likes very much.

As a negative form, 了不得 was mostly used for bad things. But as time goes by, the boundary seems to have been blurred a bit. 了不得 seems to mean 了不起 in some cases.


References from website 汉典:

I'll refrain from the talking about these two because it's going to get muddy:

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