I have heard a number of Cantonese speakers use N (pronounced like the English letter) to designate some sort of unspecified quantity, for instance:

我 N 年前去过。(Approximately "I went there some years ago.")

When did such a usage first come up? Does it have anything to do with the standard mathematical usage of n, and does it also appear in other languages?

  • 1
    Math aside, there are lots of examples of mixing "English" into Cantonese in daily use (in Hong Kong). Like 「唔該幫我check下。」「升le (level) 喇,就快升le喇!」「So (show) 料俾人睇」etc.
    – leo4jc
    Commented Jul 8, 2015 at 18:01

3 Answers 3


As you suspected, it is thought to come from the mathematical usage:


Why can "N" have the meaning "a lot"? For instance, N-times, N-of-them


Because in math, sequences usually use "the nth term" to represent any term, including unboundedly large ones.

Another (perhaps more reputable) source

...n在代数中表示很多,如从1开始到2,到3,..., 到n。因此在口语中n经常用来表示特别多,例如“买了n多电话卡”...

...in algebra, "N" signifies "a lot", as in "from 1, 2, 3, up to N". Because of this, in colloquial speech, "N" often is used to express "very many", as in "to buy sooo many telephone cards"...

  • +1, although all the sources you listed are not reliable enough, the language sense tells me that it's true. As a relatively new colloquial usage, I think it may be difficult to dig out the origin.
    – Stan
    Commented Jul 10, 2015 at 8:05

As for Cantonese, I had my junior high in Hong Kong during the 80's. I could remember as early as '83 and '84 did we start to say it in school. Etymologically it is 100% mathematical. :) A perfect example of mixing English into the daily Cantonese usage.

The stress is on N when you say it, to emphasis the "countless many"





Hm, in Mandarin people will say things like "聽了N次", meaning an unspecified but large number of times. I've heard this since at least the 1980s in Taiwan. I wonder if your example is an extension of the same idiom?

  • 1
    Haha, I didn't know it exists in Mandarin as well!
    – leo4jc
    Commented Jul 8, 2015 at 16:47
  • 1
    @leo4jc: I didn't either, though maybe it's more likely that I'll encounter more informal language in Cantonese.
    – user5714
    Commented Jul 8, 2015 at 17:44
  • Seen in mainland forums. But I think it's not as common as in HK. Not sure about Taiwan.
    – velut luna
    Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 12:41

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