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While watching a tv show, I heard the presenter, a Beijinger, say 贼好. In that particular context, the only possible meaning was 很好.

Later I did some research and, as a matter of fact, it turns out 贼 zei2 does mean "very", "extremely" in north-eastern dialects (东北话), and the usage has been popularized to some extent in internet speak.

However in Mandarin this character mainly translates as "thief", "evildoer". The meaning "extremely", though mentioned by dictionaries, appears to be a regionalism, but how come it uses the same character for "thief"?

A simple explanation might be that the sound "zei" with 阳平 tone (second tone) in 东北话 can be represented in Standard Written Chinese only with this character 贼 (...and 鲗 cuttlefish?).

But I wonder if there's something else going on, or a more ancient relation between these two meanings of 贼。

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  • Interesting question. Some experts said the contemporary north-eastern dialect was influenced by the Shandong dialect in the post-Ming and Qing dynasties. Old novels like 金瓶梅 recorded such usages like , as this sentence on this page (see the leftest column): "這潘金蓮 留心暗暗看着他". But for what that Shandong dialect came from, I have no idea yet. – Stan Jul 12 '20 at 2:27
  • So, it is something like the English word "damn"? which could be used positively or negatively and also means "very" or "extremely"? – Wayne Cheah Jul 12 '20 at 7:43
  • I have a conjecture, but since I cannot find the academic source to suppor it for now, I put it down in the comment, instead of making a formal answer. And this is more for the northeastern dialect 贼拉 -- I always feel, as a native Chinese speaker, frankly, this is just a mild version for 真他妈, like "darn" for "damn" in English. Again, this is my personal guess, for the language itself. I hope it has no offense to anyone. – aafulei Jul 13 '20 at 8:44
  • Curiously enough english isn't all that different. "devilish" in english carries the meaning of "very; extremely" such as in "a devilish clever chap" – 小奥利奥 Jun 22 at 0:20
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A simple explanation might be that the sound "zei" with 阳平 tone (second tone) in 东北话 can be represented in Standard Written Chinese only with this character 贼 (...and 鲗 cuttlefish?).

No, I don't think that is the correct explanation.

I was born in the northeast of China, and later moved to other regions (now in Shanghai). I don't know the etymology of it. But from my observation, it's more like a metaphor.

Think about what a thief's eyes look like when he sees a lot of treasures in front of him? In Chinese, we say 眼睛放贼光. When we see someone's eyes very bright (or reflecting lots of lights), we can say 他的眼睛贼亮 (like a thief seeing lots of treasures). So, 贼亮 becomes 非常亮 naturally.

Since 贼 also denotes the sense of greedy; cunning; wicked; deceitful, 贼亮 is used to describe something unpleasantly bright. E.g. 这双鞋亮得有点发贼. However, this unpleasant factor becomes weaker and weaker.

And later it turned out to be the sense of "folksy, cool, awesome", etc. E. g. "那女孩贼漂亮!" , which doesn't have any of those negative connotations. I know some negative English words also have turned out to be positive such as badass.

By extension, we could use 贼 to express the sense of "quite" or "very". We sometimes also add 拉(的) or 拉拉(的) for more effect. E.g. there's a song named 我贼拉拉的爱你. Other examples: 她贼拉好看; 这冰棍贼拉拉的甜; etc.

My two cents.

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  • I don't know if I'm supposed to accept this answer, as in doing so I'm essentially signaling: "this is the truth", and I don't know if this is the truth or not, but it definitely is the explanation that makes most sense to me. Thanks – blackgreen Jul 12 '20 at 19:23
  • @blackgreen Haha, I don't know if I'm right. I don't see any authoritive documents address this. I'd be glad to see it if any. Anyways, that's how I understand it as a native speaker of the northeast region. It can make sense to me internally. Have fun! – dan Jul 12 '20 at 23:13
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: 方言。很,十分。表示程度相当高。多用于贬义。"

The meaning of 賊 as an adverb for "very" is marked as 'dialect' (方言)

Speaking of dialect, Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong use the terms 好鬼/ 鬼咁/ 鬼死咁 to a similar effect

Example:

好鬼靚, 鬼咁靚 and 鬼死咁靚 all mean 'extremely/ very pretty'

We can replace all three with 賊 and say 賊漂亮 in this Mandarin dialect and the meaning would be the same.

I do not know the origin of either 好鬼/ 鬼咁/ 鬼死咁 or 賊 (as adverb 'very'), but they share a commonality. Both 鬼 and 賊 have a connotation of 'out of the ordinary' (与众不同), 'unusual'(异常) or 'abnormal'(不正常)

Because both 鬼 and 賊 have bad connotations, the dictionary stated 賊 is mostly used for derogation (多用于贬义). But the contemporary usage of these terms is simply "very" without any bad connotation

I would reason 鬼咁 and 賊 be used as adjectives for ''extremely/ very' as the following:

鬼咁靚 - pretty to the point of beyond human = very pretty; extremely pretty

賊漂亮 - pretty to the point of almost criminal, no one should be allowed to be so pretty = very pretty; extremely pretty

It is just my personal interpretation. The true origin might be something else entirely. But it is the best-educated guess I can come up with.

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Short answer:

Just for the convenience of writing, it has no relationship with "Thief".


Detailed explanation:

Keep in mind: some words in Chinese are just a pronunciation, and ares no official words.

So, in your case, how did 贼 come to mean: 'extremely'?

The answer is: for the convenience of writing.

Originally, people would say this orally:

  • 这部电影zéi好看
  • 我们家乡冬天zéi冷
  • 那个人zéi有钱

When putting these words to paper, people would write the zéi with the commonly used character .

Also other examples:

  • 我们那嘎达贼冷.
  • 我们那疙瘩贼冷

Here, 嘎达 = 疙瘩 , they don't have the meaning, just have the same pronunciation as 东北方言. (North-Eastern Chinese dialect)

Also:

  1. bo leng gai, means 膝盖. (knee)
  • 我昨天打球受伤了, 波棱盖疼
  • 我昨天打球受伤了, 拨了盖疼
  1. ga3 ji1 wo1: means 腋下 (underarm)
  • 天气热, 我嘎鸡窝有点痒
  • 天气热, 我鸽子窝有点痒
  • 天气热, 我嘎子窝有点痒
  1. nen4: means very
  • 你咋嫩好看呢?
  • 你咋恁好看呢?

For more information, see also this.

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    贼 is well defined in dictionaries including the official 新华字典. e. g. " 副词 1 很;十分 皮鞋擦得贼亮贼亮的 / 这天气,贼冷! " So, claiming "it has no official word" is not true. – dan Jul 12 '20 at 4:05

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