As a former English teacher and long-time observer of the curious ways Chinese people approach our native tongue, my list of linguistic pet peeves is surprisingly few. Yet there is one term that I can no longer stand: delicious.

Ask any Chinese person about his or her favorite food and you’re bound to hear the word ‘delicious’ peppered into the conversation with alarming frequency. An example: “In my hometown you can eat many delicious food”. Another, when eating together: “How is your food? Is it delicious?”.

I don’t mean to slag off the Chinese whose success in learning English in a vacuum are admirable. But it’s time we, the collective laowai, must put a stop to the overuse of ‘delicious’. I hereby propose that we help relegate ‘delicious’ to the truly extraordinary situations in which the term applies.

In essence, ‘delicious’ for some reason has become the standard Chinese translation for hao chi (好吃), an extremely common phrase one hears in the culinary mecca that is China. What’s odd is that hao chi is used in almost precisely the same way we use the simple term ‘good’ to describe food. In both languages a distinction between food that is merely good and food that is extremely good (‘delicious’) are made without difficulty.

Furthermore, the Chinese do have a term that corresponds well with the English ‘delicious’: fei chang hao chi (非常好吃), or literally  ‘unusually good’. Even the simple hen hao chi (很好吃) would suffice.  A conscientious English teacher would simply have to ask students to reserve ‘delicious’ for food that doesn’t come around every day.

So how does this happen? How can so many Chinese people make this simple error in English, whereas situations of similar complexity are handled with aplomb? My sense is simply that when the Chinese began to study English en masse and the vast majority of English teachers were fellow Chinese, someone wrote ‘delicious’ as the translation for hao chi in a glossary and the entire nation thus became inculcated with the slight, yet nagging, error.

This, my laowai teaching friends, is where you come in. Every time one of your students says delicious when they mean hao chi, please give them the courtesy of correcting their error. Little my little, we’ll be able to put ‘delicious’ in its proper lexical context.

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About Matt

Matt spent six years in China, mainly based in the beautiful spring city of Kunming. During that time he worked in consulting, journalism as well as English teaching. Matt studied Chinese for 2+ years and loved exploring the mountains of Yunnan by mountain bike). He now lives in New York City where he is pursuing a Masters in International Affairs at Columbia University.

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  2. Ok, so the vocabulary is limited. But I think there really is no problem in using that word. It’s not exactly overused. What other words would you suggest? Yummy? Appetizing? Luscious…titillating… For me, what’s important is that one can convey cleary AND simply what your thoughts are (in speaking). Writing is a different thing.

    • It’s not a question of finding other words in the thesaurus. I think anyone would agree than in learning another language, the ideal is to sound as much like a native speaker as possible — and native speakers just say ‘good’, as it was written above. Delicious is reserved for something unusually good, as are the other words from Meng’s thesauraus. If you you go around asking anglophones if their lunch is succulent, we/they will understand you, but you will get some weird looks.

    • Baoru:

      You are wrong. Your simple and flawed logic is wrong. If your aim is only to simply express yourself in another language then I suggest you aim a little higher. My dog gets his meaning across with simple grunts and body language. I take offense that you suggest Chinese should just settle for such basic communication skills.

      Lets be honest, you are a collective apologist for people who say “delcious” with regard to any Chinese food. As a Chinese, I know their is great Chinese food along with mediocre and some awful foods out there.

      The other posters are right, there is no room for argument here. If native speakers mention that the usage of a word in a specific content in inappropriate or wrong, then it is simply thatw wrong. Learn from your mistakes, say thank you, and move on. Don’t be so uppity.

    • Based on my experience teaching in China a few years I have to say it is overused in the sense that we don’t use it anywhere near as much in native speaking countries. It’s used by us to express particular appreciation of a dish or to express gratitude to relatives or friends who have cooked for us. However, I suspect that there is more to this than meets the eye, national pride in Chinese food being a possible factor. Rather like, students always say their hometown is beautiful whereas its relative aesthetic merits in a Westerner’s eyes may vary. It’s a cultural thing, no?

  3. hehe, one American teacher told us the same thing but many students misunderstood that “delicious” was no longer used. So I suppose the better way is to tell us Chinese students some other words describing 好吃, instand of merely pointing out the overuse of “delicious”.:D

    Plus, when you say “It’s hot today,” you have to put it like “今天很热”. You see that we Chinese are fond of overstating – in this case, when you mean “It’s good” in Chinese, you gotta say “这很好吃” which roughly literally means “It’s delicious.”^^

  4. Agreed.
    I tell my students to use “it’s nice/good”, “it tastes nice/good” or just “it’s tasty”.
    I have similar feelings about the word ‘interesting’…

    • There is nothing wrong with “interesting” but that it is overused. I thought this a funny post because out of all the errors students make “delicious” might be the least needing attention. In fact, asking you if your food is delicious or bragging that their hometown has delicious food is perfectly appropriate English. It would be wiser simply to teach students alternative adjectives so they can hope to avoid redundancy overall.

  5. Is the problem the lack of subtlety in Chinese that leads to this? As Baoru hints, I could think of dozens of adjectives to describe a meal but I have never heard that variation from Chinese friends/family.

    I remember watching my legitimate (gasp!) copy of Ratatouille in which there is a scene where the hero becomes the official poison detector. As the rats file past with food he uses increasingly positive English descriptions such as (something like – I can’t find the DVD) “OK”, “Great”, “Fantastic”, “Close to Godliness” whilst the Chinese subtitles went 好, 好, 很好, 非常好.

    Anyway, there should be no criticism of the overuse of delicious without mentioning the need to stop people using the phrase “very delicious”.

    • How would you rewrite the Ratatouille scene? I propose: 不错, 很好, 太棒了!牛逼!
      I suspect that those are all informal, so aren’t used when writing the Chinese. But they should be, because the subtitles are just representing the spoken dialogue, which includes informal expressions (Although I’m pretty sure you couldn’t use 牛逼 in a family movie…).

    • Again, that is why Chinese is easier to remember, because characters that have the same meaning would appear in several other words! 😀

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  7. Here’s a few more out of my thesaurus: delectable, mouthwatering, appetizing, tasty, flavorful, toothsome, palatable; succulent, luscious; scrumptious, delish, yummy, finger-licking, nummy, lip-smacking, melt-in-your-mouth. As an English teacher here in China, I also suggest to my students that sometimes you don’t have to use words specific to food. For instance, you could say, “That 宫宝鸡丁 was good, but the 饺子 were wonderful.” Vocabulary seems to function so differently in both languages. When I put “delicious” into Wenlin (I hope everybody here knows about this wonderful program) it delivers me an equally long list of words that can be used in different occasions.

  8. This is a typical example of textbook English in China. I prefer the words good/tasty/yummy, easier to spell :p

  9. Very very familiar. 🙂
    Some people I knew even used ‘super delicious’ all the time. After which I turned it into a joke, asking every time if they thought it was ‘super mega delicious’.

    I always suggest using ‘tasty’

  10. good call, i’m tutoring a kid right now and i taught him “tasty” today, saving delicious for later on in our lessons. How about when they say “play” meaning “hang out” or “spend time together.” I know this makes more sense because their word for play means the same thing, but really, someone must let them know that children play, adults hang out, visit, spend time together, etc.

  11. Pingback: Overused But Unnatural Laowai Phrases in Mandarin Chinese | China on My Mind

  12. It is a purely linguistic problem. Adjectives in some languages are just weaker than in other languages. For example, in German if people say Dieser Kerl ist nett (This guy is nice), that means this guy is just not hostile; if you want to mean this guy is nice, you have to say Dieser kerl ist sehr nett (This guy is really nice/friendly). Chinese just tends to use “something is very x” to mean what would be “something is just x” in English.

  13. Very common dialogue in China:

    Me: “Where is your hometown?”
    Chinese person: “I’m from _____ in _____ province. Have you go there?”
    Me: “No I haven’t.”
    Chinese person: “Oh. It is a very beautiful city.”

    So far from these countless conversations, every city in China is beautiful. From my personal travel experience, few cities in China are beautiful.

    I think the issue comes from a smaller repetiore of adjectives in the Chinese language, at least adjectives that are commonly used. We Westerners pride ourselves on the descriptive versatility of our various languages, but Chinese is a bit more practical and efficient.

    • There are multiple words in Chinese that mean ‘beautiful’ just as there are multiple words in English. I’d say that it’s less about a lack of variety in the native language, but more to do with the fact that students (of any language) will remember and use words more that can cover a larger range of situations.
      Yes, there are a lot of English words that could describe something in more detail (as there are Chinese words), but words such as ‘beautiful’ and ‘interesting’ can cover a lot of situations so I suspect that students would remember them more readily.
      If I’m learning a new language, and two words kind of mean the same thing but one of them can be used in more situations, I’m definitely going to remember that one, whereas the other one is more likely to be forgotten (because it’s kind of redundant). It’s nothing to do with my native language, and everything to do with efficiency of learning…memorising as few words as necessary to be able to deal with most situations (i.e. doing more with less).

      • Well I agree with you to a point; however, when I hear Chinese people discussing their cities or local food or girls or whatever in Chinese, they use the same bland adjectives as well, such as “beautiful,” “delicious,” etc. Of course the same situation exists in every culture- no need to be overly flowery with one’s descriptions, but I think it may something to do with a Chinese cultural inclination towards practicality.

        Look at Chinese homes, offices, restaurants, and classrooms- usually clean but spartan. Modern Chinese culture is not a decorative culture as it was in the past, and I think the language is reflective of this. Why exert one’s vocabulary when “好吃” or “漂亮” does the job?

      • Nick,
        Yes…no disagreement here. Colourful language doesn’t seem to be used so much in everyday speech. I took your point to mean that the Chinese language itself has a small repertoire, whereas now I know you’re talking about only what is most commonly used, and you’re right. If only everyone spoke like advertisements…that would certainly be more, um, “interesting”…
        As for the reason for over-using certain adjectives when speaking English, I would guess it’s mostly this, and partly what I mentioned earlier.

  14. Amen and god bless, it’s annoying.

    Speaking Chinese has an advantage when trying to teach about overuse, because generally, when someone overuses those words, you can circumvent the need to explain by asking them to translate the sentence they’ve just spoken back into Chinese, and 9 times out of 10, it tracks back to a direct translation of a common Chinese adjective. That and native sample texts in both languages describing similar things allow proof of the principle. You take a Chinese text and count how many times 美食 and 好吃 and 滋味 are used in a Chinese text about food, or words like 华丽 and 优雅 are used in upscale advertisements, then compare them to their dictionary equivalents in similar English texts, and then do the same from English back to Chinese, and you’ll a strong case from which to convince your students that “languages are different”, and that there are two categories of words: understandable, and common.

    From there, what I usually do is create a blacklist and a whitelist. Whitelist words are encouraged, blacklist words are verboten and will be punished with the efficiency of the Nazis (and that’s totally how I say it).

    It seems to work, although they bristle at times. That’s when I pull out The Three Levels of Pronunciation: and turn on the Wenlin pronunciation tool for a few sentences. That gets ’em every time.

  15. I was taught when i was in 初中 (Chūzhōng) Junior high school for saying delicious in all most every eating occasion.

    that was what the book wrote.

    But gradually we all find out that laowai does not say this quite often… how shame to be like this… our local english teachers especially in junior high school should think about this.

  16. “Clean but spartan?”, “Modern Chinese culture is not a decorative culture as it was in the past?”, “Colourful language doesn’t seem to be used so much in everyday speech?”, “Chinese is a bit more practical and efficient?”
    Do you guys live in bizarro China?

    • I’m going to have to agree with everybody on this one–flowery speech is not used very often in day-to-day chat. I mean, when was the last time you heard, for instance, somebody utter a chengyu? Chatting with friends is usually minimalistic, and even when you tell somebody a story, it seems to follow the structure of “他 什么什么的。。。然后 什么什么的。。。然后“ and an endless string of 然后s with even the 他 taken out after the first utterance. In Chinese language classes, yes, very often you are taught to speak eloquently, but nobody really talks like that with their friends.

  17. what about the word “hometown”? That’s certainly the most oversued English word in China. They even use for provinces or countries sometimes.

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