How “sorry” in Chinese emerged from an ancient rap battle

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How “sorry” emerged from an ancient rap battle

The worst feeling is when you step on your dog’s paw and then try to apologize but you can’t. The dog yelps and you feel that your dog now hates you and you can’t do anything about it. You say sorry a million times but your dog doesn’t understand…

“Sorry” in English is pretty simple, but “sorry” in Chinese has an interesting backstory.

In Chinese, it is 对不起 (duì bù qǐ), which literally means “can’t match”, which is of no relevance to apologizing, really. So, how did that come about?

One theory comes from a custom in ancient China. As a challenge, literate people used to write a line of text, and then ask another literate person to come up with another line of text with characters that matched the line in form, word order and subject. This practice was known as 对联 (duì lián). Think of it as an ancient version of a rap battle.

An example of 对联.

When someone couldn’t provide a matching line, then they would say that they “couldn’t match” it – or in Chinese, 对不起. Eventually, this admission of inferiority became a way to apologize for a mistake to show that they’re actually rather cultured.

Of course, this is not the authoritative origin – it’s just a theory. But I hope this has made for an interesting read about how one of the weirder Chinese expressions came into being!

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