Frying squid and getting fired

Idioms are funny things. In my efforts to get better at Mandarin, I have found that there are some things I can work out on my own, and some things that – even if I look them up and find out the meaning – completely flummox me until they’re explained to me by a native speaker.

One thing I recently discovered that is heavily in the latter category is the phrase 炒鱿鱼 (chǎo yóu yú). It literally means “fried squid”, 炒 being a very common word in the world of food for any fried dish, and 鱿鱼 simply meaning “squid”. However, after I heard the phrase come up several times in a conversation having seemingly nothing at all to do with food, I had to ask, why the fried squid?

As it turns out – and much to the amusement of my Chinese friends – their conversation had nothing to do with food at all. They were talking about an ex-colleague who had recently been sacked from their job. As it turns out, in Chinese the phrase 炒鱿鱼 (chǎo yóu yú) is an idiomatic phrase meaning ‘to be fired’.

It was only when they explained how this phrase came to be that I started to understand what was going on. To my surprise, the etymology has nothing to do with squid or frying, but more the shape of a fried squid. As anybody who has had fried calamari will know, squid curls into a little coil when you fry it, just like in the picture above. This is a reference to a long time ago in China, when itinerant workers would be provided lodgings by whoever employed them, and so if they were fired they would have to go back to the house, roll up their bed covers (卷铺盖 juǎn pū gài), and move out. Over time, due to the similarity between rolling up bedrolls and the shape of fried squid, the phrase 炒鱿鱼 (chǎo yóu yú) came to mean ‘to be fired’.

Mandarin certainly is an amazing language, but sometimes I feel like the more I learn, the more I realise just how much there is to take in!