On words, word meanings, and dictionaries

As a language with a long time and many periods of development, Vietnamese has a significantly greater number of words than what is being used today.

Since Vietnamese is a combination of multiple languages – including Vietnamese, Han, Nguon, Muong, Sach, May, Ruc, etc. In addition, geographically and historically speaking, many words have undergone semantic variations.

Within the scope of this article, some general ideas about “words” and “word meanings” in Vietnamese are discussed.

On words, word meanings, and dictionaries

On meanings of “cái”

It is believed that one of the most frequently and commonly used elements in modern Vietnamese is the word “cái”. Usually, “cái” has several meanings: to refer to an object (“cái bàn” [a/the table], “cái ghế” [a/the chair]), or to refer to the female gender (“con cái” [a female animal], “giống cái” [the female gender]), or not to refer to something large (“đường cái” [a highway, or a large road], “sông cái” [an estuary, or a large part of a river that meets the sea]).

Interestingly, many geographic names in the Southern part of Vietnam contain the word “cai” at the beginning of the name, for example, Cái Cát, Cái Cối, Cái Chanh, Cái Muối, Cái Trầu, Cái Bè, etc. Vietnamese geographic names always come with a certain meaning.

If you look them up, you will see that most of these aforementioned geographic names are associated with canals and rivers, so, does “cai” mean that?

The answer is yes; however, the mentioned meaning of “cai” is not too common nowadays. A definition of this word provided in the old Vietnamese-French dictionary (Dictionary Annamite – Francais) is “a small horizontal incision”. Additionally, since the Southern culture is closely related to the Khmer culture, the language is also influenced accordingly, especially for former Khmer locales. At the end of the 19th century, Truong Vinh Ky documented a comparative analysis of this relationship, as well as some elements by which “cai” corresponds to “prêk” – that is, “canal”.


  • Cái Cát = Prek Khsach (“Sand” Canal);
  • Cái Cối = Prêk Thbai (“Mill” Canal); and
  • Cái Trầu = Prêk Ambil (“Salt” Canal). 

The element (word) behind “Cái” is often used to refer to people, positions, characteristics, trees, etc.

If more study is done on Southern Vietnamese geographic names, we will recognize more of these similarities in other words such as “Cổ” (meaning “island”: Cổ Cong, Cổ Tron), “Ngả” (meaning “tributary”, “a river or stream flowing into a larger river or lake”: Ngả Cạy, Ngả Tắt, Ngả Bát), “Xẻo” (meaning “small creek”: Xẻo Sầm, Xẻo Nga), etc.

On word variation–word meanings in terms of geography and history

The meaning of a word can vary from period to period, and change throughout history. Many words’ original meaning has now been lost, replaced by the current common usage.

“Khốn nạn” is such a word. According to the two Sino-Vietnamese Dictionaries conducted by Dao Duy Anh and Nguyen Lan (individually), “khốn nạn” means great difficulty, suffering, or disaster (“nạn” means calamity). Nowadays, however, we mostly use the word “khốn nạn” when speaking about something or someone mean and despicable. If one says, “Anh chàng kia thật khốn nạn,” the average Vietnamese listener will immediately understand that the person in question is a despicable type, not in a miserable situation.

Another example is the word “nghèo” whose original meaning has now been lost. “Nghèo” originally meant “dangerous or hard-set”; instead, the current common word for such meaning is now “ngặt”.

In Tran Van Giap’s version of Quốc Âm Thi Tập (國音詩集 “National language poetry collection”), it says:

“Lòng người tựa mặt ai ai khác

Sự thế bằng cờ bước bước nghèo”

This verse inherently indicates the change in people and the world that puts one in difficulty and at risk. If the word “nghèo” here was to be understood as “material deprivation”, the second verse would not make any sense. Therefore, it is safe to say that the verse was written with the newer meaning of the word “nghèo”. In fact, the old meaning of “nghèo” now only appears in words like “hiểm nghèo” ([of a disease] deadly), “ngặt nghèo” (distressed).

Not only have word meanings been changed, but word connotations may have been altered or added, too. Perhaps modern Vietnamese people have never thought of “phản động” (which now means“reactionary”) in a good sense. However, before 1945, this word did not use to have any negative connotation.  “Phản” means “against”, and “động” means “not staying still”; therefore “phản động” was previously employed in speech and writings to mean “take action to react to something”.

For example:

“Sự phản động đầu tiên của chính phủ trước sự tăng giá toàn thể là quy định cho mỗi hóa vật một giá tối cao”. 

“The government’s first reaction to a global price increase was to set a supreme price for each commodity.”

(Do Duc Duc, Thanh Nghi Magazine, 1942).

In the prevalent Vietnamese dictionary, “reactionary” is defined as follows: “having thoughts, remarks or actions against the nation’s revolution and the progressive movement”. In fact, this word has been “dead” in terms of meaning (it cannot have any other meaning), so the original meaning has now ceased.

Geography is also one of the factors that affect the meaning of words. There are words in this region that do not have a bad meaning, but when used widely, or used in another region, they have a bad connotation.

Similarly, “ả” in the Nghệ-Tĩnh region refers to a common female. Even the most famous Vietnamese poet Nguyen Du also used this word with a completely usual meaning in the verse “Đầu lòng hai ả tố nga” (“His first births were two magnificent daughters”, Phan Huy’s English translation). However, in the current everyday language and especially in the Northern part of Vietnam, “ả” implies a woman who is indecent, wrong, and even law-offending: in the Vietnamese popular press, the word “ả” is especially used to refer to female criminals in a condescending manner.

In the Southern part of Vietnam, the word “Cả” hardly appears speeches and written text, because it profanes a tabooed name of someone who committed one of the most serious crimes back in the Vietnamese feudal time.

According to Pham Van Ban’s article “Tị húy trong sinh hoạt của người Việt Nam” (“Naming taboos in the daily life of Vietnamese people”),

“Khi bị Pháp chiếm làm thuộc địa, cơ quan cai trị ở mỗi xã miền Nam được gọi là Hội Đồng Tề, trong đó người đứng đầu được gọi là Hương Cả”. 

“When [Vietnam] was colonized by the French, the governing body in each southern commune was called the Tề Council, in which the head was called Hương Cả.”

Although it is absolutely normal to refer to the oldest sibling in the family as “anh cả” (big brother) or “chị cả” (big sister) in Northern Vietnam, it is not the case in the South. Therefore, the Southern Vietnamese replace “Cả” with “Hai”, thus “anh Hai”, “chị Hai”, “bà Hai”, etc.


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