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I want to describe myself as someone who likes to torture himself by learning something really difficult and not very useful.

I know there's such a word for describing someone who likes to be tortured sexually. But it's not what I'm looking for.

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This is an interesting question. Like Irene, I initially thought of masochist, but the original post implied another word might be preferred. Yet, surprisingly, I could not find a synonym for masochist in its general sense – three thesauri returned no results. The best I could muster was He often scourged himself mentally by spending hours on tedious puzzles, but that doesn't quite fit the bill, either. Is there a special word for words that have no synonyms? –  J.R. Apr 17 '12 at 9:20
Sisyphean didactic autoflagellation has a nice ring to it. –  Cameron Apr 17 '12 at 9:27
"graduate student" –  dmckee Apr 17 '12 at 18:00
@dmckee: The more I think about your suggestion, the funnier it is. Graduate student (n.): someone who likes to torture himself by learning something really difficult and not very useful. Brilliant! –  J.R. Apr 17 '12 at 19:17
@J.R. It's the voice of bitter experience. I had a great deal of fun in grad school, but... –  dmckee Apr 17 '12 at 19:25
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4 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Actually, you are looking for the word masochist. In its general sense it means someone who enjoys a painful or tedious activity.

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"The tendency to derive pleasure, esp. sexual gratification, from one's own pain or humiliation" so this is still very sexually hinted word. anything not related to sex ? –  osager Apr 17 '12 at 9:02
Actually, someone who likes to torture himself is an auto-masochist. A masochist is just someone who likes to be tortured, usually by other people. –  user16269 Apr 17 '12 at 9:16
Innocent words have acquired negative /unintended connotations by misuse. See what happened to gay. Sadism and masochism are thus maligned, as well. We need to coin neologisms, for clean use until they fall into the hands of word-vandals. But for now, masochism may be the closest fit for you. –  Kris Apr 17 '12 at 9:21
@Kris: I don't think this is a good example of words getting sexual overtones by misuse; it's the other way around in this case. The word originally referred to pleasure-from-pain in a sexual context, and then evolved into a more vanilla use. –  J.R. Apr 17 '12 at 10:40
@osager: yes, the word does have some sexual overtones – no getting around that – just look it up in any dictionary. However, that doesn't mean the word can't be used in a non-sexual context. If you're uncomfortable with that, find another way to express what you're trying to say, but, as I said in my earlier comment, good luck finding a synonym. –  J.R. Apr 17 '12 at 10:45
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Masochist is definitely a sexually-loaded term - after all, as OED says, it comes from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the Austrian novelist who famously described that form of sexual perversion (cf sadist - Marquis de Sade).

Of course, this doesn't prevent it being used figuratively by a speaker who intends no sexual connotation, but there's no guarantee his audience won't register that connotation. Besides which, you can't really use it with no connotations of perversion, which is normally sexual anyway.

I don't know a suitable "sexual perversion-free" one-word term but OP might like to consider...

glutton for punishment - someone who habitually takes on burdensome or unpleasant tasks or unreasonable amounts of work.

EDIT (following discussion in comments) - it's worth pointing out that even metaphorically, there's a strong implication that the masochist only does what he does for (perverted) pleasure. But in common parlance, a glutton for punishment is someone who (often, cheerfully) gets on with arduous tasks that actually need to be done (with overtones of stoic dedication, not perversion).

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I can't believe that in the English language there's no such a term which is not sexually related. I'm Chinese and in the Chinese language we have a not-at-all rare word for such self-torturing person. Is this a cultural thing ? lol –  osager Apr 17 '12 at 20:50
@osager: I'd bet any money English has far more words in total than any particular Chinese language (quite possibly, more than all Chinese languages combined), so you're on a hiding to nothing trying to come the old acid with that one, sunshine! :) –  FumbleFingers Apr 17 '12 at 21:14
You don't get me. I've been learning English for years and I know exactly how huge the English vocabulary can be. There seems to be a word for everything. That's why I'm surprised at this one. –  osager Apr 17 '12 at 21:17
@osager: Heh, I guessed that. Seriously, I think there might be a certain element of "cultural thing" involved here. Western civilisation does major more on the primacy of the individual, so we probably have more words around the "self-serving" senses than the "self-sacrificing" ones. But if you're looking to tell a prospective employer that you like hard work, you'd probably be more likely to get the job if you said you were a glutton for punishment than if you said you were a masochist. On the other hand, dedicated/hard worker would be fine anyway. –  FumbleFingers Apr 17 '12 at 21:45
@FF: nice on glutton for punishment. Works great for the O.P.'s purposes. –  J.R. Apr 17 '12 at 23:03
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The answer is 吃苦, transliterated chi ku.

In English, this Chinese expression is known as eating bitter. I have found no better explication on the Web than this post on a martial arts forum:

Chinese phrase for enduring hardship. Or as Occidentals would say: "Grin and Bear It." Other references are: “Keep on Truckin”, “Hang In There”, “Stick It Out”, “Suck It Up”, etc., all to mean to endure something unpleasant in good humor. Or to continue despite difficulties in a general phrase of encouragement meaning to stay focused.


Eating bitter seems to be an aged-old saying, like a parent to a child, upon having the child do something without complaint. It has the meaning of working hard and tolerate some agony in order to acquire what it is one is hoping to achieve.

Given the rapidity with which Chinese culture is spreading in the West, we will see eating bitter become more and more common. A biography published in 2010 (not a translation but a book originally in English) has Eating Bitter as its title, and there are many more examples.

I know, some of you will say it's too early to declare eating bitter part of the English language. Well, maybe you still have to put it between inverted commas and explain it upon first mention. I do believe, however, we will see it entering into common circulation soon. This is because (1) none of the English-language phrases*, from "grin and bear it" to "suck it up", carry quite the same connotations and (2) its very Chinese-ness makes it attractive, just as "tiger mom" filled a lacuna that had existed before.

So, you can say "I am used to eating bitter" or "I am one who likes to eat bitter, as we say at home" to describe yourself. In a job interview, this may get you a quizzical look, which is an opportunity for you to tell more. Interest in things Chinese is high in the West, so ride the wave!

*A more technical English phrase is "rage to master", used to denote willingness to put in thousands of hours of hard work in order to become highly proficient at something. However, it appears to be restricted to discussion of giftedness and therefore I do not see it as a good synonym for eating bitter.

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"I like to get my hands dirty": also not a good fit. "Masochist" is too sexual. "Glutton for punishment" is not bad, but usually works as self-deprecating humor or when you're poking fun at someone. –  Eugene Seidel Apr 18 '12 at 3:53
I'm sorry but the Chinese version is not 吃苦, but 自虐(zi nue). There're quite a lot of nuances here. English as a language has always been a melting pot with traces from almost every other language in the world. That's its charm I think. Now adays a few more Chinese elements would make it more fun to use :) –  osager Apr 18 '12 at 10:11
@osager As you are Chinese, I am inclined to defer to you. However, a web query turned up a fairly large number of hits, not all duplicates of each other... so now I am unsure what to think. –  Eugene Seidel Apr 18 '12 at 10:53
Oh wait, I see now where I misunderstood you... All this time I thought you were talking about "eating bitter" (chi ku) but you were thinking of zi nue, which is much more about inflicting pain on yourself, almost for the sheer sake of it... and so now I understand why you accepted the masochism answer. Hmm... sorry if I wasted your time. (By the way, in case that masochism strikes you as too strong and/or too sexual, putting on a hair shirt may also be worth your consideration.) –  Eugene Seidel Apr 18 '12 at 12:18
Don't worry about it. It's always fun to discuss. –  osager Apr 18 '12 at 13:01
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Describing yourself as a wonk might be a good approach. Per websters-dictionary-online it refers to "An insignificant student who is ridiculed as being affected or boringly studious"; more commonly it has a sense like "someone who is extremely interested in unimportant political facts". You might also describe yourself as dogged ("Stubbornly persevering, steadfast"), stubborn, or relentless ("Unrelenting or unyielding in severity" and "Unremitting, steady and persistent") in pursuit of knowledge.

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