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In popular Chinese language, especially in Internet Chinese language, we use the word "学霸" (literally meaning "academic overlord") to refer to someone who does very well in his/her study and who always achieve high grades in exams.

Also, we use another word "学婊" (literally meaning "academic bitch") when we (jokingly, without any malicious meaning) speak of someone who does excellently in his/her study but who likes hiding it from the others, which is their most important difference from "学霸" : for example, if you ask a "学婊" about how he/she feels about the last exam he/she will most probably tell you "Oh it was too hard for me. I really messed it up, and I must get an F this time!" while in fact he/she performed excellently, perhaps much better than most of the others in that exam.

So are there English equivalents for these two Chinese Internet terms? As far as I know, in U.S. the word "curve-wrecker" might take similar meaning to "学霸", and I'm wondering if there is any other alternative word. But for an English counterpart to "学婊", I simply have no idea.


EDIT I think maybe I need to clarify more about the word "学婊". First it is not equivalent to "modesty", although "modesty" can sometimes explain a "学婊"'s behavior. I think maybe the word "sandbagger" in @Avangion's answer in the meaning "downplay or misrepresent one's ability" is by now the closest word, although it might have an overly derogatory tinge.

Generally "学婊" is a teasing/joking word and is rarely used as an insult. And the motivations why a "学婊" downplays his ability or misrepresents performance may be:

1). He/she knows that this exam was super hard and most people do feel bad about it. So when asked about how he/she feels about it, he/she will not tell them the truth that he/she did quite well, so as not to hurt other people's feelings.

2). Out of modesty. And this part may have been hardwired into Chinese cultural genes from ancient times -- showing off is almost always despised in Chinese cultural context, and modesty regarded as a significant virtue.

3). To deceive his/her peer components by downplaying. This is not the usual case, but can happen.

EDIT AGAIN According to JanusBahsJacquet's comment (I failed to find the link), the Wikipedia definition describes it as someone who “pretends not to cram before an exam, then breaks down in hysterics after and gets comforted by everyone, only to appear top of the class when the results are shown”, which I think is a pretty typical and accurate description.

  • Please do not use the comments to answer. Only use them to seek clarification on the question. – Matt E. Эллен Jun 15 '15 at 10:32
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Translation is difficult, and translation of slang is even more difficult because of all the non-shared cultural context and nuances involved. So there's usually not a direct translation (one-to-one always) that fits for slang. Often that results in a direct loan word, like 'kow tow' or 'kung fu', or loan translation, like 'brain washing' or 'lose face'. This happens more often than a direct loan because the phonology and culture are so different between English and Chinese.

For these two terms, 学霸 ('school tyrant') and 学婊 ('school whore/bitch') (those are the character for character translations, the nuance of the individual words may or may not be very misleading), there are no such terms for the direct corresponding cultural situation, especially for the second one which seems to be a recent invention. Of course there are terms in the same area of concern (academic excellence):

  • valedictorian (n, formal) - the best in the class
  • overachiever - someone who looks like they're trying really hard (and is succeeding at everything)
  • teacher's pet - slang, the student that the teacher seems to favor over all others (maybe academically or because they are controllable) not derogatory but usually used disparagingly or enviously.
  • kiss-ass (n) slang, (not primarily academic) someone who does things just to please a superior (a teacher's pet might be a kiss-ass, but that is not at all necessary)
  • nerd - academically oriented to the exclusion of all else (compare with dweeb and dork).
  • swot (n) swotty (adj) - chiefly Br slang, very studious
  • cutthroat (adj) for a person or atmosphere, a very competitive academic environment, where people will break the rules to get ahead

I'd prefer to have many more terms in that area of which there are many I am sure, I just can't think of them.

  • I've heard of "cutthroat competition" and "Cut-throat business deals"; however, a "cutthroat student" is not an expression I'm familiar with. I suppose it must be an idiomatic AmEng expression. – Mari-Lou A Jun 14 '15 at 6:37
  • @Mari-LouA I feel "break the rule" indicates that a "cutthroat" student is too aggressive to be viewed as normally competitive. – Vim Jun 14 '15 at 16:41
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"学霸" (literally meaning "academic overlord") to refer to someone who does very well in his/her study and who always achieve high grades in exams.

I believe the equivalent is straight A student. It is used for students who always get high grades (to get straight A's).

Derogatory alternatives are grind (US slang) and swot (BR slang).


"学婊" (literally meaning "academic bitch") when we (jokingly, without any malicious meaning) speak of someone who does excellently in his/her study but who likes hiding it from the others

I don't believe there is a good equivalent for this in English. For example, someone might pretend not to study to seem like a natural genius.

It is also mentioned as a strategy of self-handicapping.

However, in a twitter message, this kind of person is directly called a bitch. As you know, bitch is usually an insult but it can be used in a positive sense informally for someone who is performing well (and probably used out of jealousy).

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It's important to remember that slang changes quickly and thus the dictionaries will have trouble keeping up. There is, however, a sense that we have for our native languages that allows us to be able to construct words that others understand. Comedians are often very good at this. The two words you have offered from Chinese demonstrate this perfectly.

As a native English speaking American, I would express 学婊 by calling the person a "closet nerd."

This expression would not have made any sense 50 years ago and may not make any 50 years from now; but I guarantee every native English speaker (at least NA) would understand exactly what is meant by it. It is slightly tongue-and-cheek in nature as using "closet" implies that being a "nerd" is something to keep hidden from others. The derivation actually comes from being "in the closet" as a euphemism for being secretly homosexual. However, the modifier "closet ---" has taken on a life of its own and now may evoke sense of keeping some part of your life a secret or not fully admitting something about yourself to others, or even yourself.

Other examples of this usage might be, (New Yorkers will get this) a "closet Mets fan". Since the Yankees and Mets are both baseball teams from New York and the Yankees are overwhelmingly more successful, it implies, jokingly, that someone might "front" as a Yankees fan around coworkers, only to go home, lock the doors, close the curtains, and put on his Met's hat and shirt.

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Closet+Nerd

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I don't think there are widespread English equivalents for those expressions that would be universally recognized, though you may find regional or historical equivalents. I wouldn't be surprised if the British have or once had words for these things, for example. That said, I just wanted to point out that "curve-wrecker" does have a negative connotation in the US. It is not a term of admiration.

I suspect there are distinct enough cultural differences between China and English-speaking countries, especially with regard to exams, that such terms don't exist beyond the usual ones like nerd or genius (which can be derogatory, like smart-ass). We do have insults like bookworm or poindexter (pretty slangy) which refer to people who study "excessively," but that's not as precise as academic overlord, which maybe we should just import into English! Overachiever is good as a general term for academic overlord, though it does also have a negative tinge, too, I think—can one really achieve too much?

Also, for the second one, we might use general terms of modesty but for your sense of someone who hides their real achievements, I'm fond of the term sandbagger, which refers specifically to someone who pretends they aren't as good as they are about something. You can use it in a variety of ways.

"Wow, you're really good at playing piano." "No, I'm terrible." "Stop sandbagging, you're awesome."

I wouldn't say it's universally known, either, but it's an option.

  • Thank you! Well, I find on [this online dictionary ](thefreedictionary.com/Sandbagger) that sandbag means "downplay or misrepresent one's ability to deceive components", does that take a derogatory tone too? – Vim Jun 13 '15 at 4:05
  • Yeah, a "sandbagger" is similar to a "ringer," then too, there's "sleeper" noun: 4. a. One that achieves unexpected recognition or success, as a racehorse or movie. – user98990 Jun 13 '15 at 4:13
  • I think of a ringer as someone you bring in to compete on your behalf, like a professional at an amateur competition, not someone who is hiding something per se like a hustler. A sleeper is someone or something that achieves unexpected success seemingly out of nowhere. In this case, that would be a good term for someone who scores highly on an exam when nobody expected them to do so? Or ends up number one in the class by flying under the radar when others were felt to be more in the running. Sandbag, too, has other meanings so this is a tough one. – sjsyrek Jun 13 '15 at 4:21
  • I agree. What "sandbagger" & "ringer" have in common though is a quality of deception which is wholly absent from the qualities OP seeks to encapsulate, just as "sleeper" doesn't wholly fit due to the unexpectedness. Not meaning to nitpick, as you indicate, this is a tough nut to crack. :-) – user98990 Jun 13 '15 at 5:02
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The BrEng term a swot comes to mind, this is commonly used for students who not only got brilliant grades but studied hard too. Normally, the kids (when I was at school) who said this were envious of the student's almost perfect grades, especially if the student showed a natural flair for the subject and an agile mind. They were the ones who could absorb any new information; dates, facts, figures, algebra etc. effortlessly. Even in those cases, they were called a "swot", as if to insinuate their high grades could be achieved by anyone if they spent hours swotting (‘shedding’ sweat) over their school textbooks.

swot
a person who studies hard, especially one regarded as spending too much time studying.

An excerpt from a self-confessed "swot"

Confessions of the Class Swot.

I’m good at exams, me. That’s what I do.

I’m the kid in your class at school who came top of every test. I’m the one who got 98% in her Woodwork exam, despite having no practical skills at all. I’m the kid who was congratulated by the Head Teacher for being “a Credit to the School”, when I got a string of A’s in my GCSEs.

Do you hate me yet? Are you feeling the desire to call me Swot, or Speccy Four-Eyes or (worse) Teacher’s Pet?

There was a serious risk of being bullied and teased, if you were perceived to be the teacher's pet—a student who always had the right answer, and consequently could do no wrong in the teacher's eyes. So, if you were smart you kept your head low; you feigned ignorance, if your classmates asked you what the answer to a difficult maths problem was; you didn't put your hand up to answer the teacher's questions because then you would be "showing off". But you shone in your assignments, exams, and school reports.

I suppose a more complimentary word nowadays would be nerd, it's a term well-known in both the UK and the US. It used to have quite negative connotations, but it's definitely ‘cool’ to be considered a nerd at school today.

nerd
a person who is extremely interested in one subject, especially computers, and knows a lot of facts about it:
I'm a real grammar nerd.

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    For context, 'swot' is almost entirely unheard of in the US, except by Harry Potter aficianados (like 'snogging'). – Mitch Jun 13 '15 at 21:40
  • @Mitch is my answer misleading? But if Harry Potter uses the term, I wouldn't know because I've not read the books nor seen the movies in English, (in Italy they are always dubbed), then perhaps the OP will already be familiar with "swot". – Mari-Lou A Jun 13 '15 at 21:47
  • No, your answer is not misleading. I was only giving the context that if the OP uses 'swot', most Americans will not recognize it. You do say BrEng, but I just wanted to emphasize where Americans might recognize it from, if at all. – Mitch Jun 13 '15 at 23:45
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In these phrases, "学" obviously refers to scholarship, learning, and academics.

However, "霸" does not equate well to lord/overlord, since that implies authority over others; nor does it equate well to tyrant, since that implies oppression. The meaning is one of clear and undisputed dominance, hence a "hegemon," or more colloquially, a "boss."

A "学霸" is therefore a "scholar boss," a "learning boss," or an "academic hegemon." In a cultural context in which academic success equates to studying and exam-taking success, one might obtain a narrower connotation by rendering as "study boss" or "exam boss." Of all of these, I most prefer "study boss" for its similarity in register.

"婊" literally means prostitute, but as others have alluded to, in recent years, it has taken on a slang meaning especially referring to the double-life that a prostitute might lead, i.e. one who doesn't lead an honest life. Somehow this has been equated to "bitch" overseas, perhaps because they are the most common insult against females in their respective languages. But really "婊" has few meanings common to "bitch," which implies meanness or whininess. "婊" in its slang meaning is best translated as "closet slut."

Nevertheless, a much better match for "学婊" might be "study pimp." A pimp is not quite a boss, but is close to the sense in which 婊 is substituted for 霸 -- A lesser, and more dishonest kind of boss who would like others to buy whatever is being pimped, perhaps.

Let's round out this series. There is another slang, "学渣", referring to the opposite of "学霸", meaning those who are resigned to be dominated by others in academics. An appropriate term might be "study turd."

  • For "学婊" in Australian English we would say "quiet achiever", for a highly successful but conservatively modest scholar. It is not considered good form to blow your own trumpet. These are relatively new Chinese language concepts, born of the internet. Bragging of academic prowess is a cultural norm. Elsewhere it can be as forbidden as bragging about money, – mckenzm Jan 25 at 9:00
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It is looking for some level of similarity as cultural context is very different. So approximations only:

1 Academic prodigy

A young person with exceptional qualities or abilities: a Russian pianist who was a child prodigy in his day

2 Unostentatious

1. unostentatious - not ostentatious; "his unostentatious office"; "unostentatious elegance" unpretending, unpretentious
2. unostentatious - exhibiting restrained good taste; "the room is pleasant and understated"

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