Looking for an English equivalent of the Chinese noun 心眼 if there is any, or the best way to describe it. If someones has 心眼, then you can say they are sly.

But, what do they have if they are sly?

To try and describe the word's meaning, it is a noun that means something like figurative 'brains', 'sneaky' or 'trickery'. If someone is said to have bad 心眼, it means they can think up trickery and be evil to deliberately sabotage someone, or at least to work a situation to their advantage/avoid being disadvantaged. 心眼 on it's own doesn't necessarily have to be evil, it can also mean being able to protect oneself. For example:

  • Say you are going to a party out of necessity but you don't really want to go. In Chinese, if you had 'a little 心眼'(多一点心眼), you can say you still have things to do, and leave early.

  • An example of bad 心眼 could be where a person deliberately runs late when they need to give another person a ride, or fixing a deck of cards before a game so that when it is dealt, specific cards to to a specific person. Or, here's an example everyone should be able to understand, Cinderella's stepmother and sisters had a lot of bad 心眼 when they said Cinderella can go to the ball if she gets all the work done AND sews her own clothes, but then purposely give her a lot of work so she can't get everything done on time. (On the surface it looks like they were kind to let her go but in reality it was a set up).

  • If a person has no 心眼, it means they are too naive and easy to take advantage of. In English, you can say they have no brains.

What I want to do is, rather than having to say "A person is sly" in the nominative case, I want to say "A person has no ___" in the accusative case (I believe they are in the right cases, please correct if this is wrong).

Another example:

In the movie "Mrs Doubtfire", Daniel secretly changed the numbers on the ad that his wife, Miranda, put in the paper looking for a nanny, so that only he knew the real number and no one else would be able to call. In Chinese, you would say he 耍 (which sort of means to play, do or implemented) a 心眼. Can I say in English, he played a trick where trick is the noun? This sounds very juvenile though.

  • 2
    In English, nouns and adjectives don't have cases (at least not morphologically); only pronouns have retained clearly marked cases. Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 16:23
  • 1
    You could describe someone as a cute hoor, but that would not be understood outside of Ireland.
    – TRiG
    Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 15:26
  • An adjective that can be either positive or negative with a similar sense is ‘canny.’ According to the ODO: Having or showing shrewdness or good judgement, especially in money or business matters.
    – Al Maki
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 12:14
  • 3
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is translation question.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 12, 2019 at 20:37
  • 1
    Why is a Chinese noun garnering so much interest? If it were mentioned en passant after the OP defines it,fine. But really, we are being asked for translation from the Chinese, which most of us, I venture to say, do not know.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 12, 2019 at 20:38

10 Answers 10


To me it sounds you're describing guile:

clever but sometimes dishonest behaviour that you use to deceive someone:
The president will need to use all her political guile to stay in power.
He is a simple man, totally lacking in guile.

-- Cambridge Dictionary

Guile is the quality of being good at deceiving people in a clever way.
His cunning and guile were not attributes I would ever underestimate.
I love children's innocence and lack of guile.

-- Collins English Dictionary

  • 4
    And note that the negation "guileless" exists. Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 16:18
  • 1
    @Acccumulation: That's not really a negation. "Guile" is a noun, and "guileless" is an adjective. Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 19:43
  • 6
    You could say "guilelessness" for a noun antonym. Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 19:45
  • Pt 1. The "He is a simple man, totally lacking in guile." really sounds exactly like something that can be used to describe a person 'without 心眼", so this is great, BUT, I think it only works because of the first statement that he IS a simple man. Otherwise, I don't know if guile fits because I found these examples: "Acting like you have a job on Wall Street when you're actually unemployed would take a lot of guile." and guile "is when you distract your friend from the fact that you are half hour late to a meeting by immediately turning on the charm and launching into a fascinating story." Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 5:53
  • Pt 2.The 2 sentences are from the same source. I have a friend who is totally like the latter sentence, except that I would say she has no 心眼 at all, so I am wondering, does anyone know if guile can be used differently/both and where it can/can't be applied to? I've never seen it before except 'beguile', which is a verb meaning deceive and sounds more like it means it is about false appearances, like a 2 faced person who pretends to be nice in front of one crowd but is mean behind closed doors, like Cinderella's stepmother. Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 6:06

The word you are looking for may be cunning. A person with cunning can be sly, clever, sneaky or scrappy. It's considered neither inherently positive or negative, much like the Chinese phrase, and it captures that idea of someone who finds an unexpected way to turn a situation to their advantage.

However, it's usually not correct to say that a person has no cunning. In the case you describe, where someone is too easily tricked or taken advantage of, they are described as being gullible.

  • In English speaking countries a fox is said to be cunning. I don't know if the Chinese word in the question is attributed to foxes. Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 19:59
  • @Merus Are you Chinese? Wondering cause you said "much like the Chinese phrase". I'm wondering if people other than me take 'gullible' with a negative connotation because to say that someone has no 心眼, is saying they/praising them are kind and unfortunately, easily taken advantage of. Gullible to me sounds like the person is stupid or ignorant. Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 6:11
  • 1
    @StephanieChen-Xu Yes, you are right, you would never call someone "gullible" without it being negative or possibly insulting. The closest I can think of for an affectionate or non-negative quality of being the opposite of cunning would be something like "innocent naivety". Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 13:09

They have wiles

1. devious or cunning stratagems employed in manipulating or persuading someone to do what one wants.

Wile:Google Dictionary

1: a trick or stratagem intended to ensnare or deceive also : a beguiling or playful trick
2 : skill in outwitting : TRICKERY, GUILE

Wile: Merriam Webster online

Note: it has been used to describe women with designs. So you might want to use care if it can be misconstrued this way.

  • I would emphasize the end note in that I've most often heard this word used as part of the set phrase "feminine wiles" than in any other context (though "the wily old fox" is also a contender.) Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 1:00
  • @RoddyoftheFrozenPeas Can I use it for males, like "he had a lot of wiles?" Otherwise it sounds like a great translation. Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 6:13
  • @Phil Sweet Thanks, this sounds like something I am looking for. Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 6:14
  • 1
    @StephanieChen-Xu Yes, you can, for example the Mirriam-Webster definition includes an example "he used all of his wiles to ingratiate himself". You can also call anyone "wily" (e.g. the pun in the cartoon name Wile E. Coyote), and a "wily old fox" is typically male. It's maybe a slightly old-fashioned sounding word, but widely known and usable. Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 13:17
  • But you can't directly trun 心眼 into TRICKERY or GUILE in any cases. For example, 长点心眼 means "enhance your ability to deal with people or problems." rather than "enhance your guile".
    – Zhang
    Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 2:16

That noun is most likely smarts. It can be used both in positive and negative sense.


2 (smarts) North American informal
Intelligence; acumen.

‘Nikki was intelligent while Jack had a different type of smarts.’

‘He has great vision and tremendous smarts in terms of knowing when to fair catch a ball and when to let it bounce.’

  • See also, my comment at Zebrafish.
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 9:24
  • As this states it is only a north american word, so be careful of your audience. I also hate the word smart becoming a negative word.
    – WendyG
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 10:28
  • true ^^ to me, smarts = pain
    – treyBake
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 16:10

I guess you could call that kind of person a shrewd person because the ability of being shrewd includes an element of slyness. And, of course, the noun form of the adjective shrewd would be shrewdness. The following are the definitions for both terms that you can find in the Cambridge Dictionary.


A shrewd person is able to understand and judge a situation quickly and to use this understanding to their own advantage.

Example sentence:

He was shrewd enough not to take the job when there was the possibility of getting a better one a few months later.


clear understanding and good judgment of a situation, usually resulting in an advantage

Example sentences:

She was a woman of great courage and political shrewdness.

He has approached the task with commitment, intelligence, and shrewdness.


We Japanese also use the word, 心眼 which may have been imported from Chinese, 心眼.

While 心眼 (heart and eyes verbatim) in Japanese simply means to observe a thing and event by heart, not by eyes, in other word, insight or inspiration, 心眼 in Chinese seems to have various meanings;

According to 現代汉語辞典 - Modern Chinese Dictionary at hand, which was compiled by China Social Science Institute, Language Laboratory, published by 商務印書館 - China Commercial Printing Institute in 1994, 心眼 – xinyanr has various meanings;o

1.内心 - 大妈看倒这未来的八媳妇、心眼打里高兴 - in the heart / in one’s real intention.

2.心地 - 存心 - 心眼好。没安好心眼 - state of mind.

3.聡明机智 -他有心眼。什么事都想得周到 – (have) wisdom, cleverness.

4.対人的不必要的顧慮和考慮-他这个人就是心眼太多 – unnecessary consideration to others, overconcerns.

5.気量(小或窄)-心眼小 - (lack) generosity, human scale.

So it’s pretty easy to translate Japanese word, 心眼 into English, but I think it difficult to think up an English equivalent to 心眼 in Chinese, unless you specify which one of various connotations of 心眼 you have in mind.

  • 1
    With all due respect, the Chinese usage are correct, but the English translations wrong. Sentence 1 is not using the words "心眼" together, it is an adjective + noun albeit a very strange one, I believe it means eye of the heart ie apple of one's eye. S2: "没安好心眼" = do not have good intentions. S3,4: We would never use "他有心眼" without an adjective, much less to mean "什么事都想得周到" or positive wisdom/considerate. Saying someone has too much 心眼 (他这个人就是心眼太多) is criticising them for being too evil/sly. S5: 心眼小 is a negative criticism, saying someone has a small 心眼 is saying they are petty and unforgiving. Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 11:32

Wit comes to mind, although it seems it isn't often used in a 'negative' context, as it is usually said as a complement. Although I don't see why you can't say something like, "He used his quick thinking and wit to cheat his opponent".


  • +1 and also unlike some answers, to lack "wit" or "wits" also conveys gullibility or foolishness. For example, you can say "My witless cousin fell for another scam", or "Jenkins is brave but he lacks the wits needed for this mission behind enemy lines". Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 13:00

I have seen people use sophistication for "城府很深", in some sense it agrees with a quality of a person having "心眼".

Cambridge Dict sophistication

the quality of being sophisticated


Her sophistication is evident from the way she dresses.


  • You should support your answer by citing a dictionary or another appropriate source.
    – V2Blast
    Commented Jan 26, 2019 at 4:51

I'm not sure there's a single word that fits all your uses. Here are a few candidates:

  • charm
  • charisma
  • tact
  • manipulation
  • wits
  • influence

Or perhaps turn the adjective "sly" into the noun "slyness"?


You may want to consider "stealth" (stealthily, stealthful) along with the others for a good descriptive word for for the qualities of your descriptions.


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.