Does 老only show old age? There’s a few things you should know about “老Old” in Chinese culture.
When you’re in China, you might notice just how often the word 老(lǎo) is used all around you. The frequent use is actually on account of its various meanings and the flexibility in its usage depending on situation. Literally, 老(lǎo) means “old age or a long time.” However, once it’s put together with other characters, the meaning varies. Let’s take a closer look at this necessary and versatile word.
To show respect
In Chinese, we usually put 老(lǎo) after the surname of the elderly to express respect, for examples, 张老(Zhāng lǎo), 王老(Wáng lǎo), 李老(Lǐ lǎo) and so on. [张(Zhāng), 王(Wáng) and 李(Lǐ) are three common Chinese surnames.]
Additionally, putting 老(lǎo) in front of a person’s title conveys the same degree of respect as shown above, for examples, 老师(lǎoshī, teacher), 老专家(lǎo zhuānjiā, aged expert ), 老教授(lǎo jiàoshòu, aged professor), and 老中医(lǎo zhōngyī, old doctor of Chinese traditional medicine).
Sometimes, we use 老(lǎo) not only to show respect but to also add a hint of reverence for those we mention. For examples, 老天爷(Lǎotiānyé, God or Heaven), 老总(lǎozǒng, manager), and 老板(lǎobǎn, boss) all have that added tone of esteem when spoken.
Moreover, if you have plans to visit China in the future, an important note to keep in mind is that the Chinese term for foreigners, 老外(lǎowài), is used to show a kind of respect with hospitality.
To convey the idea of a close relationship
For peers and colleagues, 老(lǎo) denotes a certain degree of warmth and confidence. 老张(lǎo Zhāng), 老王(lǎo Wáng), 老李(lǎo Lǐ), 老赵(lǎo Zhào), and 老吴(lǎo Wú) all express this point by placing 老(lǎo) in front of a surname.
Similarly, a wife might call her husband 老公(lǎogōng), and a husband might call his wife 老婆(lǎopo). Children call their dad 老爸(lǎo bà) and their mom 老妈(lǎo mā). An elderly couple may also call each other 老伴儿(lǎo bànr).
To express the meaning of old or original
Common Chinese words to convey the meaning of old or original are 老熟人(lǎo shúrén, an old acquaintance), 老邻居(lǎo línjū, old neighbor), 老同学(lǎo tóngxué, an old classmate), 老朋友(lǎo péngyou, old friend), 老地方(lǎo dìfang, an original/usual place) and 老毛病(lǎo máobìng, old weakness/trouble).
To express very or extremely
This usage originated within dialects of northeast China, but today is in wide use in other regions as well, for examples, 大老远的(dà lǎo yuǎn de, such a long way), 老早老早的(lǎo zǎo lǎo zǎo de, very very early), 老好了(lǎo hǎo le, extremely good) etc.
To express order
We can put a number after the word 老(lǎo) to express the order or rank among brothers and sisters, for examples, 老大(lǎo dà) the eldest child, 老二(lǎo èr) the second oldest, 老三(lǎo sān) the third oldest and so on.
To mean always
Last, 老(lǎo) can be used to describe the high frequency of a situation, such as 老是生病(lǎo shì shēngbìng, constant illness), 老是迟到(lǎo shì chídào, always late) etc.