Dude! How to Be Forever Friends in Chinese?

HSK 3 quiz

Language is always evolving, and Mandarin Chinese is no exception. The past two years or so, more and more Chinese people are using the word “老铁 (lǎotiě).”

Originally, “老铁 (lǎotiě)” was used as a word by a northeastern Chinese dialect.

One example of how this word was created is the following:

Winter in northern China is cold, very, very cold, almost freezing.

One day a group of naughty kids thought it would be fun to lick the frozen metal of a pole, sometimes iron. All the other kids knew that you risk hurting the tongue if you try to remove it.

So one of the kids went up to the pole and started to breathe hot, warm breath onto it, to help save the others. Kids in northwestern China would call a friend who does this: “老铁 (lǎotiě)”, which literally means ‘old iron’.

HSK 3 quiz

Now people all across China use this word “老铁 (lǎotiě)” to refer to someone who is considered a “very close friend” to describe an “unbreakable” friendship/bond, or to mean a “bosom buddy” or more modernly in English “ride-or-die friend.”

This word implies familiarity with the person, so much so that you can totally be yourself around them. The friendship is unbreakable. You know you will be forever friends.

Let’s break it down character by character to fully understand its meaning:

老 (Lǎo): old.

Here used as a prefix, so it doesn’t have as substantial as a meaning such as “老 (lǎo)” in “老王 (lǎo wáng).”

铁 (Tiě): iron.

老铁 (Lǎotiě): bosom buddies; intimate friend.

So how can you use this word in daily life?

We mostly use it on the internet in conversation with friends. This internet use is the reason why it has become so popular over the past two years.

People are now using it in quick, short messaging conversations. When messaging over Wechat with a friend, we use this word often.

For example:

Zhāxīn le, lǎotiě!
扎   心 了,老铁!
My heart’s broken, old pal!

“扎心了 (Zhāxīn le)” is the most common sentence we would use with “老铁 (lǎotiě).” It doesn’t matter about the position as you can put it before or behind “老铁 (lǎotiě).”

The whole sentence is often used as a reply to someone who says a truth you are not quite ready to recognize, as shown by the following dialogue:

A: Nǐ shì bú shì yòu pàng le?
A: 你  是 不  是  又     胖   了?
A: Did you gain some weight?

B: Lǎotiě, zhāxīn le a!
B:老 铁,扎心 了啊!
B: Pal, you are telling me the truth again!

Do you have friends like this who just won’t lie to you? Leave us a comment and share with us how your friends tell you the truth. Next time you could reply to them with “扎心了, 老铁!(zhāxīn le, lǎotiě)!”

HSK 3 quiz

A. 老人 (Lǎorén)

B. 老师 (Lǎoshī)

C. 老铁 (Lǎotiě)

―Written by Becky Zhang―Becky Zhang is a teacher at eChineseLearning.com. She has over eight years of experience teaching Mandarin Chinese to foreign students and promoting Chinese culture. She lives in Beijing but loves traveling to ancient Chinese villages. One day she’d like to be a tour guide in China!
Chinese Popular Words (Fun Stuff) 
General Chinese (Beginner Level) 
General Chinese (Intermediate Level) 

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