Just three months ago, I began to hear people (mostly young people) using the word chok in daily conversations. I got curious and asked my wife what the word meant. She said: “Don’t you know Lam Fung, the popular TV actor? He is famous for choking his looks all the time.”
As I had no idea who Lam Fung was, my wife’s answer didn’t help much. Then I began to notice that my students were using chok on Facebook. Little by little, the word made sense to me, though I was not a hundred percent sure about its meaning.
One day in class, I asked my undergraduate students what chok meant. Their detailed explanation confirmed the meaning that was forming in my mind. They even told me that on top of looks, people can chok their voice.
I went on to ask them how the word came about, because I was quite sure that it was not borrowed from English. Jeff explained:
The word originated from pinball games. When people played pinball, they would guide the path of the metal ball by shaking the machine. Since chok means ‘shake’ in Cantonese, what those people did was to chok the machine. From this, chok has been extended to mean ‘to do something (sometimes artificial or unnatural) to obtain a desired effect’.
This explanation makes sense. That’s why we have ‘to chok one’s looks/voice’.
Yesterday, a columnist in Apple Daily, 李碧華 wrote:
某些奇怪的流行語只取其音，但很有趣。如 Hea，像帶不知廉恥之無賴表情長長歎一口氣，嬉皮笑臉叫人冇符，散漫、放空、遊魂之狀，好食懶飛耗時間，便是 Hea。還有 chok，應是「 choke」吧，令人窒息？當然電到你暈，但也有可能是嚇到你冇命，或嘔到你斷氣，都算 choke。以上其實是「英文」。
Lee is of the view that chok came from the English word ‘choke’. I think she is partially correct. In Cantonese, we have the expression “my breathing is being chok’ed’ (cok3 zyu6 dou6 hei3). That is exactly one of the meanings of ‘choke’ in English: “She almost choked to death in the thick fumes” (from Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary). In this sense, chok could have come from ‘choke’ (though I still think it is just a coincidence). But this is not the meaning of chok when used in “to chok one’s looks/voice”.
This afternoon, I came across chok in another context in a poster in an MTR station.
Obviously, chok is being used as an adjective here. But what does it mean?
The best place to find the answer is on Facebook, as I have so many young students who like using trendy expressions.
Janet, a former student, suggested that it means ‘cool’. Actually that was my guess. But the word ‘cool’ in English, often used by young people, actually does not have a concrete meaning. What’s the meaning of ‘the most chok version’? Maybe like ‘the coolest’ in English, it is used just because it is trendy, and it appeals to young people.
When I went home, I asked my teenage son, Jeffrey, what ‘the most chok version’ meant. He said he had never heard of this usage; the nearest usage he had heard referred to a person: “He is very chok”.
Well, maybe it doesn’t matter whether ‘the most chok version’ makes sense or not today. If enough people find it funny enough and begin to use it, it will make sense, to the people who use it.
Postscript: Thanks to Usagi, an MA student, who points out that “there’s an equivalent expression for ‘chok in Japanese, かっこつけ… A bit like ‘pretentious’ but slightly different.”