Take a walk around Hong Kong, and you may notice that many of the rubbish and recycling bins dotting the city’s streets are labeled with the word “cum” — as in, “litter cum recyclables collection bin.” (That’s right: no dashes.) For anyone who still entertains a middle-school -level sense of humor, the use of the archaic Latin word “cum” to mean “combined with” will likely draw a smirk and a snicker.
The word is similarly used in the American lexicon, though perhaps less colorfully. The most prevalent use is probably in the academic sense, with the Latin honors cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude meaning with honor, with great honor, and with highest honor, respectively. In other areas, cum is used — with the dashes those Hong Kong signs are so sorely lacking — with enough frequency in present-day English that an academic paper has been written about it. A quick search online shows that the word is still quite often used by mainstream publications: in travel guides to describe a “market-cum-carnival,” in NPR to describe a “rapper-cum-singer” and “novel-cum-memoir,” and in State Department documents to refer to “content users cum participants.”
The key thing here is that in the U.S., the word cum is not blasted on public signs in a massive font. That’s what makes it such a weird, omnipresent thing in Hong Kong. “The younger westerner would look at it and go, hee-hee-ha-ha, but only because of the double entendre,” said Jason Wordie, a local historian who regularly writes about the backstories of the city’s many quirks. This linguistic oddity in Hong Kong very likely traces its roots back to the British, who ruled the city from 1841 until 1997, when it was handed back to China. Over a period of one-and-a-half centuries, the Brits invariably brought with them a wide range of cultural influences, from an independent judiciary, the rule of law, and a far more robust protection of civil liberties compared to the mainland Chinese government, to culinary habits like having black tea with milk for breakfast and streets named after British royalty.
And, it seems, plenty of “cum.”
The local government isn’t oblivious to the smutty innuendo. A few years ago, it made a concerted effort to cover up the word on bins after receiving numerous complaints on its “unpleasant meaning,” spending HK$3,000 (about $380) on stickers that replaced “cum” with a slash. Today, many of those stickers have been peeled off by curious passersby, and many have either faded or painted over.
Litter cum recyclables collection bins aside, the use of cum still abounds in government documents and press releases. The result is unintentionally hilarious phrases like “cum sharing session with youth,” “cum Management,” “cum facilities,” “cum-pumping station,” and “cum Carnival.”
It’s all part of a seemingly endless, disjointed, and perhaps ultimately futile effort to reform everyday language; a sustained skirmish between authorities and a cheeky citizenry. An order is given from high up to cover the word with stickers, but people peel them off. At least some government officials are aware of the need to phase out the word, but it still finds its way into government documents.
A veteran local lawmaker, Claudia Mo, has for years railed against cum on social media, calling out the government for its strange use of the word. In 2014, when the government finally covered up cum with stickers, she celebrated with a Facebook post: “This stupid government finally gets rid of the ‘cum’ word XD”. In January, she hit out at the government again for naming various public facilities with cum, like “nursing home cum day care center” and “kindergarten cum child care center.”
“The word cum is an old English word from the colonial days,” Mo, who represents the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong, said during a government meeting. "No one uses it. To still use it today will just make people laugh, especially tourists. I won’t explain to you in detail what’s so funny about it, but really the word ‘and’ will suffice.” Her appeals have gained traction on social media, but so far it does not appear other politicians have joined her in the campaign against cum.
Last week, Mo texted me a screenshot of another cum sighting in Hong Kong: a government WiFi network that read, in part, “cum Central.” Her office assistant had sent it to her, along with a facepalm emoji.
That the use of such an old word has persisted for so long reflects a certain degree of inertia and “a disinclination to challenge things that have always been done,” said Wordie. "The Hong Kong government has always used a lot of archaisms. Civil servants, lower ranking ones, still go on courses learning how to write memos with phrases like 'I refer to the captioned memo from your goodself.’ ”
Hong Kong is a fascinating mishmash of old and new, where surprising quirks of history can be found lurking in the most unsuspecting of places. It’s weird to walk through the city and see cum everywhere in English, and weirder still to see it in awkwardly phrased press releases. But the word, more than being funny, is a nugget of culture and history. Beyond the giggles that it invites is a broader story of Hong Kong’s history and how its past reverberates in unexpected ways to this day.
Come what may, cum may be here to stay.