Inside Wealth

China has a word for its crass new rich

What is 'tuhao'?

How do you say "nouveau riche" in China? Tuhao.

As in, "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" are tuhao. Covering the inside of your Rolls-Royce with jade is tuhao. Or, the most popular use, the new gold iPhone 5s is now known in China as the "tuhao gold iPhone."

Tuhao roughly translates as "crass rich," since "tu" means uncultured and "hao" means bold or bullying. (Though some sites say that "hao" translates better as "wealth" or "splendor.") It joins "nouveau riche," "parvenu" and "bling" and other terms for the newly rich who have more money than taste. And while it's quickly gone viral in China, where flashy new wealth is sparking growing resentment, it's also gaining global traction as the luxury-hungry Chinese rich are venturing around the world.

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The number of tuhao websites, blogs, comic books, TV shows and ad slogans is exploding. And tuhao's legitimacy could soon become official, with the keepers of the Oxford English Dictionary saying they may include tuhao in its next edition.

"A lot of media has given attention to the word 'tuhao' which also triggered our interest," said the management authorities at Oxford University Press, the publisher of the dictionary. "If the influence of 'tuhao' keeps rising, we will consider including it in our dictionaries of the 2014 edition."

The Oxford folks say the word "tuhao" dates back more than 100 years, when it referred to wealthy landholders who would bully peasants or underlings. Oxford said the new usage has taken off in the past two months with growing media attention. In China, where the new rich are buying everything from gold-plated BMWs to $1 million dogs and $5,000 bottles of wine, the term is the word of the moment.

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Tuhao was listed as one of the top "hot words" recently in China Daily. As the newspaper explained: "People find tuhao to be aptly worded, because nouveaux riche have garish tastes and lack good cultural traits and sophistication. Although 'tuhao' is a derisive term, it is being widely used by netizens to poke fun at the rich who are like luxurious products with little use or content."

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Tuhaos have become the chief target of ridicule on the China blogosphere. As the China media blog Tea Leaf Nation put it, they are China's version of the "Beverly Hillbillies.'"

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The new gold iPhone 5s, which has become a huge seller in China, is now called "Tuhao Gold."

Tuhao has also become the center of one of the most popular jokes making the rounds on the China blogosphere. A young man asks a Zen master, "I'm wealthy, but unhappy. What should I do?" The Zen master says, "Define 'wealthy.'" The young man answers, "I have millions in the bank and three apartments in central Beijing. Is that wealthy?" The Zen master silently holds out a hand. The young man says: "Master, are you telling me that I should be thankful and give back?"

The Zen master says, "No ... Tuhao, can I become your friend?"

Now, the phrase "Tuhao, can we be friends" is quickly becoming a catchphrase in China—which shows that as much as they dislike the tuhao, they also want to share in their good fortunes.

By CNBC's Robert Frank. Follow him on Twitter @robtfrank.