Wednesday, June 1, 2005

A for Alexa

Reader Alexa emails:

My friends and I are getting tattoos. We are getting each others first initial in Chinese. After reading some of the horror stories on your web site I want to make sure I get the correct letters:

A for Alexa
C for Crissy
T for Tonya

Again we just want the letters. I am also interested in a phrase like friendship or something to that effect. I appreciate you taking time to read this and please respond, I don't want "crazy diarrhea" on me for life.

Thank you,


It may be a common misnomer that Chinese is like any other Romantic language that follows an alphabetical system.

Actually it is not so.
(example: tattoo's owner claim the characters are her son's initials)

My good friend Dr. Rick Harbaugh of has a Frequently Asked Questions section where this question has been answered in detail.

Mark Swofford of Pinyin Info is also planning to launch a new Frequently Asked Question to help out with some of these questions. The following is one of the example questions/answers, I think it is very useful for future tattoo seekers:

I want to get a tattoo with kanji / Chinese characters. What do you recommend?

This is probably not what you want to hear: Don’t get the tattoo. Most tattoos with Chinese characters are seriously flawed.

The chances of you getting something that looks good – and not just to you but also to others, including the hundreds of millions of people who can actually read Chinese characters and know how they’re supposed to look – are quite low.

Moreover, tattoos of Chinese characters are seldom written properly or represent a correct, idiomatic translation of the wearer’s desired meaning. On the other hand, the chances of you ending up looking more or less like a fool – at least to those who know Chinese characters – are uncomfortably high.

These are important considerations, given that you would need to go through pain and expense to have someone permanently stain your skin with an image that very likely will be done wrong in some important way.


  1. I still don't understand why people get tattoos with things they can't read. I have many tattoos and I thought about getting a kanji tattoo, but after getting it translated by a native Japanese speaker I just didn't feel comfortable doing it since I still didn't understand it.

    I don't really even want clothes with Chinese or Japanese characters on them (I have two t-shirts totall that have Japanese characters and even then I don't wear them often).

    If you're getting a tattoo go for something you can understand and won't be upset with in the future (yeah, this has all been said before). If I were going to get something with my friends I'd make a unique design that incorporates our initials and go with that.

  2. The question itself is so flawed ("I want a tattoo of something that cannot exist in the target language, i.e. a single phonetic character") that it's hard not to laugh at these people.

  3. There is also an article about this here

  4. Oh, c'mon. The correct answers to her question were, in order, 臭, 傻, and 屄.

  5. They want their initials, but would rather have them in an "alphabet" they can't read- are they ashamed of Roman lettering? Why not just get the initials done in an extremely intricate Old English typeface, if one's looking for a tattoo that to them is illegible? I find it puzzling, but amusing, that the initials are used as a representation of the whole being, but yet, they want this meaning diluted by making it impossible for them to read.

    As a bonus, if they got it in Roman script and there were extra strokes, they wouldn't be branded with "crazy diarrhea", merely an even uglier tattoo. I've never seen a serif like that yet, at least.

  6. or they could get the first three characters in the chinese form of their names. if the standard transliteration was used, then it'd be something like 亞克丹. or if they wanted something more original, mebbe like 鴨蛋殼. or something. hey, it's their own bodies. they can do whatever they want with them.

  7. Concerning what Brendan said:

    臭 stench
    傻 stupid/foolish
    屄 vagina

    Pure comic gold. I never knew 屄 before. That's a nice composition - reclining body radical plus "hole" :)

  8. Let me make sure I have this right:
    C(rissy), A(lexa), and T(onya) would like to get tattoos of each others' initials as a mark of their friendship, but they don't want the general public to recognise the meaning of the tattoo.

    Is it just me, or is the obvious solution for them to get just some sort of cat tattoo?

  9. i think alexa wants her initial to be first and that's what's really causing all the problems.

  10. Re: Kyle's response -

    So basically, you could take those three characters as a single sentence when the three girls are together: by their powers combined, they are stupid stinking cunts....

  11. Nitpicky but alphabetical languages are not limited to juust Romantic languages. Tuetonic, Cyrilic, etc are all examples of languages that use alphabets.

    -Ken L.

  12. I'm getting this tatooed on my back this year-

    My Chinese friend Isabel says that it's good, it's a fair dinkum saying and I did quite a lot of research to find something I was happy with. I can understand it completely -'time doesn't wait for me' so that's quite obvious, missed oppurtunities don't come again etc. Is there something glaring and obvious that I haven't picked up on?

  13. re: anon, yes, the proper order of characters for the saying "time doesn't wait for us" is 時不我待, and not as you wrote. i hope you haven't gotten the tattoo yet.

    alternately, 時不我與 is another saying that means the same thing. i don't want to tell you what tattoo to get, but this second one has its roots in poetry from the wenxuan, a literary anthology from a millennium and a half ago.

  14. Adding to Ken's post, English is not a "Romantic" ("Romance" is more common) language, but a Germanic language.

    I don't think such an observation is nit-picking considering the nature of this site.

  15. go for hebrew. the hebrew alphabet has a nice correlation with the roman and the characters look cool.

  16. coming in very late but the obvious answer for these girls is to get a cat tattooed on them since their initials spell cat.

  17. Chinese doesnot have alphabets and we do not have initials either. So to get a tattoo with chinese initial characters is just impossible. But anyways, whatever chinese characters you get tattooed on, it just looks cheesy to any of chinese people. It doesn't matter whether or not it means anything good and 99.9% of them look like 3-year-old's writing.