Wednesday, June 30, 2010

from: Kim B.
date: Tue, Jun 29, 2010 at 8:43 AM
subject: Tattoo

Your blog is fascinating. I have attached a picture of the tattoo I have on my left shoulder blade.

I got it while in New Orleans and like the shape of it, I'm just not sure how it translates. When people ask, I usually tell them: Stupid American (although at the time I was told it means beautiful or beauty).

Thanks for any help you can provide.

Kim B.


If this character is intended to be "beauty", , then it is missing a horizontal stroke. However, the joke does not stop there.

Chinese character for sheep is , and what Kim B. has on her shoulder blade does indeed look like sheep with a little dropping.


  1. Since America is 美国, one can argue that it does in fact mean "stupid American."

  2. Except that America is 米国 (beikoku, not bikoku)...

  3. For whatever reason, America is 美国 (the "beautiful country") in Chinese but 米国 (the "rice country") in Japanese.

    Maybe this is just to keep Japanese and Chinese people confused when reading each other's languages. ;-)

  4. Just out of curiousity, do you ever hear from tattoo artists themselves?

    You would think one or two would write in, if not to confess, at least to laugh at their "victims".

  5. @ Anonymous:
    I suspect tattoo artists don't actually care what they mean. Anyone offering nonsensical "Chinese" tattoos would clearly be more interested in making the sale than in being right. If they cared at all, they'd just be torturing themselves finding out what nonsense they've inflicted on people in the past.

  6. Alan>> I’ve heard the Japanese used to use "meigwok" as well; they changed it during the war.

  7. Eric>> That's interesting. I don't really know the history, but I do know that different characters had been used at different times. Two variations of the kanji for the name America in Japanese that I can find easily are 亜米利加 and 亜墨利加. Naturally, the former was the source of the shortened 米国.

    The story about changing the name because of the war sounds a bit apocryphal. When I have read old Japanese documents, my impression was that 米国 was established as the name for America long before the war. It would seem to be unwise and unnecessarily confusing to the populace, and even to the military, to change the name of a country, even an enemy country, at the time of war.

    I know that Japanese people, even those born and educated before the war, are somewhat surprised and amused upon traveling to China to find that 美国 is used for America.

  8. In Japanese 米 is a shortening of 亜米利加 (あめりか) - the first character 亜 being unusable despite it's traditional phonetic use as あ, because it already has the meaning of "Asia".

    In Chinese, America is of course known as 美国, and I can guess it's for pretty much the same reason. (I'm not well-trained but apparently in modern Mandarin 米 is pronounced "mi" and is therefore inappropriate.)

  9. This is barely relevant, but guys, PLEASE stop talking about Chinese like it was derived from Japanese. To say the least, it was NOT.

    Using 米 to call America would have never entered the Chinese mind because it seems silly; it sounds nothing like America and since the country doesn't even know how to MAKE rice, why call it that? 美國 is pronounced "mei guo," which sounds suitably like "America" to a Chinese ear, and isn't it so pleasant to call a country beautiful?

    Anyway, the two languages named America SEPARATELY from each other and it doesn't matter how much Americans worship Japan, the Chinese way is NOT incorrect, strange, or a mutation of the Japanese way. Please think a little before insulting the languages. Thank you.

  10. I think the choice of characters has more to do with how it sounds.

    Both 美 (mei) in Chinese and 米 (bei) in Japanese end with the diphthong "ei" (as in "day"), forming A-mei-rica.

    Both 米 (mi) in Chinese and 美 (bi) in Japanese end with the vowel "i" (as in "be"), forming A-mi-rica, which does not sound as nice.

  11. "This is barely relevant, but guys, PLEASE stop talking about Chinese like it was derived from Japanese. To say the least, it was NOT."

    Indeed, it was the other way around. Much of Japanese is derived from Chinese, which is why so many character look and mean the same thing, though they are pronounced differently. In short, Chinese came first.

    (Chinese American living in Taiwan, able to read Chinese.)