Sunday 23 July 2006

Two pictograms.

The expertise of some of my readers never ceases to almost amaze me. OK, so enough with the flattery. Anyone out there read Chinese? Because here is an interesting thing.

I have a tattoo on my arm. Here it is:

It means "tattoo" (chosen for non-hilarious reasons that I won't bother going into just now). And I know it means "tattoo" because I'm not the kind of eejit who wanders into a tattooists and picks some foreign gibberish off the wall without the foggiest of what it says. No, I spent a day researching it in a library well stocked with Chinese-English dictionaries, then checked with a local genuine Chinese person. Furthermore, since I got the tattoo, various Chinese people have commented on it, their comments ranging from "Oh, tattoo," through "That means tattoo, you know," to "You know what that means? Tattoo." No sniggering or other such reason to doubt these people's word has ever occurred.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I go into my favourite local Chinese foodery wearing short sleeves for the first time, and one of the waitresses notices my tattoo and informs me that it's spelt wrong. She still recognises what it's supposed to mean without my having to tell her, so it's just a matter of the "spelling" being slightly out rather than it being some other word entirely. She reckons the first pictogram is correct but the second should be different. I have no reason to doubt her sincerity either, especially since she said "Who cares? It still looks good."

So, I know it's correct, according to a large number of independent sources, including several dictionaries. I know that at least one native Chinese speaker reckons it's wrong. I also know that many Chinese words can be written in more than one way. So, is this confusion down to regional dialects, recent changes, or what? Anyone got any idea?

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