Mystery message

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Email from Diego Viana:

I am a Brazilian journalist and reader of the Language Log blog. I'm writing to you because the blog came immediately to my mind when a friend showed me a piece of paper she found in a recently bought jacket. It's written in an alphabet we don't know and, obviously, the first thing we thought was that it might be a message from over-exploited Asian workers. (It looks Asian, I guess…)

I'm sending you a picture of the note attached. Do you think one of the blog contributers might help?


  1. K Chang said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 3:09 pm

    My Chinese reading seem to be limited to printed stuff, but that to me reads:

    Right sleeve (something, can't make it out,may be sticky powder?) 粘粉?

    Left sleeve 左袖 (something) hangs 吊 not smooth 不平

    Seems to be some sort of inspection note by a QA person, rather than a note calling for help, but without context, I don't know.

  2. K Chang said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 3:27 pm

    The reason I said there needs to be some context is Chinese often employ irony and satire in the form of small poems known as 打油詩 dayoushi when formal protests were frowned upon. Closest English equivalent would be "doggerel", but I personally thinks it's closer in form to modern "gangsta rap" in that dayoushi is usually crude, but has good rhythm and rhyme.

    This was supposed the first one:


    The river is now misty
    The well is so inky
    The yellow dog is now whitey
    The white dog is now lumpy

    The note has a potential to be a dayoushi but I can't read it well enough to be sure.

  3. shubert said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 3:41 pm

    The thread of left cuff is broken…

  4. shubert said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 3:46 pm

    The right 袖口吊 cuff hanging is not smooth or?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 3:46 pm

    Just woke up from a rare nap.

    It's an inspector's note, a bit scribbled, but it basically says:

    zuǒ xiùkou duàn xiàn 左袖口断线 ("thread broken on the left cuff")
    yòu xiùkou diào (?) bùpíng 右袖口吊(?)不平 ("right cuff hanging and uneven")

  6. K Chang said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 4:27 pm

    I am horrible in reading handwritten simplified system. Not enough strokes to even make an educated guess, when writing's that sloppy. *sigh*.

  7. Diego said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 4:31 pm

    Thanks to you all. I'm relieved to learn that it's just a regular note. Too bad for my friend that she bought a jacket with a defective cuff!

  8. Diego said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 5:53 pm

    Another friend says she's certain its in Hiragana. Any chance?

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 7:06 pm


    Definitely not hiragana. It's hurriedly written Chinese (characters).

  10. Derek Pan said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 7:29 pm

    It's just a note written by the tailor, I guess. And it's by no means any doggerel. Instead, I suggest the owner of the jacket take a look at both sleeves right now.

  11. Matt said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 7:58 pm

    It's not hiragana on purpose, but the first character on the first line is 左, which is the ancestor of the hiragana さ /sa/. That might be what your friend is seeing. Given that the first characters on each line are quite clearly 左袖 and 右袖, though, that clearly isn't what the author intended.

  12. Diego said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 8:40 pm

    Thanks again!

    As for the jacket, she says it's OK. The cuff problem must have been fixed.

  13. J. F. said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 9:41 pm

    Left? Right? It's got to be political!

  14. Viseguy said,

    June 1, 2015 @ 7:36 pm

    This is why I love the Internet. We are all, indeed, connected.

  15. JQ said,

    June 2, 2015 @ 1:32 am

    I note that K Chang initially mistook the zuo3 for the you4, as did I until I realized the third character was kou3.

    When I write kou3 quickly it usually looks like |Z, whereas this writer's kou3 looks like |L (or cursive lowercase u).

    So my you4 written quickly looks like this writer's zuo3.

  16. Adam F said,

    June 2, 2015 @ 2:57 am

    Not "help, I am being held prisoner" then … oh well, that's a hilarious book that I recently read and recommend.

  17. mondain said,

    June 2, 2015 @ 4:48 am

    In GB/T 15557-2008 Standard terminology relating to apparel '袖子起吊' is translated rather generally as 'sleeve defect'.

  18. Mark said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 7:36 am

    Hiragana in essence is hurriedly written Chinese, interesting to see a thousand years (?) of evolution reproduced in a note scribbled by someone running late.

  19. Qafqa said,

    June 11, 2015 @ 1:40 pm

    I thought, then discarded hiragana also; it's 'cause 左 looks like た.

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