Mysterious Symbols on Justin Bieber

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The Daily Mail reports that a visit by Justin Bieber to the beach revealed a new tattoo. Here's a screenshot showing the Daily Mail's description of the tattoo as "a row of mysterious symbols under his left arm". Here's the Daily Mail's close-up, captioned "What is it? It's unclear exactly what Bieber has had tattooed under his arm".

The "mysterious symbols" are perfectly ordinary and legible Hebrew letters. They spell ישוע "Yeshua", the Hebrew name for "Jesus". I understand that not everyone can read Hebrew, but that no one at the Daily Mail can even recognize Hebrew writing is pretty bad.

[For those of our readers who do not know who Justin Bieber is, he's a teen idol. A lot of teenage girls are crazy about him. When I teasingly told a 15-year old friend on Facebook that he looks like a dork, she unfriended me for three weeks!]


  1. Áine ní Dhonnchadha said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 12:39 am

    Why does a 15yo have Yeshu3 tattooed vertically under his arm is the real question.

  2. mollymooly said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 1:02 am

    It's a bit of a stretch from "the sub-ed who writes the showbiz photo captions can't even recognize Hebrew" to "no one at the Daily Mail can even recognize Hebrew". But for the Mail it's not that much of a stretch.

  3. Bill Poser said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 1:05 am

    Well, if it was such a mystery wouldn't the sub-ed ask someone else?

    As for why Bieber has this tattoo, I don't know. He is reported to be a Christian of some sort, but that isn't a complete explanation. Maybe he's been hanging out with Madonna…

  4. Hopskotch said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 1:15 am

    Isn't he still underage? Didn't know minors could get tattoos in the US. Or did he get it overseas? Just thinking it's a curious tattoo for a teen to have, but that it's also curious for a teen to have any tattoo.

    More important in the long run though is that a teenage boy's armpit is the subject of tabloid speculation. I hope he manages to psychologically survive his celebrity teendom.

  5. dw said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 1:19 am

    No one at the Daily Mail can do much of anything, except plagiarize stories from more reputable publications.

  6. Hannah said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 1:19 am

    Must be a souvenir from his recent visit to Israel.

  7. David Donnell said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 1:30 am

    For some time now, my 4-yr-old son has been a fan of Justin Beaver… While teaching my little boy to write some words a week or so ago, I informed him that the guy's surname is actually Bieber… Fast forward to a few days ago: my son asked me, "Daddy, why did he change his name?"

  8. Valentine said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 2:36 am

    It took me all of two seconds to recognize the characters as probably Hebrew or Hebrewesque. It's a shame the Daily Mail can't be bothered to crowdsource these kinds of things, but, as we've seen from other LL posts, all too many journalists don't treat language as something easily researched.

  9. Chris Waters said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 2:49 am

    As for the Mail, I know them mainly by reputation, but my guess would be that they thought "mysterious symbols" made a better headline than anything they might uncover if they actually did some research. I wouldn't even be surprised to find that they actually did the research, then decided the result was too boring.

    As for Mr. Beiber, I know little of the man or his music, but I know that he's the butt of frequent Internet jokes suggesting that he's actually a woman. My respect for him went up when he appeared in a television commercial with Ozzy Osbourne which played off those jokes. That's a surprisingly mature response for someone so young.

  10. Laura said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 3:41 am

    Not that I'm defending the Mail, but the only mention of the 'mysterious symbols' are in the captions. Is it possible that the caption-writer (sub-ed?) does this at the last moment, didn't recognise them but thought it was worth comment (they have to find something to comment on, after all) and didn't have the time/inclination to ask around?

    I wonder how long denim shorts have been called 'Daisy Dukes', in the UK at least. The first time I heard the term was in Katy Perry's 2010 song 'California Gurls' and I actually misheard the line 'Daisy Dukes, bikini on top' as 'Daisy Duke's bikini on top' and thought it didn't make sense (on top of what?). This usage may date from the remade film. But obviously they may have been known as that in the US/California since the original series.

  11. Daniel Hemmens said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 3:54 am

    As several others have pointed out, I suspect that the Mail knows *exactly* what it's doing here. It's not that nobody at the Mail recognises Hebrew, it's that they assume that a large proportion of their readership won't recognise Hebrew, and will be made to feel stupid by having this fact pointed out to them.

  12. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 4:12 am

    "I wonder how long denim shorts have been called 'Daisy Dukes', in the UK at least."

    Cut-off denim shorts, specifically. Which makes perfect sense. For all I know about fashion, those might be an actual brand. Are they?

  13. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 4:15 am

    Yeah, okay, I was unable to resist temptation and Googled. It's slang, apparently revived in the 90s by hip-hop duo Duice in a song.

  14. Jason said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 5:08 am


    Shotty is a eenie meenie miney moe loooveerr…..

    I suspect that young Mr. Bieber intends the tattoo to be attributive, rather than nominative… At least he hasn't claimed to be bigger than Jesus, yet.

  15. JM said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 5:17 am

    "Daisy Dukes" is not a brand, just an alternate name for cut-off denim shorts, popularized as they were by Daisy Duke (from the 80s show "The Dukes of Hazzard"). I've never heard of Duice or their song, and I'm a bit skeptical that they had anything to do with "reviving" the term — despite what Urban Dictionary says. :-) "The Dukes of Hazzard" hasn't left US popular conscience yet. As far as I know the term has never fallen out of fashion, it's just not particularly common. That Katy Perry can sing about them 25 years after the show ended and 17 years after the supposed revival is telling, I think.

    All this says nothing about the incidence of the term in the UK, by the way.

  16. Luke said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 5:30 am

    "Some kind of Christian" indeed. When the man who scouted him wanted to fly him to LA, his mother had a prayer session at her church to ask god if it was a good idea to let her son go with him. The concern? The scout was Jewish.

  17. Trimegistus said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 6:42 am

    Between old-school British antisemitism and modern Islamophile antisemitism, it may well be that nobody at the Mail would _admit_ to recognizing Hebrew letters. People might think you _like_ Jews, and that's a career-killer in journalism.

    [(myl) As the saying goes, "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity". Especially when tabloid journalism is involved. In this case, we need to invoke laziness as well as ignorance, but again, we're talking about journalists and language…]

  18. Lance said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 7:05 am

    Is it possible that the caption-writer (sub-ed?) does this at the last moment, didn't recognise them but thought it was worth comment (they have to find something to comment on, after all) and didn't have the time/inclination to ask around?

    Well, they had the time to clip the photo of Bieber with the tattoo and enlarge it a little (which is the "close-up" Bill linked to). Sure, that doesn't take long, but it also doesn't take long to find out those are Hebrew letters.

  19. Sam said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 7:21 am


    The Daily Mail 'Islamophile'?

    I wouldn't like to underestimate the ignorance or laziness of Daily Mail journalists, but given their in-house style, it is possible that this was a deliberate decision to not bother finding out what the symbols were because they know their readers will not know or care. Either that or they know what the symbols mean (more or less) but describe them as mysterious so that they have something resembling celebrity news (this is a newspaper that prints photos of celebrities putting their rubbish out).

  20. Faldone said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 8:15 am

    There was an Irish song about a Jewish shopkeeper in Ireland who had a sign in Yiddish on his shop. This was during the time when England occupied the whole island of Ireland and had outlawed the use of Gaelic in public. The song revolved around the assumption by the English that the signs on the shop were in Gaelic.

  21. MattF said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 8:17 am

    C'mon people… If the symbols aren't mysterious, there's no story.

    [(myl) Wrong, as a trivial web search shows: "Justin Bieber debuts Jesus tattoo in Hawaii with Selena Gomez", LA Times 5/25/2011; "Justin Bieber sports new Jesus tattoo", The Houston Examiner 5/25/2011; etc. etc. Come on, people, don't pop off with false opinions about easily-checked matters of fact.]

  22. Luke said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 8:54 am

    MattF's point, I think, was that even if the editor knew what they were, he still would've opted for the "mysterious" angle. It was a jab at the Daily Mail, not the OP.

  23. Amy Stoller said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 9:16 am

    I am old enough to remember that (in NYC, at least) cut-off short-shorts have been called Daisy Dukes since the original Dukes of Hazzard. Before that, they were called cut-offs, or, if very short, short-shorts (which they were definitely called in the 1970s, pre-DoH – which did not have to be cut-offs.

    I am, alas, also old enough to remember this:

    You don't have to be Jewish to see that the characters are obviously Hebrew. As for the Beeb's Christianity, there are certainly Protestant denominations with a lot of time for the Old Testament, so it's not that surprising that the kid would go with Hebrew characters, which I'd venture to guess were the way the historical Jesus and his earliest followers would have spelled his name.

    If I may borrow from Mencken, nobody ever went broke underestimating the ignorance of tabloid journalists – or their indifference to facts.

  24. Z. D. Smith said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 9:33 am

    The funny thing is that in my demimonde, invoking the name of 'Jeshua' is a crystal-clear dog whistle for Jews for Jesus, a mostly reviled sect who tries to rehabilitate Yoshke in the eyes of Jews by referring to him exclusively by his Aramaic name.

  25. Z. D. Smith said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 9:43 am

    Yeshua, that is, of course.

  26. Chris said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 9:44 am

    Calling this tattoo a bunch of "mysterious symbols" (instead of doing some research) reveals a serious intellectual incuriosity on the reporter's part. However, that makes me glad this reporter writes fluffy garbage pieces about celebrity gossip, rather than on topics that are actually important. After all, the same type of intellectual incuriosity leads people to write those BS stories about how Barack Obama uses too many first-person pronouns. I'll take "JB has a mysterious tattoo" over that garbage any day.

  27. MattF said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 9:53 am


    Yes, that's what I meant. I agree, though, that hit-and-run comment posting can be ambiguous and should be avoided, if possible.

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 10:40 am

    @Z. D. Smith: "Yeshua" can also be an overt sign of Hebraic Christianity, as in the Wikipedia article "Hebrew Roots" and links therein. Or just part of the kind of hebreophilia (?) that's been going on in American evangelical Christianity at least since John Thompson and Michael Card wrote "El Shaddai" in 1981 and Amy Grant had a hit with it the next year. (So I read on the Web.)

    For anyone who's confused, Justin Bieber seems to be 17, not 15.

  29. Miriam said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

    Yeshua isn't just "Jesus" … it's also everyday "Joshua" …

  30. Ellen K. said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

    @Lance: I'm curious about your claim that "it also doesn't take long to find out those are Hebrew letters". How, then, would one go about finding out what those tattooed symbols are, when one doesn't know? And quickly? If one doesn't know what they are, one doesn't even know who to ask.

  31. Shmoo-El said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

    Someone at the the Daily Mail recognized Ms. Beckham's tatoo. (In fact, Mr. Beckham also has a Hebrew tatoo. Hebrew replaced Chinese as the "cool" exotic language for tatoos some time ago. It's probably out by now.)

    Inspiration: Victoria Beckham, left, shows off her Hebrew tattoo while Angelina Jolie's etching, right, makes a rare public appearance (file pictures)

  32. Mark Dunan said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

    They're obviously Hebrew, but could unsuspecting people be confused because they're written vertically?

  33. Sili said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 2:48 pm

    "Some kind of Christian" indeed. When the man who scouted him wanted to fly him to LA, his mother had a prayer session at her church to ask god if it was a good idea to let her son go with him. The concern? The scout was Jewish.

    I guess she didn't bother reading Leviticus 19:28 to the young man.

  34. Mr Fnortner said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 3:27 pm

    It was far easier to divine that the mysterious symbols are Hebrew than it was for me to ascertain that his midriff tattoo is a "bird etching on his waistline".

  35. Joshua said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 3:44 pm


    Joshua is most often יהושע Yehoshua, rather than ישוע Yeshua, although both are seen. It is somewhat the same thing as with אברהם Avraham vs. אברם Avram.

  36. Chris Holdaway said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 4:18 pm


    A friend of mine commented on this as well, citing that tatooting someone under 18 in the US is technically mutilation of a minor. Not that too many would leap to Bieber's defense, I'm sure.

  37. TonyK said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

    @Amy Stoller:
    >nobody ever went broke underestimating the ignorance of tabloid journalists

    I *think* you mean
    >nobody ever went broke overestimating the ignorance of tabloid journalists

    But here on Language Log, they have people for that kind of thing, so I'll leave it to them.

  38. Bloix said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 4:59 pm

    "Yeshua isn't just "Jesus" … it's also everyday "Joshua" …"

    The name of the biblical Joshua son of Nun, the successor to Moses who conquered Canaan, is Yehoshua, not Yeshua. There are a few places in the later books of the Hebrew Bible that contract Yehoshua to Yeshua, but in modern usage Yeshua is Jesus and Joshua is Yehoshua.

  39. Ken Brown said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 5:04 pm

    @trimegistus, much as I hate the Daily Mail they are not currently likely to indulge in that sort of cheap antisemitism. Melanie Phillips is one of their most prominent commentators. She's not only Jewish herself but probably the nearest well-known media figure in the UK to some of the right-wing neocon Zionist journalists we hear about from the USA.

    Also, despite an often unpleasantly racist recent past, the Mail has had a quite honourable track record of keeping the murder of Stephen Lawrence in the public eye. Which is exactly the opposite of what they'd do if they were playing a dogwhistle racist game.

    The political stance of the mainstream British press is quite different from many US papers. Almost all of them give space to commentators who oppose their political line – at least between elections. At election time they become unashamedly partisan and campaign for their prefered candidates though.

    The Mail's target readership seems to be lower-middle class (in the British sense) social conservatives. They are very likely to be anti-immigrant and Islamophobic but very unlikely to be crudely antisemitic. The opposite if anything.

  40. J-M-M said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 5:37 pm

    What? No one has linked to this yet?

  41. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 6:43 pm

    @Chris Holdaway: At least here in New Mexico, minors can get tattoos with parental permission. (I know a man who got himself and his son their first tattoos at the same time. The son was probably 15 or 16.)

    @Ellen K.: How, then, would one go about finding out what those tattooed symbols are, when one doesn't know? And quickly?

    I'll bet, "Hey, anyone know what this is?" would work in a major newspaper office, at least to get, "Looks like Hebrew."

    Here's a video of Bieber and others saying the Shma in Hebrew before a concert. Reminds me of a guy I've seen who has a tattoo of the Hebrew word chai. Only different.

    Since the video was uploaded in 2010, this would also have been a clue to a reporter on the Bieber beat to check whether the tattoo was Hebrew.

    (Typing "Justin Bieber tattoo" into a search window is the biggest sacrifice I've ever made for a comment at LL.)

  42. maidhc said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

    Maybe they're trying to get two articles out of one photo. Tomorrow comes "Beiber's mysterious symbols decoded!"

  43. Ellen K. said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 7:48 pm

    @Jerry Friedman and Lance. But, if I don't know what the symbols are, why should I think someone else working with me does? It's not at all clear that it's easy to find out what they are if you don't know what they are. Yeah, I might try asking anyway. But, frankly, it would be stupid to try and actually expect an answer. Your "keep asking people till someone recognizes it" plan is certainly not one that would give me much confidence in the likelihood of identifying unknown symbols in a short time. And it's not like you can just send out an email to everyone everyone will read their email instantly and get right back to you right away. Or, so I imagine.

  44. Lance said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 8:47 pm


    Because you are (in this hypothetical situation) a journalist. That's why you should think someone around you has answers to basic questions about the world. If you're sitting in an office full of journalists, it doesn't take much time or effort to shout out, "Hey, anyone know what this is?"; and it's kind of basically your job to do that.

    Try this: print out the tattoo. Take it to your nearest library. Show it to the librarian at the reference desk and say, "Do you have any idea what this might be?" See how long it takes that librarian to come up with an answer.

  45. Ellen K. said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 10:43 pm

    FYI, I work at a library, and if someone asked me that, I wouldn't have a clue. Librarians aren't magicians. And it's kinda hard to look something up when all you know is it's a symbol.

    I have no idea if Hebrew is, as you seem to think, widely enough recognized among journalist that "ask a coworker" should work. Maybe you do and are right that it's that simple. That doesn't change the fact that someone who doesn't know it's Hebrew doesn't know it's that easy. And may give up before they find that one person who knows. Because there is no way to find out what the symbol is other than either keep asking people till you find someone who knows (may or may not be quick), or randomly look at symbols till you find one that matches (which surely won't be quick). Unless you know some other method but aren't bothering to share with the rest of us.

  46. Corwin said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 11:21 pm

    @Ellen K.

    Send a query to a contributor to Language Log and hope to get a prompt and accurate reply? As far as I'm concerned, reporters around the world ought to have a direct line to LL personnel or other professional linguists… after all, what else are we paying for when we subscribe to this blog?

    Joking aside, I think you raise a good question. If someone comes upon symbols that they don't recognize, then even if they think the symbols are probably some written language (which I suppose may or may not be the case), how are they easily to recognize what language/script it is, if they plain don't know? Contacting other people who may or may not know may or may not work, depending on timeframe and plenty of other considerations.

    In fact, I feel like this might be a good idea for a LL post: How does one quickly and/or easily find out what a relatively simple message says, in a script and language one is completely unfamiliar with? Or even, how does one discern what language/script it is? I suppose that for the dedicated, they could submit the question to a professional translating service, but what if that's not really an option? What other tools exist for this purpose in this day and age, besides trial and error?

    For the record, I tried using the mobile app "Google Goggles" to take a screencap of that tattoo and possibly translate it (as Google claims it has some ability to do in certain contexts), but it came up with nothing relevant (others' mileage may vary). And as far as I know, Google is more or less at the forefront of image recognition and machine translation programs. So, I welcome suggestions and comments!

  47. Ethan said,

    May 27, 2011 @ 12:34 am

    @Corwin: Search Google images for the original image. I found it, or a close equivalent, in a couple of minutes. Then click on "more similar". This gives you a page of vaguely similar close-up tattoo images with labels underneath. A couple of these are other sets of hebrew characters, and the labels are at least vaguely helpful: e.g. "Jewish tattoo". The question is whether the similarity of the hebrew character tattoos to each other is sufficient to stand out to the eye of someone who doesn't already recognize them as hebrew.

  48. Mark Liberman said,

    May 27, 2011 @ 6:03 am

    For the people who are puzzled about how to get information about "mysterious symbols", a good plan would be to contact a local linguistics department. This wouldn't always work the first time — some symbols are more mysterious than others — but I'd be very surprised if it didn't yield the correct answer quickly in this case.

  49. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 27, 2011 @ 8:53 am

    @ Sili — Amazingly, there's an entire blog devoted to how to theologize yourself around Leviticus 19:28. In short, the New Testament trumps the Old, so overtly religious (i.e. Christian) tats are OK.

    Properly understood, Revelations Ch. 19 reveals to us that Christ Himself will appear (probably next October) with a tattoo on his thigh. No clue, I'm afraid, on the language of the tattoo. My guess would be either Aramaic or Koiné.

  50. brain said,

    May 27, 2011 @ 9:51 am

    @Dan Lufkin, re: "Amazingly, there's an entire blog devoted to how to theologize yourself around Leviticus 19:28. In short, the New Testament trumps the Old, so overtly religious (i.e. Christian) tats are OK."

    What's most interesting to me about this is that people make their own choices, and then selectively interpret their so-called sacred text to support their decision. In particular, I'm curious about the process used to determine that, for some OT laws, "That was a long time ago, and it's not relevant to modern times" while for others, "This is the irrefutable word of God, unchanging throughout all of time and space."

  51. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 27, 2011 @ 10:52 am

    Figuring out which restrictions in Leviticus are relevant to Christians (at least Gentile Christians) and which others (typically a larger subset) aren't is a project that has been going on since the time period described in Acts. I'm not aware that putting 19:28 in the applicable-to-Christians box has ever been the majority position (although in a Christian society where tattoos were socially taboo for a variety of other reasons I suppose that verse might have been thrown into the mix). Tattoos are highly traditional among the Copts and other traditional African Christian communities. I go to church with a somewhat elderly lady from Eritrea who has a cross tattooed on her forehead, which in the old country is an indication that she is pious and socially respectable (as well as, I believe, serving as a potentially useful way of publicly communicating "I am not a Muslim").

  52. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 27, 2011 @ 11:07 am

    @Ellen K.: But, if I don't know what the symbols are, why should I think someone else working with me does?

    I'd say you should think there's a good possibility, since people have all kinds of different backgrounds and experiences. E-mail, which you mentioned, seems like the best method. It wouldn't take much of your time or your co-workers'. So although you couldn't count on it, it would be worth a try, and in this case, since Hebrew script is fairly well known as non-Latin scripts go, I'll bet it would work.

    I must admit that I don't know how much time the writer of that caption had to find out what the tattoo said, or how high a priority fellow employees would place on answering a request for information. I do strongly suspect that journalists are hardly ever away from their e-mail and that if a co-worker does know the answer, the process will be quicker than asking the nearest linguistics department.

    Incidentally, the stories MYL linked to and the one I read didn't quote a source for the reading of the tattoo, which I hope means they didn't use the method of calling a linguist.

  53. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 27, 2011 @ 11:09 am

    On the why-didn't-they-just-ask question, i guess part of the issue is whether the context should have made it clear that these "symbols" were glyphs from an alphabet as opposed to some random thing some tattooist guy might have made up. It's not like a tattoo is a street sign or newspaper where you can infer that the symbols you don't recognize must be part of a pre-existing writing system of some kind. If you saw a tattoo consisting of one or two ligatures from the Telugu script (semi-random example picked from a scan of wikipedia), would you think it would be obvious to a non-language-buff that this was any sort of script at all? The difference is presumably that we consider the Hebrew alphabet to be more culturally salient, not that it intrinsically looks more script-like. Different things are culturally salient to different people; I would expect the that-looks-like-Hebrew-letters reaction from a much higher percentage of people who grew up in New York than who grew up in Tokyo. I expect that a quite high percentage of white American males of my generational cohort could do a decent freehand sketch from memory of the "runes" from the Led Zeppelin IV album, but I wouldn't necessarily expect the same from other demographics.

  54. Ellen K. said,

    May 27, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

    Let me add one thing to what I've said. I think there's a huge difference between the claim that if a journalist (in a publication with a large enough staff) were to ask co-workers, about this particular tattoo, they'd get an answer quickly (or else it would be surprising if they didn't), versus Lance's claim that "it also doesn't take long to find out those are Hebrew letters", which seems to me to be saying the asker should know it won't take long to get an answer. Perhaps I misinterpret what Lance is saying, but the wording to me suggests that. And no one yet has suggested any method of research where a the person asking — even if they are a journalist — can be confident of a quick answer. Yes, they should try anyway. I'm not arguing that point. I'm arguing the idea that someone who doesn't know what those are should know it's easy to find the answer.

  55. Rachel said,

    May 27, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

    If you look at the original Daily mail article now, there is no mention of "mysterious symbols" So, someone proabably clued them in and they edited the text already. Sadly.

  56. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 27, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

    @Ellen K.: I agree with you that the captioner wouldn't have known how easy it would be to find out what the tattoo meant; but (s)he labeled them "mysterious symbols", which implies — wrongly — that (s)he tried to find out, and already ruled out the possibility that it was a well-known and non-mysterious alphabet. ("Mysterious" doesn't mean "unknown to me". If Justin Bieber got drunk in Vegas and married some random woman whom the captioner hadn't heard of, (s)he presumably wouldn't write of his "mysterious bride" without actually checking to see if the woman was mysterious.)

  57. Sili said,

    May 27, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

    In short, the New Testament trumps the Old, so overtly religious (i.e. Christian) tats are OK.

    Of course. It's not like it's "an abomination".

    But I can't help but think that using Hebrew for a tattoo is rather a case of adding insult to injury (to a minor).

  58. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 27, 2011 @ 8:26 pm

    FYI, I work at a library, and if someone asked me that, I wouldn't have a clue.

    In this amazing Internet age, I'd Google for "language glyphs letters script comparison". Testing this, I find that there are no ideal results but that a high-ranking result takes me to Wikipedia (to which I might have just consulted directly), and a few followed links there brings me to the "Writing System" entry, from which I probably would have been eventually able to identify the language.

    Honestly, with the web as a reference tool, it's very easy these days to research almost any topic. I'm of the opinion that this must be having profound impacts culturally and economically, although I'm unsure about how large a proportion of the population are using these resources to even moderate potential.

    Without the web, but were I a librarian, I'd look up a reference work on languages and/or writing systems. Hopefully finding a book with charts of comparisons. Pretty much the same as the web search, but involving more walking around and picking things up. Still not too hard, I think.

    In some random office and without Internet access, I'd ask random coworkers; then, with no luck, I'd give up. Whether that applies to a newsroom is another matter.

    I don't think this that difficult of a problem. That said, it does point to an important epistemological insight: asking productive questions about something requires some minimal amount of preexisting knowledge about it. If you know nothing, you simply cannot know how to begin to learn about it (except just as a random walk hoping you'll get lucky).

  59. Joshua said,

    May 28, 2011 @ 1:28 am

    I can think of two significant ways to use Wikipedia to determine whether Bieber's tattoo was written in a language, and if so, what it said:

    1. See if you recognize the characters at

    2. Ask (with a link to the photo) at

    And then, if you get a response like, "It's Hebrew," you contact someone who knows Hebrew and ask them if it really is Hebrew and if so, what it says.

  60. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 28, 2011 @ 5:43 am

    In this amazing Internet age, I'd Google for "language glyphs letters script comparison"

    Or, you know, "Bieber tattoo".

  61. Ellen K. said,

    May 28, 2011 @ 10:52 am

    Googling "Bieber tattoo" wouldn't have worked when it was breaking news.

  62. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 28, 2011 @ 12:22 pm

    @Joshua: The language recognition chart wouldn't have helped in this case, because Arial-font online Hebrew looks nothing like the heavily-serifed bookish letters in the tattoo. I mean, if you already know that they're the same script, then it's easy to see which letters in one match up with which letters in the other. It's not like cursive vs. block, or Modern vs. Rashi, where the letter-forms are actually different. But it's an enormous difference in "feel", and if you're skimming a page looking for one, you certainly won't notice the other.

  63. Michael Drake said,

    May 28, 2011 @ 8:55 pm

    The really mysterious symbol here is Justin Bieber.

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