Acronyms in China

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Recently, one of my students found an interesting post from the Communist Youth League about the use of Hanyu Pinyin acronyms on the Internet. When people type on Weibo, WeChat, and other social media, they frequently use Pinyin acronyms. For examples:

dbq — duìbùqǐ 对不起 — "sorry"

xjj — xiǎo jiějiě 小姐姐 — "young lady"/ "Miss" / "gal" (although it literally means "little sister", "xjj" / "小姐姐" usually refers to girls or young women, and using it to refer to a girl/woman could show one's friendliness, adoration, or politeness, creating an easy-going, casual, and sometimes naughty atmosphere; albeit it also can be used in an ironic way)

zqsg — zhēnqíng shígǎn 真情实感 — "(conveying) genuine emotions and earnest feelings"

xswl — xiào sǐ wǒ le 笑死我了 — "LOL" (literally means "makes me laugh to death")

sk — shēng kuài 生快 (an abbreviation for "shēngrì kuàilè 生日快乐", just like "HBD" is used as the acronym for "Happy Birthday") — "HBD"

pyq — péngyǒu quān 朋友圈 — "Moments" (a function of WeChat where people post captions, pictures, videos and links within a circle of friends)

bhys — bù hǎoyìsi 不好意思 — "excuse me; sorry"

sjb — shénjīngbìng 神经病 — "psycho" (informal; usually refers to people who speak or behave annoyingly or offensively, rather than people who literally suffer from mental illness)

djll — dǐngjí liúliàng 顶级流量 — "the most popular and influential celebrities" (literally means "top network traffic", which indicates their extreme fame and notability)

xxj — xiǎoxué jī 小学鸡 — "childish, immature people who speak or behave stupidly" (literally means "pupil chicken")

nsdd — nǐ shuō dé duì / nǐ shì duì de / nín shì duì de 你说得对 / 你是对的 / 您是对的 — "You are right / you are the one who is right"

awsl — A wǒ sǐle 啊我死了 — "Ah, I am dead (because this is so cute / admirable / incredible…)"

Cf. the concept of zìmǔ cí 字母词 ("letter words"), e.g., as elaborated by Yongquan Liu 刘永泉, the applied linguist (especially concerned with machine translation and computer applications).

This is just one instance of how widespread is the use of the alphabet in China, a phenomenon that has occurred mainly within the last twenty years or so.  In considering the development of science, business, and the economy generally, the explosive growth in Pinyin (and English) usage is a factor that cannot be ignored or underestimated.


Selected readings


[Thanks to Chenxi Ouyang and Yijie Zhang]


  1. Neil Kubler said,

    November 2, 2019 @ 6:27 am

    Fascinating (and important) stuff! We should note that, as Mark Hansell and others have pointed out, when the Roman alphabet is used to write Chinese within a text the majority of which is in characters, each letter normally represents a complete syllable (the "d" in "dbq" represents the syllable "dui") rather than the case in English or Pinyin, where the alphabet is used to SPELL OUT words more or less phonetically. Also, someone should do a detailed study of when upper case is used (X光 "X-ray," B型肝炎 "Hepatitis B," 卡拉OK "Karaoke," O 不 OK?,一张CD, O血型, MP3, 3D银幕) as opposed to lower case (e世代 "digital generation," n次 "indefinite number of times", and all the examples Professor Mair cites in this post). It is certainly not random.

  2. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    November 2, 2019 @ 6:43 am

    >Cf. the concept of zìmǔ cí 字母词 ("letter words")
    Where can we find info. about 字母词 ?

    Secondly, are potential homographic pinyin acronyms of this kind distinguished in writing somehow?

  3. unekdoud said,

    November 2, 2019 @ 8:04 am

    Pinyin abbreviations are accepted by several Chinese IMEs (if you don't have one installed you can test it out on Google Translate), though it doesn't consistently work on all the examples given.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    November 2, 2019 @ 8:45 am

    "Where can we find info. about 字母词 ?"

    Plenty of information on LL in the readings supplied at the end of the O.P.

  5. ~flow said,

    November 2, 2019 @ 11:01 am

    @unekdoud it might be that in fact Pinyin input methods predated the current general trend and certainly furthered it. In their quest to provide users with ways to enter text with the fewest keystrokes imaginable, specialized editors and, later, generalized IMEs have been allowing users to get e.g. 這個活動, 中國化的, 中國很大, 中國皇帝 or any number of set phrases and polysyllabic words by just typing, in this example, 'zghd'; I must have seen this already back in the nineties. In Chinese IMEs (whose conventions differ slightly from Japanese ones, which makes switching between them a nuisance), typically you accept the first choice by hitting the space bar, and tell the program to insert the input directly by hitting return. So presumably when people use acronyms (at least on non-mobile devices) it's only a matter of using the other key in order to get a fancy acronym instead of regular orthography.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    November 2, 2019 @ 11:23 am

    "…are potential homographic pinyin acronyms of this kind distinguished in writing somehow?"

    There's slight chance of that happening, since these expressions consist mostly of 3 or 4 letters (indicating 3 or 4 syllables).

  7. Michael Watts said,

    November 3, 2019 @ 4:34 am

    xjj — xiǎo jiějiě 小姐姐 — "young lady"/ "Miss" / "gal" (although it literally means "little sister", "xjj" / "小姐姐" usually refers to girls or young women

    姐姐 literally means "big sister", a sister older than yourself. 小 means "small", but "physically diminutive big sister" is a pretty different concept from "little sister".

    I have a vague sense that strangers of approximately your own generation are addressed using 姐 and 哥 to show respect, and that 妹 and 弟 to strangers would therefore be disrespectful.

  8. Chas Belov said,

    November 3, 2019 @ 2:27 pm

    I would have rendered "pupil chicken" as "student chicken."

    @Neil Kubler I love "O 不 OK?" applying Chinese grammar to an English syllabic acronym (is there a single word for an acronym that is applied to English syllables? Or is "okay" a back-formation from "OK"?

  9. Michael Watts said,

    November 3, 2019 @ 3:49 pm

    The original form of the word is "OK", an abbreviation for "all correct". "Okay" is a sound spelling of the existing word.

  10. Michael Watts said,

    November 3, 2019 @ 3:52 pm

    That said, I suspect part of the reason it appears as "OK" in Chinese is that while "kei" is a perfectly good Mandarin syllable as far as the phonology goes, there are no characters with that pronunciation. Compare "卡拉OK". (Of course, there are several characters that would match the O, so there's probably some influence there from "OK".)

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    November 3, 2019 @ 4:12 pm

    Well, you might get away with 噢给 if spoken quickly, Michael …

  12. Michael Watts said,

    November 3, 2019 @ 7:13 pm

    you might get away with 噢给 if spoken quickly

    I've been interested for a while in how the Chinese pick which syllables correspond to which foreign sounds. To my ears, they usually don't go for (what I think is) the closest available match.

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    November 4, 2019 @ 4:54 am

    I very much suspect that we gwai lo do exactly the same when we try to speak Chinese — we latch onto what we consider the most important aspect(s) of the sound that we are trying to re-create, often failing to appreciate that what differentiates that particular sound from other similar sounds for an L1 Chinese speaker may be something completely different. I still remember (with considerable embarrassment) asking the owner of a local Chinese restaurant "nǐ zěnme yáng ?", when what I obviously should have asked was "nǐ zěnme yàng ?"; on another occasion, I asked an L1 Catalan speaker whether she was saying "ben" or "ven", to which she responded "yes".

  14. Chas Belov said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 12:53 am

    @Philip Taylor: A Chinese friend of mine once said (approximately) that we white folks should not have the luxury to laugh at racial slurs non-whites apply to us.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 2:56 am

    I assume that this is in reference to gwai lo, Chas. As I was introduced to the phrase by my wife, who is herself 75% Chinese, I feel no shame in using it to refer to myself, or indeed to others. I have no problem whatsoever with being a "white ghost" in the eyes of my many Chinese friends and family-by-marriage.

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