"Marriage escape wheat egg"

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Outside a hotel near Sanyi, Miaoli County, Taiwan:

If you don't know any Taiwanese, but only know Mandarin, that's what the sign seems to say:  hūn táo mài luǎn dàn 婚逃麥卵蛋 ("marriage escape wheat egg").

However, as soon as I saw the sign, I sensed that it was masking Taiwanese and know enough Taiwanese-Mandarin sound equivalences that I immediately and instinctively registered it in my mind as meaning "yāntóu bùyào luàn diū 菸頭不要亂丟" ("don't throw cigarette butts carelessly / heedlessly // wherever you please // any old place").  The "Taiwanese" writing on the sign consists of only 5 characters, but my automatic Mandarin translation has six characters.  That's because I was pretty sure that Mandarin "mài 麥" ("wheat") was standing in for a monosyllabic Taiwanese negative, which I naturally rendered in Mandarin as bùyào 不要 ("don't").

For more precise readings / understandings and linguistic explications of the wording on the sign, I asked my trilingual (Taiwanese, Mandarin, and English) friends and colleagues how the sign spoke to them.  Here are three different slants / takes on the construction and actual meaning of hūn táo mài luǎn dàn 婚逃麥卵蛋 ("marriage escape wheat egg").


You have the English and Mandarin glosses spot on. The characters 婚逃麥卵蛋 are obviously gibberish in Mandarin, but the Mandarin pronunciation hūntáo mài luǎn dàn represents the Taiwanese phrase hun-thâu mài loān tàn. In the most common character rendering in Taiwanese this would be 熏頭莫亂擲, and breaks down as hun-thâu [cigarette butts] mài [do not] loān [chaotically] tàn [toss, throw].

As an aside, I've always liked the word chia̍h in Taiwanese, which is commonly glossed as "eat" but covers a wider range than the Mandarin chī 吃. For example, chia̍h pn̄g (eat cooked rice/food), chia̍h hun (to smoke), chia̍h tê (drink tea, though it's perhaps more commonly heard as lim tê).


The five characters are romanized in Taiwanese as follows:

hun thâu mài luān tàn

Their corresponding Chinese characters are:

頭 莫 亂 擲

And their meanings are:


頭 head (but here actually means cigarette butt)

莫 don't

亂 messy, randomly

擲 to throw (away)

​So it exactly means what you put in your email: 菸頭不要亂丟 (Don't throw cigarette butts around.)


Martian [1]:「婚逃麥卵蛋」

Customary Taiwanese romanization: “Hun-thâu mài luān* tàn.”

Tones (notation / as written): High, rising, low, mid, low.

Tones (realized / as spoken): Mid, rising, falling, low, low.

Gloss: Cigarette-stub[2] don't indiscriminately throw.

*Note that ROC romanization uses luān, not loān. (The realized phone is typically [o], but to a Mandarin ear it is indistinguishable from [u], making this one of the nonsensical modifications I mention below.)

In Taiwanese customary hanji (the equivalent of man'yōgana for Taiwanese, in use for many centuries and persisting until today in common writing by people that want a more robust system than Martian):

(烟 / 芬 / 熏)頭勿亂(旦 / 擲)。

In the 2006 ROC hanji system currently being pushed by the gov't (mainly for alignment with Mandarin, at the cost of legibility in Taiwanese):


In the corresponding 2006 ROC romanization system (customary romanization lightly modified in a few nonsensical ways because some bureaucrats felt that the customary version had Church cooties on it):

[identical to customary romanization in this case]

And finally in English: “Don't litter cigarette butts.”

[1] Writing Taiwanese using exclusively approximate sound borrowings by Mandarin readings of hanji is called “hóe-chheⁿ-bûn” (火星文), often translated as “Martian”.

[2] thâu (ant. bóe) can mean “head” of course, but when used as a suffix in reference to one side of an object, it always refers to the side from which something can be seen as originating or fixed in some sense, growing into or being unfixed at the “bóe”. Thus the root of a tree is the thâu, and the treetop is the bóe. The back of the tongue is the thâu and the tip of the tongue is bóe, etc.

Ah, the joys of reading Sinitic (or maybe I should say "Sinographic") texts!  This is how you do it.  This has been my life for the last half century.  It's an entirely different world from that of a monolingual speaker of English (or Russian or Hindi or Portuguese or…), though there are some parallels in picking out cognates across alphabetically written languages.  As they say, "Enjoy!"

Selected readings

[photo from Mark Swofford; thanks to Aiong Taigi, Michael Cannings, Melvin Lee, and Grace Wu]


  1. Jonathan Smith said,

    December 14, 2021 @ 8:35 am

    Good one… I am wondering if luān + V is Mandarinization/wenyan effect; this sort of injunction in spoken Taiwanese uses oo-pe̍h + V in my highly limited experience. "逃" to write 'head' is more clearly sheer messing around since the Mand. and Taiw. items are to begin with very close here… not that messing around a bad thing.

  2. Jerry Packard said,

    December 14, 2021 @ 3:57 pm

    So interesting.

    I strongly agree about the joy of reading Sinitic texts.

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