Creeping Romanization in Chinese, part 5

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Dave Thomas recently watched a Chinese movie with a liberal sprinkling (more than fifty instances) of alphabet letters substituting for Chinese characters in the closed captions.  The title of the movie is "Yǒng bù huítóu 永不回頭" ("Never Back Off" [official English title]; "Never Look Back").  Here's a small selection of the partially alphabetized expressions:

bié B wǒ 别B我 | B = bī 逼 || "don't force / push me"

xiānlǐhòuB 先礼后B | B = bīng 兵 || "first courtesy, then force / first diplomacy, then military might"

wǒ BB tā 我BB他 | B = bī 逼 || "I gave him a push / I forced him"

sǒngD 怂D | D = dàn 蛋 || "coward"

gǔnD 滚D | D = dàn 蛋 || "get out; get the hell out; fuck off; begone", lit., "roll out like an egg"

húndàn 混D | D = dàn 蛋 || "asshole; scumbag; mother fucker; jerk; bastard; peckerhead", lit., "confused / mixed-up / muddled egg"

wángbā D 王八D | D = dàn 蛋 || "bastard; son of a bitch / gun", lit., "egg of a cuckold / tortoise / turtle / man who works in a brothel / (Jin, derogatory) suona [from the Pinyin romanization of Mandarin 嗩吶唢呐 (suǒnà), from Persian سورنا(sornâ); doublet of zurna] player" (source)

gāolìD 高利D | D = dài 贷 || "usury; usurious loan"

wǒ D qián 我D钱 | D = de 的 || "my money"

nǐ zěnme hái zhège G zásuì de yàngzi? 你怎么还这个G杂碎的样子?| G = gǒu 狗 || "why do you still look like dog offal / entrails?" — cf. the last item below

bào J 报J | J = jǐng 警 || "call the police"

hànJ  汉J | J = jiān 奸 || "traitor"

yī bǐ huìK 一笔汇K | K = kuǎn 款 || "a remittance"

tā zài Mguó 他在M国 | M = měi 美 || "he's in America"

nǐ zhīdào gè P ya! 你知道个P呀!| P = pì 屁 || "you don't know shit!", lit. "you know a fart!"

tā zǎo jiù Qbì 他早就Q毙 | Q = qiāng 枪 || "he was shot long ago"

tóu shàng lā S 头上拉S | S = shǐ 屎 || "shit on the head"

wǒ zá S nǐ 我砸S你!| S = sǐ 死 || "I'll smash you to death!"

fǎyuàn qǐ S 法院起S | S = sù 诉 || "bring a suit in court"

hái TM zuò báirìmèng 还TM做白日梦 | TM = tāmā 他妈 || "still fucking daydreaming"

nǐ shì yī gè Xmǎn shìfàng fàn, bā nián Xqí 你是一个X满释放犯,八年X期 | X = xíng 刑 || "you are an ex-convict who had an eight-year term"
jiānY dà shítáng 监Y大食堂 | Y = yù 狱 || "prison cafeteria"
qù Yháng kāi gè hù 去Y行开个户 | Y = yín 银 || "go to a bank and open an account"

zhè shì shénme Ylǐ 这是什么Y理? | Y = wāi 歪 || "what kind of nonsense is this?" — N.B.:  this is a peculiar type of Roman letter substitution for a Chinese character where the sound of the letter, rather than its spelling in Hanyu Pinyin, is operative; it's not a fluke, since I've encountered it more than once

zhè shì Z hòu yīcì 这是Z后一次 | Z = zuì 最 || "this is the last time" — this is a very common letter substitution for a Chinese character

Zkuǎn jiāo bù chūlái Z款交不出来 | Z = zhài 债 || "can't pay the debt"

gǒu Zzhǒng 狗Z种 | Z = zá 杂 || "mongrel"

The ready substitution of letters for characters shows that many Chinese speakers are familiar and comfortable with the concept of spelling both for English and for Mandarin.  Since the lingo in question is that of the prison world, it also shows that this is not a feature of the language of the highly educated, but is typical even of individuals of middling literacy.


Selected readings



  1. wanda said,

    January 6, 2023 @ 11:47 am

    I understand substituting English letters for characters that sound exactly the same, as in "B = bī 逼" or "Y = wāi 歪". I also understand substituting English letters for characters that are part of vulgar expressions, as a form of censorship, as in "D = dàn 蛋" for 王八蛋 or "TM = tāmā 他妈". (Actually there are a lot of examples of that on this list.) But why do the substitution when neither of those is the case, such as in "Y = yín 银" or "Z = zuì 最"? This list shows that there are numerous characters Y or Z could substitute for, so why substitute the English letter for the character?

  2. Chester Draws said,

    January 6, 2023 @ 3:10 pm

    Is this actually Romanisation? It seems to me to be using abbreviations. The Roman letters are merely convenient symbols (easy to find on the computer) not letters.

  3. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 6, 2023 @ 7:33 pm

    correction, "你是个臭B子" >> 你是个臭婊子 'u r a rank ho'

  4. Victor Mair said,

    January 6, 2023 @ 9:35 pm

    chòu biǎozi 臭婊子

    good catch!

  5. Mark S. said,

    January 6, 2023 @ 10:13 pm

    @Chester Draws
    "Symbols," especially in the context of Chinese script, is a word best used with extreme caution, as it often means both everything and nothing.

    Anyway, what's going on in this post is indeed romanization. In some but not all cases it's also abbreviation — but abbreviation in romanization.

    Roman letters, via Hanyu Pinyin, are what are used to input Chinese characters in the first place. For someone to input a Roman letter in the middle of a string of Chinese characters, one must take the extra step (involving extra keystrokes) of switching input modes; then one must again take the trouble of extra keystrokes to exit that mode. Producing the Roman letters given in the examples in the post was not especially convenient but the result of conscious choice and conscious actions.

    Some PInyin input methods may already or in the future even offer to produce Roman letters rather than Chinese characters. But that would be still greater evidence of creeping romanization rather than the opposite.

    Yes, there are other input methods for Chinese characters (though they are little used), but the basic principle is the same.

  6. Chas Belov said,

    January 6, 2023 @ 10:44 pm

    Very common for colloquial Cantonese in the 90s when I studied it. Saw BB for baby in a Hong Kong magazine. Saw D for di in Cantonese subtitles.

  7. Platy said,

    January 7, 2023 @ 2:00 am

    I don't think these are romanization; IIRC, these are instead cases of self-censorship that originated from Douyin (the domestic version of TikTok). Because Douyin has nontransparent and somewhat arbitrary rules for censoring and shadow-banning content, creators have been used to substitute any character that they worry may trigger penalties with pinyin initial. Some of the substituted characters are sensitive, some explicit, while others are regulated usages (e.g., Z for "最", of which the usages are regulated by the laws on advertisement). As mentioned by other comments, such practices of self-censorship are often ad-hoc, overreactive, and unnecessary.

  8. Ben said,

    January 7, 2023 @ 9:37 am

    I see this all the time in Douyin captions and I think it's usually a mistake. In typing the character, the captioner will type the letter and that's usually enough to bring up the character. But if they don't select the character, the letter will be input as is. For Douyin videos, people don't care enough to check their work. I agree that here most cases seem like instances of self-censorship, though.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 7, 2023 @ 9:57 am

    Regardless of the contributory or motivating factors, it's still ipso facto romanization, as Mark S. succinctly explained above.

  10. Raven said,

    January 7, 2023 @ 11:40 am

    There's a genre of online short videos (on platforms such as Tiktok/抖音/Facebook Watch) which consists of bootleg (usually Western) movies/TV shows narrated in Chinese, where the above phenomenon appears in the captions of the video in order to avoid censorship. An interesting example of this would be the use of FBI (capital FB, lowercase L; pronounced fĕbële) to represent police in general. My hypothesis for the pathway in which this shift occurred is as follows: FBI (Federal Bureau of Intelligence) > FBI (lowercase L in order to avoid censorship) > pronounced as febēlē in order to avoid censorship in the unpredictable environment of Tiktok/抖音.

  11. Michael Watts said,

    January 8, 2023 @ 4:01 am

    The title of the movie is "Yǒng bù huítóu 永不回頭" ("Never Back Off" [official English title]; "Never Look Back").

    The official translation is obviously correct; why is the gloss "never back off" given here? Compare the ABC definition of 回头, "turn one's head".

    Check out the results of a baidu image search for 回头:

  12. Michael Watts said,

    January 8, 2023 @ 4:04 am

    Ah, I see that I got it backwards and "never back off" is the official title. That makes less sense.

  13. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 8, 2023 @ 1:51 pm

    Re 永不回头: If Chinese movie with RAO Hui, apparently Never Turn Head :D, if TV show with JIANG Wen, apparently Never Back Off, if U.S. movie with Tom Cruise, apparently Never Go Back :D. Since random crap on Douyin, perhaps last most likely? Yet dialogue may suggest the TV show plot…

  14. M. J. Vanek said,

    January 8, 2023 @ 5:26 pm

    Ye Gods and Little Fishes !

    Every schoolboy knows and every schoolgirl should learn,
    that the triliteral acronym FBI stands for Federal Bureau of Investigation.

  15. TOM DAVIDSON said,

    January 10, 2023 @ 5:57 pm

    Thanks for the correction, Jonathan. Since this list, I have found even more examples in other Chinese movies on You Tube, e.g., ZF for 政府 !

  16. B.Ma said,

    January 12, 2023 @ 2:14 am

    @Chas Belov

    Your Cantonese examples are only where the English letter sounds the same as the whole Cantonese character. D was used because the real character 啲 was difficult to input in the past. To me "BB" is the "real" way to write that word as the actual characters according to Wiktionary are 啤啤, but I would have thought to pronounce those as be1 not bi1.

    This phenomenon also happens for some swear words in Cantonese (e.g. DLLM), but I have not seen it used in Cantonese for regular words; unless they knew in advance that this was the intention, I doubt people would understand expressions like 报G, M国 or NG行 (N行?)

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