Jumbled pinyin

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I spotted this not-too-old post on Stephen Jones: a blog, "Interpreting pinyin" (10/9/17).

Steve writes:

Another irreverent exploration of the wonders of the Chinese language:

At least until it caught on as an input method for texting, the pinyin system of transliteration was slow to catch on in China, at least in the countryside. I took this mystifying picture of a shopfront in Dingxing county (Hebei) in 1995, as a little interlude between hanging out with ritual specialists, filming rituals, and photographing—aww, you guessed it—ritual manuals.

It’s actually an electrical and lighting store—the relevance of this only transpires gradually, since such tenuous relations as the notional pinyin may bear to the Chinese characters above it are only intermittent and haphazard. On closer inspection, some of the letters (indeed, a couple of characters too) have dropped off (as in the classic “His R’s fell off”).

Interpreting ancient literature can be like that—I think, for instance, of the labours of Sir Harold Bailey in deciphering fragmentary medieval texts excavated from Khotan. So perhaps this is where a certain sinological training comes in handy.

The cryptic motto begins to make more sense when we add speculative punctuation—evoking two aspiring young Cali actors (let’s dispense with “actresses“) embarking on a Bollywood-themed club night (a text alerting the paparazzi, perhaps):

Jan ‘n’ Dia—L.A. den “Bhabi!”

Or is it even an invitation to anagrams?

Dahlia nabbed ninja
A banal jihad binned
Albania Hadj bin-end

I should’ve gone to Specsavers, but as I pondered the sign in a desperate search for meaning, the reason I took the photo was that I misread the final word as SHABI, “fuckwit”—actually a very popular expression that is considerably less shocking in Chinese than its literal meaning of “stupid cunt”. Anyway, I still like to think that SHABI is what it says.*

* Upon mature [sic] reflection, I strongly suspect that was indeed closer to the effect they were aiming for. If we posit a missing final character dian 店, then the last two words would be SHANG DIAN (“shop”), but either they couldn’t tell the difference between their stock of S, B, and D letters, or they just didn’t have enough of them—you know, the old fridge-magnet dilemma. Anyway, with superfluous letters suitably discarded, it really could emerge triumphantly as SHABI.

Miscellaneous notes

shǎbī 傻逼, alternative form of 傻屄

    1. (Mainland China, chiefly MandarinJinvulgarderogatory, strongly offensiveA term of abuse: tardstupid cuntdumbfuckpiece of shit
      傻屄走路知道點兒道兒[dialectal Mandarin, trad.]

      傻屄走路知道点儿道儿[dialectal Mandarin, simp.]

      Shǎbī! Nǐ chuàng zhao wǒ la! Zǒulù bù zhīdào kàn diǎnr dàor! [Pinyin]
      Dumb fuck! You bumped into me! Learn to watch the path next time!




    1. (Mainland China, chiefly Mandarinvulgarderogatoryoffensivestupidfoolish
      傻屄[MSC, trad.]

      傻屄[MSC, simp.]

      Nǐ shuōshuo, wǒ duō shǎbī a! [Pinyin]
      You say (no response expected), how fucking stupid I am!

Usage notes

    • Rarely written with its standard characters; often written with homophonous characters instead [VHM:  Including "B" for the 屄 part]


Scrambled signs are the stock in trade of those who are ignorant of the alphabet but nonetheless aspire to global literacy.

Another post from Steve's blog (this one brand new) that may be of particular interest to Language Log readers:

"Words" (2/13/24) — by the Swedish intensely close harmony a cappella Real Group

Steve describes himself and his blog thus:

"Daoism—lives—language—performance. And jokes"

Beginning as an introduction to my fieldwork with a hereditary family of household Daoists in north Shanxi (filmbook, and blogposts, collected here), this site soon expanded into ramblings on diverse topics including Bach, Mahler, jazz, “world music"…. Under this rubric an item I’m fond of is the snake that bit my foot, an implausibly sinister story faithfully assembled from Yamada and Dunn, Teach Yourself Japanese (1954); and I'm in awe of Nicolas Robertson’s extraordinary Oulipian series of anagram tales.

Selected readings


  1. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 20, 2024 @ 10:06 pm

    haha nice — yes Jianmin …. shangdian 健民…商店 where the 1st and last Hanzi as well as a bunch o' letters fell off. None of the Roman letters are wrong though – "S" is "S" and "G" "G".

  2. Victor Mair said,

    February 21, 2024 @ 7:44 am

    Dìngxìng xiàn jiànmín diànliào dēngjù shāngdiàn


    Dingxing County Jianmin* Electrical Materials and Lighting Store


    About twenty items down on this list.

    *Establishing / building up the people

  3. Steve Jones said,

    February 21, 2024 @ 8:03 am

    Dìngxìng xiàn jiànmín diànliào dēngjù shāngdiàn


    Dingxing County Jianmin* Electrical Materials and Lighting Store

    About twenty items down on this list.

    *Establishing / building up the people


    Good sleuthing, thanks Victor! though my guesses are more poetic…

  4. Victor Mair said,

    February 21, 2024 @ 8:22 am

    I love love love love your original post, Steve, and I'm sure that countless others do too. It is a work of genius, for which we can all be thankful.

    Much, much, much more evocative than mine.

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