Victor Mair has a Log post going into great detail about the many uses of the symbol Q in Chinese. I had been familiar with it only from the title of Lu Xun‘s famous “The True Story of Ah Q” (阿Q正傳), but it has many other uses:

If anyone should try to outlaw Q from all Chinese writing, then there would be no way to talk about the most famous work of modern Chinese fiction or the best-selling Chinese mini-car, and one would not be able to describe the texture of mochi, gummy bears, and lots of other delectables, nor would one be able to ask one’s friend to Q him on QQ, and you’d never be able to get out of Warcraft II.

And it is used for a basic Cantonese swear word: “the Q is read as [lan2] (‘vulgar morphosyllable for male sex organ’). Since lan2 does not sound at all like Q, the Q is not being used for phonetic purposes, but may perhaps be graphically suggestive.”


  1. John Emerson says

    If you already know 2 or 3 thousand characters, adding 26 more isn’t much of an imposition. In Taiwan I saw “X” used in the Chinese word for x-ray, “W” used for xingqi (=”week”), and “F” used for lou (=”floor”). The latter two were abbreviations used to make writing easier and were of routine semi-official use in a monolingual context (not one-off, individual, or macaronic). It’s a little like the bilingual Navajo military code, since a Chinese word is represented by the abbreviation of its English synonym.
    I’d like to see a study of this, or even better, just a comment thread by Taiwan and Hongkong Chinese.

  2. “the Q is read as [lan2] (‘vulgar morphosyllable for male sex organ’)…….the Q is not being used for phonetic purposes, but may perhaps be graphically suggestive.”
    Which organ would that be? The anus? Seems a pretty specialized kind of slang…….

  3. Mair seems to so often come up with the most interesting things to write about it. And, speaking of Lu Xun, I think it was a convention in Japan as well at that time to write charcater names as initial plus “san” Tさん… am thinking of Soseki but there are probably many examples. Friends will text me instead of Watanabe san 渡辺さん → Wさん, etc or instead of “lol” which in japanese is some form of 笑! there was a time when friends would text w! (for “warau” to smile or laugh)…. anyway, I think the illustrious Mr Emerson has got it right again and that once you learn 56 hiragana, 56 katakana and then all those kanji, adding 26 letters is no big deal…My son just started American second grade after being schooled so far all in japan and he says “it’s already easier” (this on day 4 the kid who could not read his abcs when we got off the plane is already reading basic sentences!) I informed him that we really should try and keep up a bit with japanese, to which he said, “I’ll think about it…” (not gonna happen??) sigh.

  4. @Jim: I think you’re looking at the big picture and missing the small one.
    The letter Q has a little tail. In many European languages, the word for tail does double duty for a male appendage.

  5. You have a typo: where it says “Victor Mair has a Log post” it should be instead “Victor Mair has a Looooooong post”

  6. John Emerson says

    Off topic: The words David Foster Wallace circled in he dictionary.
    Everyone here is into dictionaries, whether or not they’re into DFW.

  7. “In many European languages, the word for tail does double duty for a male appendage.”
    As opposed to this European language where it does double duty as the female organ. But I did see that little dangle too, just decided not to jump to the standard bath house stereotype comment about Asian men.
    “adding 26 letters is no big deal…”
    Oh peony, how could you live so long in Japan or China and not understand the horror of cultural pollution? Or “cultural imperialism” or whatever the buzzword is. Whatever will this lead to, legalizing milk in tea???!!!!!

  8. The letter “T” often appears in the mandarin word for T-shirt as well.

  9. Don’t forget G for chicken, replacing which has 18 strokes.

  10. Does the Chinese pronunciation of “Q” with this meaning resemble the pronunciation of the French queue ? Possible thereby hangs the tail ?

  11. The use of Q for the sexual organ doesn’t seem particularly strange. It’s like the Japanese use of a zero with an X inside as the symbol for the female genitalia.
    Or the (English-language) joke: “How do you spell ‘cat’?” A: MOQ.

  12. According to Wikipedia:
    In Chapter One, the author claims ironically that he could not recall nor verify Ah Q’s correct name, a claim that gives the character symbolic anonymity. “Ah” (阿) in Chinese is an diminutive prefix for names. “Q” is short for “Quei 媯,” Lu Xun’s romanization of what would today be romanized in Hanyu Pinyin as “Guī.” However, as there are many characters that are pronounced “quei,” the narrator claims he does not know which character he should use, and therefore shortens it to “Q.”

  13. MOQ
    Bathrobe, it took me two days to figure that out. It would have been easier if the question had been something like: “How do you recognize a Chinese cat on a windowsill in Connecticut ?”.

  14. I still don’t get it.

  15. John Emerson says

    Ha! AJP doesn’t get it. That means he won’t be able to tell whether I got it.

  16. Trond Engen says

    I still don’t get it.
    When I don’t get it I just pretend not to have read it. I thought I had got this one, though, until Stu came along with his connected window sillyness (which I haven’t had time to read yet).

  17. MOQ:
    M for the ears, O for the head, Q for the body and tail.

  18. The cat is seen from the back, “Chinese” because the letters are from top to bottom.

  19. Where does Connecticut come from?

  20. Alan (28481k) says

    I was going to type it out myself, but then commentator Ho Sun Yun said it in Language Log, so I decided to quote it here:

    Very interesting post, but, as others have indicated, the section on Cantonese is somewhat inaccurate:

    1) Q is used as a euphemistic replacement for obscene words like lan2 and gau1, not just in writing, but also in speech (pronounced kiu1). If one were to read aloud a text that contains Q, one would pronounce it kiu1, not lan2.

    2) The characters 鳩, 鬼, and 巧 do not sound roughly like Q and are not used to substitute for Q by virtue of being less vulgar. In fact the character 鳩 (gau1), as used in written Cantonese, is much more offensive than Q because it is used to directly represent the obscenity gau1 “prick”. As for 鬼 (gwai2), it is very commonly used in colloquial Cantonese as a relatively inoffensive intensifier (e.g. 好鬼煩 “damn troublesome”); this usage has nothing to do with Q.

    Well said, so Q is a euphemism in speech as well as in text, confirming my own usage.

  21. Connecticut is supposed to be a hint that you need to imagine English letters as “Chinese pictograms”. I recognized the ears first.
    I admit the hint is a bit obscure, but Bathrobe’s original “How do you spell ‘cat’ ?” was not much of a help either, because it seems to contain the answer already: ‘cat’.
    There must a better hint – one that is a double-entendre to match the visual double-take of MOQ.
    I was trying to smuggle in the following ideas:
    – some Chinese “characters” look like stylized pictures
    – English “characters” are not like that, but you can regard some of them as if they were
    – a word (group of letters / characters) can look like a cat

  22. I forgot to spell out what it was that helped me to recognize the ears first. In advertising logos and tourist posters in Cologne, you often see the two spires of the Dom (main cathedral) sylized as a horizontally squnched, vertically elongated M.

  23. Thanks, DG & Grumbly. I was thrown off by the Connecticut windowsill, but the Dom worked for me.

  24. When did the Dom work for you, and did you pay the going rate?

  25. There’s a well known British tv person called Dom Joly. What happens when he goes to, say, Strasbourg and says “Hello, Dom Joly”. What do they say? “Sure, but you should see the rest of the city” ?

  26. If Conrad Roth were around, he would no doubt recommend,
    Alfred Kallir’s 1961 classic, Sign and Design: The Psychogenetic Source of the Alphabet
    I borrowed a copy at UCLA and was fascinated. Hoping to re-borrow it sometime soon too… as I cannot recall what was said about Q.
    And Jim, they have Yuanyang in HongKong (yummy) and milk-tea in Japan so why not H-san? Cultural appropriation strikes again?? Q.

  27. Where is Conrad, anyway? He hasn’t updated since New Year’s. Busy, I suppose.

  28. Baby.

  29. John Emerson says

    Milk tea in Hong Kong too, I think.

  30. The crown prince must be keeping our Conrad busy!

  31. He’s Conrad’s kid; I assumed he’d be in college by now, freeing Conrad up for blog duty.

  32. I just found this article on the question of Are China’s language problems due to English or politics?. As China laments the poor state of its spoken and written word, one article stirs the debate by suggesting its the country’s political past that’s to blame.
    The article starts: “China Central Television (CCTV) made headlines recently with its announcement that anchors were no longer allowed to use English acronyms. On air, the NBA is now to be called “meiguo zhiye lanqiu sai” (美国职业篮球赛), F1 is to be called “yiji fangchenshi saiche jinbiao sai” (一级方程式赛车锦标赛) , and the G8 is to be called “baguo fenghui” (八国峰会).”

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