mother-bleeping X’s

Click to enlarge. Taiwanese movie poster for the Western film 'Severance' (???). It contains the line '????????? ????? Orz'

Language Log has had quite a few posts in recent months on the bleeping out of letters from obscenities. I’d like to add here an example of something bleeped out of a string of Chinese characters.

The other day I noticed an ad on the side of a bus for the forthcoming British slasher film Severance. (I didn’t get a good photo of this ad, so here I’m using an image of the poster for this movie.) In Mandarin this has the rather uninspired title of Duàntóu qì (???: “Severed Head Qi“).

What really caught my eye, however, was the tag line in Chinese characters:

????????? ????? Orz

This is interesting not just for the use of Orz, which is Net slang, but also for the bleeping out of the middle character of the obscenity t?m? de (???, sometimes seen as “tamade“), rendering it ?X?. (Note too that a Roman letter rather than a Chinese character was used for this.)

There’s nothing obscene about the middle character by itself (?). It’s used in writing words related to m? (“mother”). For that matter, there’s nothing in the least impolite about any of the characters by themselves or the individual morphemes they represent. The phrase as a whole literally means simply “his mother’s.” But as a whole the phrase works as something that youngsters would get into trouble for saying around their parents or elders and that would probably not be used on television (not without bleeping the subtitles, at least).

Lu Xun (L? Xùn/??/??) wrote a brief essay about the expression tama de. (For an English translation and notes of Lu Xun’s tama de essay, see Lu Xun on the Chinese “national swear”, an excellent post by Huichieh Loy of From a Singapore Angle.)

Back to the bleeping. As the results of Google searches show, ??? and ?X? are both common, though the original form is much more so.

  total of all domains within .cn domains within .tw domains
?X? 98,100 22,700 6,960
??? 1,910,000 173,000 903,000

Note that .cn (PRC) domains have 23.14% of the total ?X?s but only 9.06% of the total ???s. This difference is probably a result of China’s Net nanny culture. On the other hand, specifically PRC domains still have a lot of ???s. (Or rather ???s, using the so-called simplified form of ?.) Taiwan domains, however, have more than five times as many, which in the spirit of this post I should probably call a fucking lot of ???s.

Out of curiousity I also ran searches for the other letters of the alphabet and found a spike for the ?M?. The letter M serves here as an abbreviation for the ma of tama de. Accordingly, it’s no surprise to see that ?ma? is also found and that both ?M? and ?ma? are relatively rare in .tw domains (since people in Taiwan aren’t taught romanization).

  total of all domains within .cn domains within .tw domains
?M? 21,200 4,220 128
?ma? 12,400 2,620 168

To my surprise, I also came across a lesser spike for the use of the letter Y: ?Y?

  total of all domains within .cn domains within .tw domains
?Y? 8,450 1,520 14

The ?Y?s are mainly referring to a sadistic Flash game Pìpì ch?u t? Y de (????Y?).

But it appears this isn’t really intended to be the letter Y from the Roman alphabet. Instead, Y appears to be used in place of zhuyin fuhao’s similar-looking ?, which represents the sound that Hanyu Pinyin assigns to the Roman letter A. Thus, ?Y? is not read “ta Y de” but more like “taaa de.” (See Some Things Chinese Characters Can’t Do-Be-Do-Be-Do.) Oddly enough, there are thousands of pages with ?Y? (Roman letter Y) but just a handful with ??? (bopo mofo ?). This may be from the relative ease of typing the letter Y instead of zhuyin’s ?. Another odd result is that many of the ???s are within .cn domains but in traditional Chinese characters. [Later addition: See the comments for clarification on this.]

Since the subject of zhuyin fuhao came up, I made some additional searches:

  total of all domains within .cn domains within .tw domains
?????? 0 0 0
???? 142 0 55
??? 3,820 16 1,410
??? 408 0 2

“TMD” is another extremely common way to indicate tama de. But too many unrelated results turn up in searches for me to give useful numbers for this.

OK, I’m finally finished with this tama de post.

7 thoughts on “mother-bleeping X’s

  1. The Japanese with replace letters with a ?, as in ??? (manko, means cunt, with a circle for the “n”). This is a little different from Chinese though, because the letters are completely phonetic, but in your example the characters are being used phonetically but also have “ideographic” meanings….

  2. Instead of a phonetic ? it might be the character ?; in Beijing slang, it’s a contraction of ?(?)??, or “bastard”. It can be used alone as in “??????????????????????”, but people toss around ??, ?? all the time. I’d guess that ?Y? is more in that vein than a phonetic bleed, and ??? with the phonetic is just an obscure variant.

  3. Carl: I’ve seen O’s used here, too. But X’s are more common in Taiwan, from my experience. As for the “the characters are being used phonetically but also have ‘ideographic’ meanings” — I don’t follow you. Or are you referring to the same thing zhwj posted?

    zhwj: Many thanks for clearing that up. I should have done some more checking first, but I’d already spent a lot of time on this entry and just wanted to get it over with.

    “???” (with the Hanzi ? rather than the zhuyin ? or Roman letter Y) doesn’t seem to be much of a Taiwan thing, but it’s certainly popular. Here are the Google numbers on that:
    total for the entire Web: 303,000
    within .cn domains: 89,300
    within .tw domains: 609

  4. I wonder what the relationship is between the X and O substitution and the use of ? and ? – stuff like “??????” – is this basically a clever reading of X and O as “cross” and “circle” (like in that Stephen Chow film ??? where a letter with x and o for unknown characters is read as “?????????!”), or is it a more direct vulgarity that draws humor from the fact that the censorship actually makes things more explicit?

  5. On Danwei I saw ESWN’s translation of a purported list of banned terms in Xinhua news reporting (more of a style guide, really). Part of it reads:

    “When news reports involve the following types of persons, their real names should not be disclosed…. In reporting about these people, the report can refer to the family of the person but use X as the given name, as in Zhang X, Li X. Aliases are not appropriate.”

    So for a moment I thought this would be another X substitution. But a look at the original Mandarin gives this:


    So the X is a translation of ? (m?u), as in m?urén (somebody).

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