Reading between the characters

I spend lots of time confusing Chinese characters I half-know for others I’m vaguely familiar with. But I’ve never had trouble identifying where a character started and finished. At least that part is straightforward, right? Everything in a box, one size fits all.

Until, that is, I did a bleary double-take as I came to this…


I’m still not sure what three characters I was trying to make out of it: 相那鬲, maybe? It’s complete nonsense and not even a good use of Chinese characters for phonetic approximation (xiāngnàgé?!) But after my eyes came back into focus and I saw that it was really two characters — as you can see below in context, 席棚 (xípéng) “mat house” is followed by 隔 (gé) “separated” — I decided I wasn’t entirely insane (although decidedly illiterate).


So the question is: would it be possible to string some fat characters together in such a way that the “incorrect” parsing of partial characters actually makes sense?

  1. Has anyone documented this happening by accident?
  2. Has someone at least constructed such a thing as a joke?

For the record, this looks a lot harder than the dirty word filter avoidance discussed in January (which is simple character splitting, not recombination, e.g. “不 矢口 亻十 么 日寸 候” instead of “不知什么时候” ). Too bad my real misparsing above only works if you’re a hanzi smatterifier.


5 responses to “Reading between the characters”

  1. AcidFlask says:

    There is the related story of 一合酥.

  2. Tony says:

    Although the fat characters are all squished up, to parse it as “相那鬲” would need to horizontally compress the dimensions of those 3 characters out of proportion with the rest of the characters in the text.

  3. Sheryl says:

    the joke “白月坡(a name)”&”白肚皮(white belly)” is similar to this one.

  4. blaketx says:

    Here’s a misparsing joke, although the misparsing happens vertically instead of horizontally.

    林蛋大 / 楚中天 :

  5. jdmartinsen says:

    I once had an old copy of a manual for pen-based calligraphy (as opposed to brush-based). Probably 1980s vintage. It contained a dos and don’ts section that advised one to take care when writing at speed not to separate the elements too much, causing the reader to interpret them as separate characters or combine them in incorrect ways.

    I’m sure I’ve read jokes about broken neon signs that turn a completely innocuous name into something really dirty, but I can’t come up with any at the moment.

Leave a Reply