Characters and Shapes

One of the fun things about studying a foreign language is learning the new angle from which that language approaches the world. Part of that angle is a language’s orthography. Below are a few differences of how the English language names shapes (using letters) compared to how Chinese names those shapes (using Chinese characters).

  1. What shape do migrating ducks fly in?
    • English: a V-shape
    • Chinese: 人字形 (a “人 character” shape; “人” means “person”)
  2. What is the symbol of Christianity?
    • English: the cross
    • Chinese: 十字架 (a “十 character” frame/rack; “十” means “ten”)
  3. What do you call an intersection of two perpendicular streets?
    • English: crossroads
    • Chinese: 十字路口 (a “十 character” intersection; “十” means “ten”)
  4. What do you call a street which ends at another street at a perpendicular angle?
    • English: a “T,” a T-junction
    • Chinese: 丁字路口 (a “丁 character” intersection; “丁” has a somewhat obscure meaning, but it originally meant “nail”)
  5. What do you call a street which diverges into two streets?
    • English: a “Y,” a fork
    • Chinese: 丫字路口 (a “丫 character” intersection; “丫” means “fork”)

Of the types of intersections, 十字路口 is the most common, and 丫字路口 is by far the least common (a Google search confirms this).

I’m sure there are more of these orthographically based shape descriptors, but I can’t think of any more at the moment. If you can, please chime in in the comments.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


    • Screwdrivers: Philips: 十字槽螺丝刀; Flat: 一字槽螺丝刀.
    • Octothorpe #: 井字号.
    • foot position: feet splayed: 八字脚; pigeon toed: 内八字脚.
  1. Oh, also 之字形, to zig-zag.

    (Don’t know why my leading ” – ” got converted to list format. What happened to preview around here?)

  2. zhwj,

    Wow, that’s a bunch of good ones.

    When you start a line with a “-” it Markdown converts it to a list. It should have been an unordered list, though… something is screwy with my CSS.

  3. In Russin if you handwrite their “L” which looks like this on the computer: “Л” it looks like an upside down V. So maybe the russians say ducks fly in an L…hmm…i’ll have to ask my fiancee.

  4. Geez, you’ve got me thinking about these all day.

    Pyramid is 金字塔. Then there’s 七字形, which describes something hook like (like a “7”); 乙字形, which describes a certain kind of chain-link; 田字格, grids with each section divided into four; 干字杆 is a signpost with two signs, one on top of the other (丁字杆 is a standard, single-sign post); 丰字形 is used to refer to a road (or other network) with cross-streets (梳齿形, or comb-tooth style, is for branches on one side); and 工字型 is “I-shaped” (工字梁 = I-beam).

    And isn’t there a basic martial-arts practice position where you’re supposed to resemble a 定?

  5. 工字形 – meaning shaped more or less like a capital “I” or the roman numeral for one. But the only place I’ve really seen something like it used is in construction, as word for steel girders- : 工字钢 You have to magine how they look in cross section to make it work.

  6. zhwj, you’re a friggin’ jewel. If there was a way to pat you on the back across the internet, I would.

  7. I think the chinese for Philips and flat screwdrivers is great.
    Does anyone know the chinese for O-ring, as in the sealing devices?
    (topic at work today so intrigued….)

  8. What about the Chinese for “showing her my O face”?

  9. 丁字裤=G string panties.

  10. Micah: I’d provide more, but I think I just sprained my shoulder.

    Meanwhile, here’s something interesting that I just ran across (though it may have been on Sinosplice before; I don’t really remember): How many characters can you make from 口 by adding two strokes?

  11. 国字脸--square face

  12. A moustache is called 八字胡, a 八-shaped beard. Even the small moustache that does not really resemble a trapezoid is still a 小八字胡.

    A T-ruler is 丁字尺.

    Certain people (Chinese only?), esp. the actress type, when they used to pose for a photograph would always stand in a T-shaped pose, 丁字步: the two feet forming a rough “T.”

    I don’t think U-bolt and U-turn have Chinese equivalences.

    Figure skating is called 花样滑冰, which in English some may think referring to the graceful figures or poses of the skaters but actually stemmed from the number-8-like patterns that the skates draw on the ice surface. The Chinese name also refers to tha patterns on the ice surface but some also mistake it as referring to the artistical poses by the skaters.

  13. Gin,

    Thanks for the additions!

    Just yesterday I was giving directions to a Chinese person and I had the opportunity to use 丫字路口, so I did. She had no idea what I meant. I had to spell it out for her: “丫头的丫” before she finally got it (and no, my tones weren’t wrong!).

  14. I hope you don’t mind the late reply – I saw this last week in a museum near Xi’an:

    Nice examples of character shapes in action. Note the English translation, it’s priceless. I wonder how many visitors were able to make sense of this so far – thanks God I read Sinosplice ;-).

  15. To answer Phil above, no, there is no equivalent to an O-ring in Chinese, neither to the phrase “donut shape.”

    Interesting is that a paper clip (pin), the kind whose shape is used in some computer software’s interface as the “attach file” symbol, has a name: 回形针, a 回-shaped pin. If you find it hard to visualize this one, just think that the 草体 style of hand writing could have this character in a one-stroke swirl not unlike a smoothened “@” sign.

    If one stretches out on a bed or on the floor or ground (which a Chinese will never do, for reasons discussed in the thread about M&M), the description in English would be spreading out in all fives, right? Well, in Chinese this is conveniently described as spreading out into a “大”字. I don’t know if I should continue but I’v also heard a joke: on the other hand a guy would never spread into a “大”字 but a “太”字 instead.

  16. Oh,
    I forgot that my site is blocked in China; here’s a link to the picture on neutral ground:

  17. John,

    We don’t say“Y”路口. Instead, we call that “三岔“路口,that is, a fork road.

  18. How about U-channel sign post

  19. Congrats on getting mentioned in language log:

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