DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am a sophomore in college, working toward an Asian Studies major. Since I started learning Japanese and Chinese, I began taking notice of Chinese characters on T-shirts, tattoos and other places. I do not know all possible characters yet, but I do know many commonly used words and a few not-so-common ones that I've managed to recognize.
One day, I had a conversation with a nice lady who happened to have a tattoo on her upper arm. When I mentioned my major, she brought up the tattoo, but I quickly realized that the tattoo didn't say what she thought it did.
She told me it said "butterfly," but I knew it actually meant bird. I didn't point this out, but felt a little guilty for letting her continue to think it meant butterfly. Another time, a man told me the tattoos he had on his forearms said "love" and "hate." "Love" was correct, but instead of "hate" the character said "bad."
Sometimes I'll see shirts, occasionally very fancy ones, with entirely nonsense phrases on them. In one instance, there was a very large, muscular man walking around with the character for "woman" on his chest.
Also, I have seen some places that offer temporary tattoos whose listings are completely wrong (I have never been in an actual tattoo parlor), such as listing "heart" as "love" and vice versa, or writing "peace" with only one symbol (it's a two-character word, and the first character alone, as I often see it, just means "flat"' or "smooth").
I tried speaking to the manager of one place about this, figuring it better to get it straightened out with him rather than the people who buy the tattoos. I explained what was wrong and showed him examples from the pocket dictionary I have, but he said that it was the list they got from their supplier, and he couldn't do anything about it.
I know there's no tactful way to approach a stranger about this, but if I'm talking to someone, such as the lady I mentioned, is there any way to point out what I read the character as?
Can you please explain to your readers the importance of being sure what a character says before buying the shirt or getting it permanently etched into their skin? It's not very hard to find a reliable source: Many large bookstores offer Chinese or Japanese dictionaries.
GENTLE READER: The key word here is "before." While Miss Manners appreciates your desire to rescue people from the danger of being misread, your instinct about not correcting the would-be Madame Butterfly was even kinder. What exactly would you have expected her to do about it?
One rule about correcting others is that you do so only if the error is something that can be easily and immediately remedied -- the Spinach on the Tooth rule. Another is you not shame innocent people by demonstrating that you know more than they do, in this case, the customers.
Those who sell misleadingly are not innocent, and since they don't seem to care, you might direct your efforts to their suppliers. But even then, Miss Manners recommends proceeding with polite caution. She is given to understand that these are not always one-on-one translations, and correctors are notoriously in danger of encountering more knowledgeable correctors.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: My ex-husband's girlfriend miscarried her first pregnancy, and is now pregnant again. It is well known in the community that she was my husband's mistress prior to our divorce. What is the proper response to those who ask me how she is doing?
GENTLE READER: "Better than might be expected."