Ruby characters, also called ruby, rubi or furigana, are sometimes used in the typography of ideographic languages, especially Japanese and Chinese. They are small characters placed above or to the side of an ideogram (kanji in the case of Japanese) that the reader may not recognize, providing its phonetic equivalent. Ruby annotations are used frequently in instructional books and books for children. Japanese ruby characters are also known as furigana outside of publishing circles. Chinese ruby characters are also known as Zhuyin symbols.

Sample use of ruby characters: (Note: not all web browsers can display ruby; font size was increased to show details)

Tokyo ((とう) (きょう), () (kyō)) ruby in hiragana and romaji respectively.

Beijing ((ㄅㄟˇ) (ㄐㄧㄥ), (bei3) (jing1)) ruby in bopomofo and pinyin respectively.

Ruby vs. rubi

When writing in Japanese or Chinese, pronunciation hints can be written on top of or alongside (when written vertically) of Chinese characters whose pronunciation is in question. These annotations are called furigana in Japanese and Zhuyin in Chinese. They are not restricted to printed material, but are used in handwriting as well. This may be done for many reasons:

  • because the character is a rare one, and the pronunciation is unknown to many
  • because the character has more than one pronunciation, and the context is insufficient to determine which to use
  • because the intended readers of the text are children (or non-native speakers) who are not expected to know the pronunciation
  • because a possibly-unfamiliar (usually foreign) or slang word is used, and a character is given to show the meaning, but in all other respects the pronunciation has nothing to do with the character itself; generally used with spoken dialogue (this possibly applies only to Japanese)

"Ruby" was originally the name of a British 5.5 pt font. Because of its size, it was originally used for the annotations in printed documents. In Japanese, this word lost its meaning "name of font" and became "typeset furigana". When it was translated back into English, the word was rendered by some as "rubi", which is the standard romanization for the Japanese ルビ However, the spelling "ruby" has become more common since being adopted as a W3C standard.

In Japanese and Chinese, Ruby retains its connotation of referring to typeset, as opposed to handwritten, annotations. As English has no native word for such annotations, this connotation is lost in English.

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