What is Etymology and Is it Useful for Learning Chinese Characters? (P – Outlier Linguistics

What is Etymology and Is it Useful for Learning Chinese Characters? (Part 2)

What is Etymology and Is it Useful for Learning Chinese Characters? (Part 2)

By Ash Henson

In the previous post, I went over the first three aspects of etymology as it relates to learning Chinese characters, namely identifying the functional components in a given character, identifying how the functional components function, and identifying corrupted components. In this post, I’ll go over the remaining three:

#4: Identifying the meaning that a given character was invented to represent and its relationship to the character form.
#5: Restoring the pictorial quality of character components.
#6: The full story.

Aspect #4: Identifying the meaning that a given character was invented to represent and its relationship to the character form, a.k.a. a character’s “original meaning.”

This is important because it’s the only meaning that is directly related to a character’s form. Some characters still represent their original meanings, like 人 rén “person,” 火 huǒ “fire” or 山 shān “mountain” for example. Some, represent secondary meanings, like 木 “wood” (originally “tree”), 取 “to take” (originally “to take a ear off a dead soldier after a battle”) or 段 duàn “section, part” (originally “to break into pieces”). And some, are rather distantly related, like 漢 hàn “Chinese ethnicity,” which was originally the name of a river (located in what is now Shaanxi province). Then, it became the name of a Chinese dynasty, and then of the Chinese ethnicity. In situations like this, it’s not important to memorize this relationship. It is, however, important to at least read it. That way, your brain realizes that there is a rational reason for the form component of 漢 being 氵shuǐ “water.” For the purposes of memory, brains tend to prefer patterns to randomness.

Note: Check out this article for more about the different types of functional components

But there are also a significant number of characters whose modern meanings aren’t related at all to their forms. The main reason for this is sound-loan. This is similar to, but not exactly the same as writing Malaysia as 馬來西亞 Mǎláixīyǎ. Here, the characters only give sound and not meaning. In other words, the word Mǎláixīyǎ does not mean “Horse-come-west-asia.” It’s just a sound representation of Malaysia. In the same way, because it is difficult to come up with pictures that represent grammatical concepts, the characters used to write grammatical words are very often sound-loans. For instance, 其 “his/ hers/ its” was originally a picture of a basket. The word for basket (now written 箕 ) was similar in sound to the word for “his/ hers/ its,” so the character for basket 其 was borrowed to write “his/ hers/ its.” Since the word basket lost its original character, a new character was invented by adding 竹 zhú “bamboo” to 其 to emphasize the meaning “basket”: 箕. These are rather common, actually.

It is important to know when the character form is not related to its meaning. This is another form of closure. It’s like if you were to do an internet search and then never get a result. It would just leave a nagging feeling in your gut. Getting an answer, even if the answer is “no results for this search” brings closure. It also keeps you from assigning a false meaning to that component and thereby adding noise to the system of meaning representation.

Aspect #5: Restoring the pictorial quality of character components.

Due to the high degree of stylization in modern Chinese characters, much of their pictorial quality has been lost. However, if you have the chance to compare the modern forms, especially on a component level, to their ancestral forms, much of that pictorial quality can be restored. Or even better, have someone else (uh.. *coughs* someone like Outlier!) do the hard work for you and show you the main nodes of the forms evolution with an accompanying explanation, then it becomes very easy to see. Here’s a few examples:

yòu “again; and; both…”

又 evolution2.png

(1a) is a fairly typical picture of a hand from the oracle bone script. It’s also important to note that the ancient Chinese didn’t have three fingers. Rather than being an actual picture of a hand, this is a pictorial-like symbol that captures the important features of a hand (and it’s easier to draw than an actual hand). Though the orientation and space between the fingers vary, forms (1b) through (1e) are essentially the same. It’s the bending of the top finger that starts in (1f), which is then connected to the middle finger in the modern form 又 that makes the modern form difficult to recognize as a hand.

So, the form of “a right hand” was used to express the original meaning “right hand.”

It came to mean “again; and; both…” by way of sound-loan. In other words, the sound of the word “right hand” was the same or similar to the sound of another word that meant “again; and; both….” The word “right hand” came to be written 右 yòu “right-hand side,” which came to indicate “right-hand side” instead of “right hand.” The 口 kǒu is actually just a mark to distinguish 又 from 右, so it does not express a meaning or sound here. Note that the 𠂇 in 右 and 左 zuǒ “left-hand side” have different origins. The 𠂇 in 左 was a picture of a left hand: 又 oracle.png.

bìng “moreover; and; simultaneously”

並 evolution.png

Forms (2a) and (2b) show a front view of two people standing shoulder to shoulder. The line on the bottom represents the ground. (2c) adds another line, probably for beautification, since it’s not adding a meaning or sound. In (2d), the two 立 are written so close together that they are touching, giving someone the idea for making their arms a single line as seen in (2e). Note how there is a trade off between ease of understanding and ease of writing. (2a) through (2c) represent their meaning very clearly, while (2e) is the easiest to write, but completely opaque, unless you know the earlier forms.

The form “two people standing shoulder to shoulder” was used to represent the original meaning “to stand shoulder to shoulder.” From this meaning evolved the meanings “to put together,” “to put on par with (i.e., to stand as equals)” and “simultaneous (i.e., to happen side by side in time).” The meanings “and” and “moreover” most likely evolved from the meaning “to put together.”

bǐng “to grasp, hold”

秉 evolution.png

In (3a), the left side is a stalk of grain, and the right side is a hand about to grab it for the harvest. The left side of (3b) is a more simple looking stalk of grain that is being grabbed by hand, while in (3c) is a more stylized version of the (3b). The form “a hand grasping a stalk of grain” was used to represent the original meaning “to grasp grain with the hand,” which evolved to mean “to grasp or to hold” in general.

jiān “merge, compatible; simultaneous”

兼 evolution.png

If you compare (4a) to (3b), you’ll see that (4a) is a single hand simultaneously grabbing two stalks of grain. (4b) and (4c) are more stylized versions of (4a). The form of “a hand simultaneously holding two stalks of grain” was used to represent the original meaning “to put together” and later derived the meanings “compatible (i.e., two things that fit together)” and "simultaneous (i.e., two things done at the same time).

jiān “to supervise, inspect”

監 evolution.png

The left side of (5a) is a vessel (i.e., a container of some kind), while the right side is a person sitting in a kneeling position. The eye is exaggeratedly large to emphasize the idea of inspection. In (5b), the person appears to be standing up and leaning over the vessel, which has water in it. Ancient people used water as for its mirror-like quality to inspect their own faces. Notice that the eye is now unattached to the body (this type of corruption is called “disintegration” and it is explained in an earlier post). (5c) is a more stylized version of (5b). So, the form “a person with an exaggerated eye looking down into a container of water” is used to express the original meaning “to look downwards and inspect.” Later, this meaning evolved to the more general “supervise, inspect.”

Aspect #6: The full story:

This is the “real” story of how any given character was born and evolved into modern times. This might be hard to believe, but our posts on character etymology are far from comprehensive. The real stories behind characters can get really complex. The first time I was introduced to actual paleography and saw pre-Qin dynasty characters, I was shocked. So shocked, that I realized that if I want to do a dictionary of Chinese characters that I absolutely cannot do so without first getting some serious training in paleography. The “real” story is most certainly not for the faint at heart. It’s full of twists and turns, and all manner of crazy phenomena that one would never conceive of just having seen modern characters. To research the full story, it takes a lot of hard work and a lot of training (I’ve been training to do our dictionary since 2006). The trick is to understand how characters actually work, use the knowledge of character evolutions that are well understood in order to research out those that aren’t, follow the evidence and not be swayed by your own personal biases.

How etymology is used in the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters:

There are three editions of our dictionary: Mini, Essentials, and Expert.

The Mini Edition is sort of a “starter” version which gives you an introduction to the Outlier approach to characters. It contains component breakdowns for 2000 characters, along with detailed information about semantic components.

The Essentials Edition contains everything you need to know about 4000 characters without overwhelming you with extra detail. It’s great for students of all levels and backgrounds. It contains exactly what’s required in order to master a given character: a form explanation, component breakdown, pronunciation, meanings, and stroke order for each character.

The Expert Edition is for those with an inquiring mind (a.k.a., crazy people like us!). The Expert Edition is perfect for students who enjoy being able to dive deep into the history and etymology of the Chinese language. All of the Essentials information appears in the main entry, and the Expert Info is just one tap away! This is the ultimate tool for Chinese character etymology enthusiasts. It includes a highly condensed version of the “real” story that focuses on the parts of that story that will help you better understand how that character came to be in a way that aids in learning. It shows the basic evolution of the character form and throws in other interesting tidbits.

Make sure to check out this demo of the Expert Edition to get an idea of what the dictionary actually looks like.

Here's an illustration of the difference between each edition:

3 editions.png


  • Trail blazing was to leave marks on trees to show the path through a forest.
    Outlier’s dictionary is trailblazing Chinese for Anglophoes.

    Eric Engle
  • Amazing! I love it! So accurate, seems that a whole new world appeared to me! (sorry for any mistakes, I am french).
    A big applause to you.

    Sylviane Fessieux

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