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I was chatting with a Chinese penpal recently and when I asked "what are you doing?", I received the following answer:

吃东西,你呢?

Now, "东西" means "east and west" and so "吃东西" literally means "eat/eating east and west".

After I asked for explanations, I got this reply "I am eating something". The explanation included the fact that this depends on context.

So, how did 东西 come to mean "something"? And in what contexts can it be found with what meanings?

If the list is long, include only the most famous cases (5, 10 cases).

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4  
To say that 东西 means "east and west" is to misunderstand how Chinese forms words from individual characters. I assure you that no Chinese person thinks of 吃东西 as "literally mean[ing] eating east and west"; it just means "something," full stop. The two uses aren't even pronounced the same: 东西 meaning "something" is pronounced dōngxi (xi is neutral tone), while the phrase 东西 meaning "east and west" is pronounced dōngxī (full first tone on both syllables). – Jon Jan 28 '12 at 1:10
    
An analogous example: no native English speaker's first thought upon hearing the word "airport" is "a place where ships dock, but for things from the air!" That may be the word's origin, but in no sense is it its literal meaning. – Jon Jan 28 '12 at 1:20
    
@Jon I was certainly aware that the literal interpretation was not the best one, or even a slightly correct one for that matter; it's not the first language I'm studying. But since I'm a beginner in Chinese, I'm allowed to have doubts in this sense, because I have to still grasp the mechanisms of Chinese. I understand why you wrote those comments, but I feel they are a bit out of place. – Alenanno Jan 28 '12 at 9:52
    
It's not just for food, it's to say "something" in general. It's quite a convenient word when you don't know how something is called - eg. 我要这个东西! Really don't know about the etymology though. – this.lau_ Jan 28 '12 at 10:18
    
@戴洛弘 I understand that the etymology is not easy to retrieve. Feel free to post an answer on the rest of the question. – Alenanno Jan 28 '12 at 10:19

Afaik 东西 always stands for "something" or "a thing". However the question might point to the origin of this meaning. A Chinese teaching professor once told me, that the silk road goes from east to west, which is from 东 to 西 and there were many goods traded on the silk road and that's how this meaning came to be.

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I like how nobody even tried to answer the question at the end, "and in what contexts can it be found and with what meanings?" Here are a few that I always heard:

  1. mai dongxi which means to go shopping. (lit. buy stuff)
  2. chi dongxi which means to eat something. (lit. to eat stuff)
  3. nvhai you tai duo ge dongxi which means girls have too much stuff.
  4. ni xiang mai shenme dongxi? which means, "what do you want to buy" (lit. you want to buy what stuff?).

Now you have to understand that "something" is a very unique word to English that has many many meanings. To my knowledge there is no Chinese equivalent word, so dongxi is really just a word that basically means stuff in the physical sense.

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according to English grammar "something" is an indefinite pronoun (不定代词), cf. iciba: ... PRON-INDEF 某物,某事(指事物、情况、事件、想法等)... on the other hand Chinese grammar only has 人称、指示、疑问等三种代词(personal,demonstrative,interrogative) pronouns, and as such 疑问代词"什么" sometimes corresponds to "something" cf。"实用现代汉语语法"疑问代词的活用(二)表示任指(或泛指)e.g.iciba:他马上意识到什么地方出了问题。 你看上去好像刚爬过山或是什么的。 – user6065 Mar 3 at 16:30

Read this answer... it explains the reason in great detail, but it's too long to post here.

Basically buying something from the east town/something from the west town... eventually it just became buy something (east/west).

http://gbtimes.com/life/hello-china-97-things

Oh, and there's a cute video at the bottom too.

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"东西" almost always means "something," though as Don says you might more gracefully translate it by another word. And as Jon commented, when it does not mean "something", then it is pronounced differently.

Friends in Taiyuan told me of a conference of Eastern and Western Provinces in China that did not include the (central) province of Shanxi. They joked on the two meanings by saying "山西不是东西." A more careful grammarian could spoil the joke by saying "山西不是东西方。"

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This is a good question about etymology of Chinese word. Most native speakers are not interested in etymology as they can speak out of habit while non-native speakers are more curious on how the sense of words evolves. Back to your question, there are nice articles on both Wikipedia and Baidu Baike that explains the etymology of "东西". Since there are acutally quite a few explanations for this one, so I cannot translate them all here. But I can help you if you have trouble to understand particular sentences.

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The only use I've heard for 东西 is to mean "thing". CEDICT has two definitions:

thing / stuff / person

east and west

I've come across the first one many times, but I've never seen it used literally as in the second one. Here are a couple of examples from tatoeba.org:

这就是我在西班牙买的东西。

This is what I bought in Spain. [Or, "This is the thing I bought in Spain."]

总有一些东西我永远不能学会,我的生命不是永恒的!

There will always be things I will never learn, I don't have eternity before me!

As you can see in the first example, you wouldn't always translate 东西 directly as "thing". It sometimes is replaced by a pronoun in English, like "what".

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