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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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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

3 Answers 3

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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"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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