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What dictionaries (online, software-based or in paper form) explain the origins of a word and its evolution over time? E.g. how the character was once written, how the usage – and the meaning – changed over time.

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11 Answers 11

Wen Lin is an amazing piece of software that has all of the etymological features you are looking for. The central downside is that it is a bit pricey. Most universities have a copy, though, and there may be the opportunity to get some kind of student pricing discount. (Not sure if that applies to your case.)

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+1, Wenlin is the ultimate dictionary/reference for those who can afford it. Unfortunately, many of us cannot... :( – dr Hannibal Lecter Dec 24 '11 at 18:05
They have recently cut their prices in half so it now costs $99 to download. I use it every single day, so $99 is really worth it for the value it adds to my Chinese studies. – rramphal Oct 1 '14 at 16:47

I found the ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese to be a great source if you're interested in the evolution of the prounciation and meaning of Chinese words. It avoids etymology of character structure though; for that, I would suggest

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+1 for resources on actual etymology, instead of only character "etymology". – Stumpy Joe Pete Jan 21 '13 at 23:41
in its own right, character etymology is a worthy endeavor to discover how characters came about. a very good example is 東 and 西 and how they are used to write 東西. many people believe that 東 is the sun setting behind a tree, and 西 a bird in its nest. however, as R. Sears has pointed out, 東 and 西 are better explained as 'bag' and 'basket'—and 東西 as 'what you put into bags and baskets—things, stuff' (cf. German "Sack und Pack", i.e. 'all your stuff'). – flow Oct 1 '14 at 17:02 has a very limited amount of information on each character's origin.

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This is an excellent one (and it's free too ;) )

Yellow Bridge

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There's a list of etymology resources (including a couple already mentioned) on this page:

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In this post I gave an overview of online resources:

On you can see how a character evolved, the simplified and traditional characters.

Another similar website is .

Zdict is completely in Chinese:

Here is another website in Chinese (that only supports transitional characters):

As Aristide mentioned has similar functionality.

Although it doesn't show how the characters evolved, I also like It explains how characters are composed out of other characters.

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In terms of the individual 漢字 (characters), there's the classic 說文解字 (Shuowen Jiezi) written in the 1st to 2nd century AD, which is the first and the most authoritative Chinese dictionary to attempt to trace the origin and evolution of each character. An online version is available here, or ZDict as mentioned above also contains the Shuowen entry.

The obvious drawback is that you need to know how to read 文言文 (classical Chinese). Be aware also that, although traditionally considered the gold standard for Chinese etymology, recent archaeological findings have necessitated new derivations for some characters; the Wikipedia page has a general explanation on this.

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Many explanations in Shuowen are incorrect, so it shouldn't be the "gold standard". But still, it is a good start to learn etymology by Shuowen. I recommend the book 說文解字考正 by 董蓮池, which includes recent archaeological findings besides the original text of Shuowen (printed in the traditional typeface, and the seal script for each entry is kept). – Stan Oct 4 '14 at 6:05

I like It's simple and clear.

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This is the exact book you should refer.

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