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When I look up the etymology of 对象 on the internet, most of the answers (link1 link2) refer to an explanation from 《幽默与笑话》. The source makes me doubt if it's the real origin of the word:

人们习惯把青年男女自由恋爱叫“搞对象”或“找对象”。“对象”一词是怎么来的呢?这其中源于一个有趣的神话传说。

在造世之初,男女原是连体而生,好像海蜇一样是雌雄长在一起的。那时候,世上的夫妻从脱娘胎后就在一块儿,走到哪里也不会分离。谁知如此欢快的人间夫妻生活,却遭到天上一个“二尾子神”的忌妒,他想:我贵为神,身子却不男不女的,连那些凡人都不如,非拆散他们不可!于是,他招来手下的神兵,把天下的人类召集到一起,用刀把男身和女身砍开,再使法刮起大风,把被分开的夫妻吹得世界各地都有。这一来,男的找不见自己原来的妻子,女的见不着自己原来的丈夫,都伤心得大哭起来。

天上的王母娘娘听到人间遍地哭声,忙命人拨开云彩一看,见是“二尾子神”在作恶,即命天将把他捉到天庭,乱刀砍成万块,抛到人间。接着又打发高媒神下凡,帮助世人把自身的那一半找回来,仍然配成夫妻。

高媒神下凡后,整天为人类奔忙,累得头昏脑涨,免不了弄错,把李四的一半身子往张三身上安,把王五的身子配给赵六。这样一来可乱了套,被配错的夫妻都吵闹着去找高媒神。高媒神只好把他们再分开,让他们各自去找身上失去的另一半。从此,世间就留下了离婚休妻的恶俗。

王母娘娘知道这事后,只好把最有能耐的月老仙派到人间,帮助人类寻伴配对。月老仙让大家找到自己的另一半身子时,不要匆匆忙忙结合,先互相间相一相,对一对,如像就重新结合,错了再重找。相媳妇的习俗就是从此留下来的。

摘自《幽默与笑话》

Personally I've been interpreting 象 as 'feature' (like in 新年新气象), and 对象 as 'feature on a par'. I'm very interested in the real etymology of the word.

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I think it's probably something like taking the original definition of 对象 as "subject", and using it as a euphemism for "dating subject" i.e. 恋爱对象. –  congusbongus Feb 3 at 12:58
    
@congusbongus I can buy that, but why does 对 + 象 mean subject? Where and when did the word emerge? –  NS.X. Feb 3 at 21:09
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2 Answers

The ancient Chinese use single character as a word, but the modern usually use 2 or more characters. Some of the modern words come from the speech, have the meaning constructed by the characters which built up the word. But some are not.

Modern Chinese is not developed from the ancient. The ancient Chinese used only in written for dominators. Modern Chinese is developed from the mix of oral and written.

对象 can be translated in to Object, or Partner. In most case, Object should be correct. 对象 is imported from Japanese. You cannot translate it into 2 characters of Chinese, coz it's not a Chinese word. (http://baike.soso.com/v178317.htm)

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I should say, in most cases (about 95% in Mandarin), 对象 means your girl/boy friend, or your wife/husband. It's not very formal compared to '男女朋友/丈夫/妻子'.

When you are studying Software development, 对象 == Object.

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object oriented programming=面向对象编程 XD –  ashbringer Feb 7 at 15:54
    
A joke: 面向對象編程。沒有對象怎麼辦?XD –  Mike Manilone Feb 8 at 17:06
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