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Lost Etymology


奇 ( jī | qí ) is a character that means strange but the etymology appears to have been lost. At least as far as I can tell after researching offline books, zhongwen.com, and zdict.net ( qí ). The character is composed of (dà) 大 and (kě) 可 but none of my references can explain why the meaning is "odd" (numerically) or "strange" (as in unusual).

This is just one of the characters that seem to have lost it's history. I know that I could just accept it's meaning and memorise it but I really appreciate the storied history behind each character as a method to discern meaning. Can someone share information on the etymology of the character 奇?

I am also interested in how I should deal with discrepancies between Chinese and Chinese-English dictionaries in general (see below for an example). Often, I note that the Chinese dictionary has more information (whose implications I am missing) than Chinese-English dictionaries (is there a better method than just using a source like www.zhongwen.com)?


While researching this character I noticed that the Chinese dictionaries have much richer information available than the Chinese-English sources.


奇 jī
奇偶 | 奇数
身长六尺有奇 | 奇零
另见 qí。
奇 qí
奇形怪状 | 奇观 | 奇特
奇遇 | 奇计
不足为奇 | 惊奇
奇冷 | 奇痒难忍
用法说明读 qí,基本义是特殊、稀罕;读 jī,与数目有关,指单数或不成双的。
另见 jī。

(Simplified Chinese Dictionary)

a lot of which is quite hard to decipher and contrasted with my Simplified Chinese English Dictionary below:

奇 jī
→ 奇偶, 奇数
sixty odd
→ qí
奇 qí
remarkable man/woman
unique pine trees and strangely-shaped rocks
→ 奇耻大辱, 奇迹, 奇妙
→ 奇兵, 奇袭, 奇遇, 出奇制胜
→ 不足为奇, 惊奇
very ugly
be terribly itchy
→ 奇缺
→ jī


Zhongwen.com hints that this may just be a person exhaling in wonder (to imply strange??) but is that a stretch?



Chinese Etymology seems to have very little information on this character (Source)

User Discussion

Zdict.net has a user forum (here) in which this character is discussed but I am afraid that I may have missed the gist of the conversation. So any help would be appreciated. The following reference image was shared in a post by user if that is any help. I am unsure of the original source and whether or not this is a composite.

user-discussion Zdict.net

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re "discrepancies between dictionaries" — I've often wondered about this too; you should post that as a separate question! –  alxndr Jun 5 at 1:44

2 Answers 2

The discussion on zdict basically explains that the Oracle bone script morphed (讹变) into its current form, but this transformation did not follow standard rules.

The original Oracle bone script shows a man riding a horse, which means "to ride" (i.e. what 骑 means today), but when small seal script was developed, the horse morphed into 可, which violates the usual practice of keeping the meanings the same. The character also acquired the meanings of "unusual" or "strange":

enter image description here


◎ jī 单数、与“偶数”相对:奇数、奇偶、奇函数。

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Thanks for the explanation. I still don't see how "to ride" and "unusual" have any related meaning. I don't really see the horse or the man in the ancient symbol (when compared to other symbols I've seen before). –  Tommie C. Jun 3 at 14:25
@TommieC. thanks, I misread that part. The text says that the "unusual" meaning came later. –  congusbongus Jun 3 at 23:05
@TommieC. A lot of the characters changed their meanings as time passes. When it did, people would create another character with the same pronunciation to replace the original one. In this case, they created "騎" to mean "to ride" since a new meaning was added to "奇". –  LulalaBoss Aug 27 at 19:54
@TommieC. Look at the explanation here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_character_classification –  LulalaBoss Aug 27 at 19:56

According to the 漢語大字典, which has a graphic of the character in various scripts, in some earlier versions the top element of 奇 is written as 立 ‘to stand’. It further cites an early analysis from the "六書故” (liushu being the theory of 6 types of character composition):

“一足立也. 別作踦.” “奇,古踦字.”

Karlgren’s Analytic Dictionary gives 踦 as meaning “one-legged, halt, lame; single.” In other words, “standing on one foot” is semantically linked to “strange, odd number,” and the character 奇 originally had both meanings. It’s also easy to see the “man with one leg” in 奇, if you are looking for ways to memorize this character.

Taking a different tack, both Karlgren and some of the early dictionaries state that 可 is also a phonetic element, although the correspondence is inexact.

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Very interesting analysis, I will give this some more thought as I continue to research further. –  Tommie C. Jul 7 at 14:50

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