Questions about the origin and the history of Chinese characters or words.

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23
votes
7answers
981 views

Why is 有 (yǒu) the only verb that requires 没 while other verbs can use 不?

To negate something, we use 不 (bù) before the verb, such as in this short dialogue: A: 你是老师吗?= Are you a teacher? B: 不是。= I'm not. However, the verb 有 (yǒu) is the only one that requires 没 ...
21
votes
11answers
1k views

Etymology of the Chinese number characters (一二三四五六七八九十百千)

Main Question: What is the etymology of the Chinese number characters (一二三四五六七八九十百千)? Related question: Why isn't 四 four lines? (the origin of 一 二 三 四 五 六 七 八 九) I decide to write a ...
19
votes
8answers
688 views

Number two in chinese: 二 vs 两

I always knew, from my studies of Japanese, that the number two is 二 (èr). I am not sure about the actual etymology, but looking at the character, it's understandable why it represents the number "2". ...
18
votes
4answers
986 views

Why isn't 四 four lines? (the origin of 一 二 三 四 五 六 七 八 九)

A common experience of beginner hanzi students is their raised hopes and expectations when they learn 一 二 三 - "what a wonderfully elegant language!" - which are promptly crushed when they encounter 四. ...
14
votes
5answers
908 views

Are there any online etymological dictionaries of Mandarin (not for characters but for spoken words)

tl;dr Are you aware of any dictionaries that explain word etymologies (not merely character etymologies)? Some links/references would be useful. This is actually a collection of related questions, ...
14
votes
3answers
5k views

What is the exact meaning of 吃豆腐, and where does the expression come from?

I'm not talking about eating tofu, but the expression that means something more like taking advantage of someone. What exactly does 吃豆腐 mean, and where does this expression come from?
11
votes
6answers
486 views

When is it appropriate to address a lady as 先生?

Chairman Mao addressed Soong Ching-ling as 宋庆龄先生. Yang Jiang was also addressed as 杨绛先生 by the public. My dad used to tell me to address some of his female colleagues as 先生 too. I wonder why a lady ...
11
votes
4answers
517 views

足: why is “foot” also “enough”?

足 is an ancient character meaning "foot". However, it also means "enough" or "sufficient", and this second definition is also very old. Consider this excerpt: 兵甲已足。——诸葛亮《出师表》 This is from ...
10
votes
10answers
236 views

What etymology dictionaries are available?

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 – ...
10
votes
4answers
441 views

Etymology of 他妈的

I've seen mention of this word a few time. In English it is clear how certain words became swear words; f..., sh.. and damn all have very strong meanings in their literal sense; the former two being ...
10
votes
4answers
224 views

Origin of 乎 as a bound morpheme in words such as 热乎

Here are a couple compound words that end with 乎: 热乎,温乎,確乎,玄乎,忙乎,晕乎,近乎,热乎乎,傻乎乎 Is there an understanding of how 乎 became used in these words? Does it have any relation to the classical usage of 乎 as ...
10
votes
1answer
263 views

Geopolitical History of Simplified Chinese

I've always been fascinated about the etymology of languages and believe that we are seeing a significant series of changes within chinese. There are some fairly good technical references for the ...
9
votes
4answers
997 views

How is adding oil going to beneficial to the situation? 加油

Is anyone able to explain the history behind this cheer? At the face of it I'm unsure how this could be a cheer as 加 translate to add/plus/apply and 油 translates to oil/fat/grease you would think ...
9
votes
3answers
299 views

Origin of -的干活?

There is a facetious phrase for asking someone what they do, using "的干活", most commonly in the fragment "什么的干活", or in this example exchange: A: 你的,什么的干活? (Who are you?) B: 我的,农民的干活. (I am a ...
9
votes
3answers
419 views

Do 之 and 的 come from the same word?

In modern Chinese 之 is thought of as the literary genitive particle and 的 as the colloquial. In most reconstructions of Old Chinese 之 looks very similar to the way 的 is pronounced now. For example in ...
9
votes
1answer
266 views

Why is 月 used when speaking about anatomy?

One thing I've been curious about while learning Chinese is the use of 月 in many 汉字 representing anatomical features (for example, 脸, 腰, or 腿). What is the etymology of the use of 月 as a radical?
9
votes
2answers
270 views

Why is “steak” 肉排?

肉排 is Chinese for steak (e.g. 牛排 or 猪排 for beef steak and pork steak), but where did the 排 come from? As a Western cuisine dish, did the word have some roundabout origin? 排 means row/rank, which has ...
9
votes
3answers
504 views

Dog radical (犭) for non-Han ethnic groups

As far as I understand, the dog radical (犭) was used for all non-Han ethnic groups before the Chinese Communist Party took power on the mainland. Is there truth to that? If so: Why did the CCP stop ...
9
votes
4answers
205 views

案: why is a bench also a case?

Sorry about the cryptic title. 案 is a character that can mean "bench"/"desk" but it can also mean "(legal) case" or "file": 长形的桌子或架起来代替桌子用的长木板:~子。~板。书~。条~。拍~而起。 ...
9
votes
6answers
375 views

家: why is a home a place for pigs?

The character 家 is a bit of a joke: it describes a dwelling (宀) for pigs (豕). Why is this strange construction used? Were pigs somehow important for homes in the past? 说文解字 describes 家 as 从宀,豭省聲 - ...
8
votes
4answers
190 views

Etymology of 汉语

I knew a Chinese woman who taught me a lot about Chinese languages. One of them was about 汉语's etymology. I was told that all parts of these characters had a meaning connected to the History of ...
8
votes
2answers
335 views

Why does 有机 as in 有机食品 mean organic?

有 and 机 are some of the first characters we learn in Chinese, but only recently did I find out that they mean "organic" when put together. Can anyone explain why this is?
8
votes
4answers
191 views

What's the origin of 外子?

When I was young, I read Traditional Chinese Reader's Digest. I noticed that the translation of husband is 外子. That's the first time I noticed this usage. Anyone has any clue about why this is being ...
8
votes
1answer
268 views

Pronunciation of 和 in Taiwan

This is something that I noticed in Taiwanese Mandarin TV series and films. It seems that they pronounce this character as hàn instead of the commonly accepted hé. For example, 我和你 is pronounced wǒ ...
8
votes
3answers
475 views

Anyone know why cellphones are called 大哥大 in Taiwan?

I was looking at Singapore Mandarin from the question here on Hong Kong Mandarin and came across the word for cellphone. I know it's popular now to refer to cellphones as 手机 but I remember in Taiwan ...
8
votes
2answers
597 views

How are new words added to the Chinese language?

I'm always curious to know, as the world develops and new words come into existence, how are they adopted by the Chinese language? Is there some sort of government body that decides these sort of ...
8
votes
3answers
432 views

How did 外国人 become 老外?

From Baidu: 老外,是中国人对国外人的一种俗称,类似与老张、老王、老李之类的称呼。称呼中加“老”显得亲热,比如“老乡”“老表”,称呼你老外,就像称呼老张老李那样,大大咧咧,随便亲切。过去中国人对外国人的称呼都是用在第三人称上,只有“老外”可以用于第二人称。 To translate, it says laowai is a colloquial term for ...
7
votes
4answers
507 views

Origin of beautiful kingdom and hero kingdom

Why in Mandarin chinese, USA is beautiful kingdom and England is hero kingdom?
7
votes
1answer
202 views

How is the Kanji character 豚 related to the chinese 猪 / 豬

The Chinese character for pig is 猪 / 豬 (zhu1) In many Japanese restaurants around Hong Kong I've seen this somewhat different character 豚 which appears to also mean pig. How would you say it in ...
7
votes
1answer
258 views

Did a king ask for a ball? How did 王 + 求 become 球?

The character 球 means ball and is composed of 王 meaning king and 求 meaning demand. Where does this composition come from? Did a king ask for a ball?
7
votes
3answers
240 views

零售 - Why is the character for “zero” used in the Chinese word for retail?

Why is retail referred to as 零售 in Chinese? Why the combination of "zero" with "sales"? Certainly one expects to make (hopefully many) sales in retail so why is the character for "zero" used here? It ...
7
votes
2answers
147 views

Are the Cantonese word 係 and the Japanese word はい related?

The Cantonese word meaning "to be", written as 係 (Jyutping: hai6) sounds similar to the Japanese word はい ("hai" in various Romanizations). Both words are used to answer "yes" or "it is correct" to ...
7
votes
4answers
289 views

Why is the radical of 难 > 隹 and not 又

难 nan2, difficult; hard Kangxi radical 172 隹 My teacher says the radical for this character is 又 but the dictionary is clear 隹
7
votes
3answers
257 views

What's the relationship between 炮 and 砲?

炮 and 砲 both mean "cannon", but it seems the former is much more common, and the latter only really seen in Xiangqi. Is there a difference in meaning? For example, on wikipedia it is said that 砲 ...
7
votes
3answers
503 views

What is the origin of '日' as a curse word?

I read a bunch of answers on 百度知道 but they are all very vague, indecisive and unauthoritative. 1 ...
6
votes
3answers
220 views

What is the morphology or etymology of the word 列车?

This question is inspired from a recent question here about 列车. The question: How is this word formed, and/or where does it come from? (When I am asking this question, I have my own guess: this word ...
6
votes
3answers
270 views

角/毛 (10 cents) for money: why?

from: List of historical Chinese currency terms 角 (litterally a corner / a horn of an animal) = 毛 (litterally "a feather of a bird") = 1/10 the main unit. Why use 角 and 毛 for, what we might ...
6
votes
3answers
406 views

哪儿 vs. 哪里, Difference in Meaning?

Is there any difference in meaning between 哪儿 and 哪里? If not, then how did the two different words come to be employed? Does 儿 have a meaning, or is it just a sound? I know that there are many ...
6
votes
3answers
596 views

Reasons for Chinese changing from monosyllabic to disyllabic?

Classical and Middle Chinese are often considered monosyllabic languages - most words are single syllables. Modern Chinese however is considered disyllabic - most words are two syllables. For ...
6
votes
2answers
678 views

Why does 三八 mean gossip?

I've heard in 广东 (guangdong) the term 三八 to mean "gossip", particularly for a woman who gossips. Is this common throughout China, and why does it have this meaning?
6
votes
2answers
285 views

Similar pronunciations of tea/茶 across languages

The Cantonese (Yale cha4), Mandarin (pinyin chá) and Kan’yōon (cha) pronounciations of 茶 are similar to the Russian чай (IPA t͡ɕaj) word for tea. Do these have a common origin?
6
votes
5answers
389 views

What was this online dictionary's name with ancient traditional and simplified characters and etymology?

I once found a Mandarin Chinese dictionary which for each character listed the ancient, the traditional and the simplified Chinese characters. For each it described its meaning and how it developed ...
6
votes
1answer
279 views

What is the etymology of 放我一马?

I've heard this a couple times now and most recently in a movie "钢的琴". It's an idiom that means "cut me some slack"; "let me off the hook". I couldn't make sense of the Baidu encyclopedia so I'm ...
6
votes
1answer
279 views

The origins of “AA制”

Every since I learned the expression AA制*, I have been curious as to its origins. The morphology seems clear enough: AA + 制(定) = "to draw up (the bill) in an AA way". What is not clear is how AA ...
6
votes
2answers
100 views

What happened to the Old Chinese coda -p of 拉 in Cantonese?

Baxter's Middle Chinese reconstruction has 拉 as *lop, which surprised me given that the Cantonese reflex is laai1. Other characters with the rime -op such as 合, 答 and 雜 end up with the rime -ap or ...
6
votes
2answers
247 views

Questions on “的话”

What is the etymology behind "的话" in the common construct 如果...的话 or 要是...的话? In addition to wondering about it's meaning, what exactly is the 的 doing? Is it modifying the 如果? Is it modifying the ...
6
votes
4answers
441 views

快: why does “fast” also mean “happy”?

The character 快 is usually used for the meaning of "fast", but it is also used in the sense of "pleasant" or "happy" - for example, in the words 痛快, 爽快. It seems that both meanings are quite ancient. ...
6
votes
1answer
219 views

Etymology of 至关(重要)

至关重要 strikes me as a four-character idiom instead of a Chengyu, and it didn't even make an entry on 现代汉语词典 or ZDic.net. However, that couldn't explain the fact that the specific character combination ...
5
votes
6answers
699 views

犬子: who's the dog?

犬子 (literally, dog + son) is an archaic, self-depreciatory term to refer to your son (occasionally it's used to insult other people's sons). This answer raises a question though; who is the dog ...
5
votes
2answers
617 views

Different pronounciation for the number 'one'?

Was talking to my friend (native Chinese) the other day and when she read out a phone number she said "yao" for all the "ones" in the phone number. However, as far as I remember, for all other cases ...