In the beginning of the Analects, Confucius writes:

學而時習之, 不亦說乎

I would translate it as "to learn and take time practising, is it not said? (spoken)?"

Yet everywhere it is translated as pleasant. Why?

  • 1
    You have to expect a lot of differences between the language of the Analects and current Chinese (no matter which version of current Chinese). Jun 5, 2015 at 1:10

3 Answers 3


說 is the original 悅, they mean the same thing. It's only because in different times, different character may be used to represent the same thing. This situation of different character used is called 古今字. Check this(Chinese Wikipedia).

To back this up, consult (清)段玉裁《說文解字注》


So as to why it's 說, it's because when you explain something (說釋->說明解釋) to someone, he or she will be happy because the you resolve (開解) their question.

Master Sparkles, I don't think call it stand-in word is appropriate since it's just the correct usage at that time. (Sorry I can't comment so I have to reply here)

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    I think the why was just pronunciation (说 and 悦 used to have a similar pronunciation, which is why they share a phonetic component). The meanings of explanations and happiness are just made up. Jun 5, 2015 at 6:51
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    Yes and no. They do share the same 聲意部 and thus the identical pronunciations. But what do you mean by made up? Entire Chinese language is made up by us humans, and the rules we used to create news characters are also made up. There has been numerous classics on how to interpret the characters. The example I mentioned, 說文解字注, is a 注釋 to the most authoritative classic in that field. The original text, 悦,犹说也,拭也,解脱也。若人心有郁结能解释之也。 also suggest that. However, I assume if you insist, yes, all of Chinese is made up.
    – RexYuan
    Jun 5, 2015 at 7:09
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    Are you familiar with the idea of a "just so story"? It's common to see characters that were formed in a simple phonetic+radical way (形声字), but sound changes have completely obscured the phonetic. A long time after the fact, people want an explanation for why the character is that way. The true answer is simply "the phonetic", but people come up with elaborate stories to explain the semantic meaning of the character, as if they were 会意字. This is true in other languages too--see false etymology. Jun 5, 2015 at 7:56

it's used here as a stand-in for the character 悅, which probably did not exist yet. From the Han Dynasty 說文解字: 說者今之悅字.

Another example of this is 優 as in 學而優則仕: originally 優 was a stand-in for 餘.

  • What, I'm pretty sure 優 is not the same as 餘. That word in that saying is pronounced you1...
    – Ringil
    Jun 5, 2015 at 0:39
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    Not now - but in that sentence from 論語 優 means 餘. Can be hard to tell because it makes sense the other way as well. Wonder how many people accidentally went into government because they were good students, only to discover that they had the wrong idea the whole time.;) Jun 5, 2015 at 0:59
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    @Ringil - 《四書章句集注》:「優,有餘力也。仕與學理同而事異,故當其事者,必先有以盡其事,而後可及其餘。」All the classical commentaries offer similar glosses. Here's an example from 《荀子》:「故魚鱉優多,而百姓有餘用也。」. Jun 5, 2015 at 20:55
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    Actually, that sort of falls short of being a complete equivalency. However 《抗志》 says:「且又朝夕受酒脯及祭膰之賜,衣食已優,意氣已定,...」, where I don't think it can plausibly mean "good" instead of "餘". Since the 餘 character does occur in the 荀子 example it's not quite the same as 說/悅. Jun 5, 2015 at 21:01
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    A more modern example (which is not technically 假借字) - mistakes like these can happen if you interpret non-Mandarin writing forms with Mandarin meaning. The famous saying 愛拼才會贏 comes from a modern Hokkien song, where 愛 actually means 需要, not 喜愛。 Totally different meaning!
    – Yang
    Jun 7, 2015 at 1:10

說 indeed means 悅 here, but the more puzzling question is why you can use one to stand-in for the other. Almost all true "borrowed characters" (假借字, see list) we know of are "root versions" compared to the eventually created word, which this is not, even though a "兌" could have been possible here.

So the more likely explanation is that they are in fact the same character. But the two phonemes are very different in modern Mandarin, making it difficult to explain how the sound diverged. I've wondered about this problem myself for a while; I eventually found this page (in traditional Chinese) which provided a much more comprehensive argument, and it turns out there is in fact a plausible series of phonological shifts that can explain the divergence (see table in second section).


This theory would corroborate the view that the two meanings actually originated from one character (in pre-Han Chinese), and are not distinct characters. The reason why these meanings overlapped in one character would be hard to discover conclusively, but the one provided by RexYuan certainly sounds plausible.

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    actually if you look at occurrences of the character 说 in Middle Chinese, i.e. in Tang -or-later 诗词 you'll see that even there the rhyming group implies a sound closer to 悦. Also see the comment from chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/10798/… : "In my dialect 说 as speak is read xue. It's not in the first tone as in Mandarin, instead it's 入声" Jun 6, 2015 at 10:43

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