I've been studying the etymology of characters lately, and I'm stuck trying to figure out how 对/對 is formed.

It is apparently a compound of 丵 (zhuó; grass, bush) and 寸 (cùn; inch, thumb), plus an extra horizontal stroke at the bottom left of 對, which various sources have different explanations as coming from 口, 士, or 土.

Neither the modern nor Old Chinese pronunciations of 對 (/tuːbs/) resemble any of the possible components: 丵 (/zroːwɢ/), 寸 (/shuːns/), 口 (/kʰoːʔ/), 士 (/zrɯʔ/), 土 (/l̥ʰaːʔ/). This seems to indicate that 對 is not a phonosemantic compound (形声).

But it also doesn't seem to be an associative compound (会意) either, since none of the components seem to be related to any of the meanings of 對.

So how is 對 formed?

3 Answers 3


「對」is composed of semantic「丵」(picture of a large chisel, and a synonym, cognate, or original form of「鑿」), semantic「土」(soil), and semantic「又」or「寸」(both pictures of hands). The chisel was used as a tool to dig at the earth, shuffle, and (re)pack soil.

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For reference:

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The action of moving/shuffling/packing soil > to develop and expand habitable land is the original meaning of「對」. This usage is seen in e.g.

  • 《甲骨文合集》36419:「......于東對......」(expand and develop lands in the east)
  • 《詩・大雅・皇矣》:「帝作邦作對」(God has expanded territories and founded states)

Since「對」has a whole host of old and modern meanings, it is probably easier to conceptualise most of these meanings as phonetic loans:

  • To answer
  • Correct, right
  • To mix and match
  • Pair

More generally, the component「丵」indicates the meaning using a weapon to attack something:

  • 「對」, to dig at soil;
  • 「業」, to attack (another tribe/state/country) > to expand territory and get more resources/govern more land & people, to set up or expand enterprises & industries (創業)
  • 「菐」, original form of「撲」(to attack, to hit 撲擊)

Note,「叢」does not contain「丵」, its modern form is a egregious corruption of the original components.



well, to make a reasonable guess; have a look of 漢語多功能字庫, please.

對 (u+5c0d) is a character since 甲骨文 (oracle bone script), which is composed by component "丵" (u+4e35), "土" (u+571f), & "又 - 手" (又 originally means right hand).

3 pictures of 對 in oracle bone script:


then, 丵 in small seal script (i can't find this one in oracle bone script at this moment) p4

in oracle bone script p5

又 - 手 in oracle bone script p6

the synopsis in this page is:


the initial meaning of 對 is "using hand (又 - 手) tools (丵) to develop land (土)".

later, in 金文 (bronze script), the form of 對 is slightly changed: p7p8p9


the meaning of 對 at this time is "planting tree along the boundary of the newly developed land"

with nowadays technology, one might think of "building a fence to protect an area" (e.g. set up barbed wire fence to encircle a farm)



對 was "borrowed" to have the meaning of "response", "reply" or "answer"; which matches of the first two explanations in 國語辭典


imo, chopping "對" into "業" & "寸"; errh . . . . "off course" :(

imo, quoting "帝作邦作對" to support the above meaning is appealing.

here's the poem 皇矣 ( with James Legge's english translation)


verses in the second group is, opened up, made clearing in forest, paved the area.

then, in third group:


has the meaning of "chop down trees"


has the meaning of "planting tree as boundary", similar to 對. imo, "作邦作對" is rhetoric, a "writing in pair". in modern chinese, we still have the saying: 作威作福, or, 作福作威

next, is character since bronze script, which is a 象形字 (pictogram) of "rack for hanging bell, musical instruments". here're 2 samples of 業: p10p11

imo, 業 is, unlikely, derived from 對 or 丵.

  • the meaning of 對 at this time is "planting tree along the boundary of the newly developed land" Are there any examples in old texts where this definition is supported by the context, or is it just a conjecture based on the character components? Jun 29, 2016 at 6:25
  • The Classic of Poetry(詩經)has the line, 「帝作邦作對」.
    – sazarando
    Jun 29, 2016 at 7:09
  • According to a commentary on the Classic of Poetry on Google Books(詩經今註今譯), the word 對 in this usage refers to a "pair" of wise princes, namely 太伯 and 王李.
    – sazarando
    Jun 29, 2016 at 7:40
  • @peter olson, @sazarando; answer edited, it's hard to write long in comment Jun 29, 2016 at 13:51
  • Once again, I really like the link you added. I have a couple questions about your additions. I'll put them in separate comments below...
    – sazarando
    Jun 30, 2016 at 2:35

I don't think there is a real consensus on this, but it seems to be a 会意-type character where the left side is a shortened form of 業.

The meaning of the character may be built up from the combination of these two elements:

  • - a pictograph representing a kind of stand for musical instruments facing one another
  • - as a marker of action as with a hand

Source: 学研漢字源 (2006年出版)

Oracle Bone Script Examples:

Oracle Bone Script for 「業」 is - 業

Oracle Bone Script for 「對」 is 對

So assuming this explanation, the character would have been composed to call to mind a word describing an action similar to what would happen when a person places musical instruments into a stand facing one another.

As you suspected, I wasn't able to find any source that indicated that any part of this character is used for sound.


The Chinese publication「字源」mentions several issues with determining the etymology of this character in particular. While there are many theories proposed, none of them has gained a consensus because more research is required.

You can view the 字源 entry for 對 here at: www.guoxuedashi.com

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  • 寸 - is a depiction of an action of "pressing (a finger against a wrist vein)"
    – coobit
    Jun 28, 2016 at 14:33

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