Many times I will know all the characters in a name but one & I'll ask what that one character means. 9 times out of 10 the response is, "That character has no meaning".

While it might be true that the character isn't used on its own, of course it must have meaning otherwise it wouldn't exist.

If someone asked me about a character, I might say, "Oh, in this phrase XX it means something like 'luck' but it isn't ever used alone".

Why does it seem that native speakers aren't willing to answer in that way? Why would a native speaker choose to say that a character has no meaning?

  • 2
    While I can appreciate your frustration, it's not clear what your question is. SE is not a great venue for rants. Try editing to make it less emotional and more focused (what new information do you want from the SE community?). Apr 30, 2013 at 0:29
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    The question is too broad and too vague. There are many possible reasons and depends a lot on who you asked and which character it was. My personal explanation is, we're taught this way in mainland China. Because the education system favors formulaic answers, the teachers want to make sure the students don't invent phrases or create usages out of the textbook, so they taught us things like 'the character alone has no meaning', 'the character usually means A but it means B in word X, although A and B are similar, B is not a natural extension of A but a special case tied to word X', etc.
    – NS.X.
    Apr 30, 2013 at 0:55
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    Some characters used in names are just too unique and so rarely used that most people won't know the meaning. According to《異體字字典》, there are a total of 106,230 Chinese characters. Take for example this name 徐姳暄. How many people actually know the meaning of without referencing a dictionary? And how many can form a sentence with that? Sorry, I can't.
    – 杨以轩
    Apr 30, 2013 at 10:03
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    Maybe they have no idea how to explain it? Not everyone is into linguistics. Apr 30, 2013 at 21:21
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    I'm commenting because you're question refers to Chinese names, but if I got what you mean: not all characters must have "meanings" or refer to some concept exactly like some words do in other languages. Think about grammatical words: and, if, so... They don't mean anything, they acquire meaning by being used, they're also called function words, if I can recall correctly. Same thing with some characters, like 了... Ok you know it's used as a particle, but by itself it doesn't have a real meaning like 猫, for example.
    – Alenanno
    May 1, 2013 at 9:44

12 Answers 12


I found the same situation, living in China for quite some time, and unlike some other people who have answered, I understand exactly what you're asking. It was quite annoying to try to learn new words when the native speaker just tells you the meaning of 3 characters together and doesn't know or can't explain each character's meaning. I think the answer is related to how derivations work in English. Keep in mind that to us, the word duibuqi seems to be 3 words together because technically it is, but to Chinese people who aren't language experts, they will just think of it as one word, essentially.

There are some parallels in English. Think about it in the reverse. Imagine you are Chinese and you are asking an English speaker this question:

You say 'sorry' to mean duibuqi. What is 'sor' and what is 'ry'?

Can you answer that off the top of your head? Most English speakers incorrectly assume that prefixes and suffixes and word derivations aren't "words." They are words. Or at least they used to be words.

From an online derivation dictionary, this is how we have the word sorry:

Old English sarig "distressed, grieved, full of sorrow" (not found in the physical sense of "sore"), from Proto-Germanic *sairiga- "painful" (cf. Old Saxon serag, Middle Dutch seerigh "sore; sad, sorry," Dutch zeerig "sore, full of sores," Old High German serag, Swedish sårig "sore, full of sores"), from *sairaz "pain" (physical and mental); related to *saira- "suffering, sick, ill" (see sore (adj.)). Meaning "wretched, worthless, poor" first recorded mid-13c. Spelling shift from -a- to -o- by influence of sorrow. Apologetic sense (short for I'm sorry) is attested from 1834; phrase sorry about that popularized 1960s by U.S. TV show "Get Smart." Related: Sorrily; sorriness.

So it appears the answer to what is 'sor' and what is 'ry' would be: "Sor" means grieved or distressed "ry" (from online dictionary) means "indicating a state or condition."

Therefore while you may be asked by a Chinese speaker "What is sor and what is ry?" and you will feel like saying "Nothing, it's just one word," in this kind of context you would be wrong. They are two words indeed, we just don't usually use them separately. Sound familiar?

Disclaimer: I'm not a native Chinese speaker but the above answer does seem to be the most rational, to me.

  • Wow, it's really cool!
    – a_a
    Jun 14, 2016 at 10:32
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    The etymology for "sorry" that you give doesn't provide any evidence that the "ry" has any meaning. At any rate, in modern English "sorry" cannot be broken down into meaningful parts, whereas in modern Chinese "duibuqi" can be broken down into smaller parts [at least some of which] convey meaning. Thus, I don't think your example is well chosen.
    – Colin
    Jun 22, 2016 at 2:52
  • Great answer, and this has always been my gut feeling too. I once took a beginner mandarin class which was a bit too easy for my level at that time, and several times I came across instances where I knew the meaning of a character but my teacher either didn't, or it was obscure knowledge to her. I think this is just a consequence of the way us non-natives learn it. It's easier to learn complete words by joining characters together when you know what those characters are. A native learns through natural speech. They don't need to know what characters mean if they never use them by themselves.
    – JBentley
    Aug 31, 2017 at 1:31
  • Nice example. The history of the word is unnecessary in daily life. And that is the reason why most native speakers cannot answer it.
    – Aria Ax
    Apr 14, 2018 at 10:51
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    @Rethliopuks based on wiktionary, i'm afraid that is not even the correct etymology. It comes from sore + y, not sorrow + y, and it appears sorrow and sore are unrelated words. en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sorry#Etymology. so you can see why i would surmise that "sorry" can't be reliably broken down into parts by modern english speakers, and is generally analyzed by them as atomic.
    – Colin
    May 17, 2019 at 20:53

I personally believe that every character has its function in the sentence, but not all characters have a "translatable" meaning. Many characters, when they are added to the sentence, don't change the literal meaning of the sentence, but may create an emphasis or introduce a certain emotion, and there is no English equivalent to this phenomenon. Maybe that's why they told you those characters have no meanings.

  • Agree. Language is not science! So you won't get any reasonable explanation of some certain stuff, like me during learning English. Feb 26, 2014 at 8:20
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    An example would make your point clearer
    – Colin
    Jun 22, 2016 at 2:53

You might come across the phrase 虛詞 which literally means "empty phrase" but refers to function words. I've heard people describe them as "meaningless" especially function words in classical texts but of course they have important grammatical functions.

As for lexical terms, each character had a well defined meaning in Old Chinese but nowadays many of them simply don't mean anything by themselves. There are a variety of reasons why a native might brush it off as "meaningless" but if you want to really get them to answer (and possibly offend them by asking a question they don't know how to answer) ask what the character meant originally in 文言/古文.

  • Even in Classical Chinese, there were plenty of 语气词, which are probably the epitome of 虚词。
    – H Huang
    Apr 27, 2019 at 21:59

Actually it's true that every character have their own meaning. But many of foreigner can't understand every character without merge into sentence. So, probably they would just answer it NO MEANING. But as a person who are very linguistic, they can answer what it mean and completely answer what it's mean. For foreigner, even they know it can mean what, but they can't answer directly, cause afraid to answer wrong or not so sure. Also, in Chinese. A character can be noun, verb or etc more else. If a character be a thing or noun. We can easily said what it's mean. But for a name Character, it's hard to said what it's mean. Cause no one wanted to use their name character by thing or any no good meaning. You can't blame the person said like that, even no native will be same answer if they don't really know what it's mean. By which i know, chinese character are more than 3k and still increase also it can change time by time. So, hard to said for what it meanssss

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    +1 for a brave attempt to explain this in English when this is not your first language!
    – Bobble
    May 3, 2013 at 9:45

I'm not sure what your question is. As a native speaker, I think the words you refer to are function words (虚词), which have no direct meaning but has the function of organizing the sentence. The words have direct meaning are notional words (实词).

  • Other terms you see a lot used by non-linguists are "function words" for the first, special kind and "content words" for the second, normal kind. (Linguists have a whole bunch of more specialized words.) Feb 24, 2014 at 13:21

It just depends. Though we say that a Chinese character has its meaning in a common way (such as "我" means "me/I"……). But we must say that some Chinese characters (especially some auxility words such as "之"……), in some sentences they really don't have a real meaning for the word itself but just plays a role to make up a whole sentence

[e.g] 大道**行,天下为公。 (most this senario is seen in WenYan).

Another thing we'd attention is that special characters making a whole special fixed usage such as your name, address Rd……. It's just for a caller so you cannot split them from each other.


王伟(A Chinese name, you cannot ask what is "王" and what's "伟", even if you know the two characters' meanings, the combined meaning doesn't fit)


Perhaps it could also be related to the fact that some characters are just transliterations. For example 咖啡 kāfēi is just meant to sound like coffee or cafe. So what are the meanings of those characters? So the meaning of 咖 is "sounds like ka and has something to do with mouth 口).

So that's not a lot of meaning. If you look up 咖啡 in google translate both 咖 and 啡 translate to coffee, and so does 咖啡. Funny.


There are times when a character is inserted for emphasis. At such times, it can be said that the character in question has no ADDITIONAL meaning.

An example is given in the following:

太: Meaning in 灰太狼

太 is the character with "no meaning" even though it has a "standalone" meaning of "too.'


Well, you can consider it in the very similar scene of English names, some English names has a very explicitly expression, like Jack, like Rose, like Williams, and so on. The similar is in Chinese names, if you ask about "芳", they would say "Wow, that about very beautiful flowers", if you mention "盈", they would say that's about the beautiful full moon, if you mention about "明", they would say that's about brightness and clever. But lots of names are a bit harder to explain if somebody is not too much interested in names, literature, and culture, not hate to tell you indeed :"P

If you ask someone about his/her own name, maybe consider these two scenes. For the first, a people's understanding of his name always grows with his life experience, for the second, the name has always a strong or implicitly beautiful meaning, but you know, Chinese people is always little shy.


In Chinese history, there live long time two different systems of language. The classical Chinese and vernacular Chinese. Classical Chinese is character-based, but vernacular is not. Therefore, each character in classical Chinese has its own functioning, but in vernacular, two or more characters needs to combine together for a meaning.

The reason may be too many Chinese characters have same pronunciation. They can be distinguished in written language, but extremely hard in oral language. Therefore, people have to use two or more characters to reduce misunderstanding. So you can not make each character in a combined word to have a specific meaning.

Modern Chinese is based on mainly on vernacular, and was greatly influenced by foreign language, such as Manchu, Mongolian and western languages. Many phrases become a standard form and people forget the original reason for using them in that way, just keep using them. Modern Chinese, actually, is still a young and versatile language


Modern Chinese use the more than one character to create meaning. are not actually have meaning of each word. On the other hand, classical chinese does written in a way that each single character got it own meaning. Which are a requirement for Chinese high school students to study.


What does "comfortable" mean?

It means pleasant, having good feeling.

What does "com" mean? What does "fortable" mean?

I don't know what they mean. "Comfortable" is one word. You can't separate the word into meaningless syllables.

This is exactly how we feel when you ask me what a single Chinese character means. I don't know what it means, because you can't separate a word. For example, 对不起 is just one word that means "sorry". This word is inseparable for us, native Chinese speakers, so you should not ask what 对 means, what 不 means, or what 起 means.

If you read Classical Chinese (文言文), you can ask what a single Chinese character means.

If you read Modern Chinese, never ask what a single Chinese character means. It has no meaning. Multiple Chinese characters make one word, and it is regarded as an inseparable word for us, native Chinese speakers. Only professional etymologists can tell you what each character means.

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