The body (身) is only one inch (寸), which should mean "矮".

Throwing (委) the arrow (矢), which should mean "射".

What is wrong here?

  • Wow, very smart question. lol – AGamePlayer Apr 13 at 7:21
  • 1
    @AGamePlayer, actually, this question was raised by 武则天. – Zhang Apr 16 at 1:11
  • @Zhang no wonder... – AGamePlayer Apr 16 at 10:34

The body (身) is only one inch (寸), which should mean "矮".

Here are some characters containing「寸」as a semantic component, directly as part of the immediate decomposition or secondarily as part of one of the decomposed components:

  • 得導持尋付尊奪肘專耐

It should be clear that「寸」probably never means inch as part of other characters.「寸」is a depiction of a hand with a mark around the wrist area, and when it contributes meaning to a character, you should treat it as the same meaning as「手・扌」.

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  • The mark around the wrist area is called「寸口」in the terminology of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and indicates the location where the pulse is taken.「寸」was later used as a unit of length, but it should be clear that this is not its original meaning.

    • Like most other character components, the stand-alone character「寸」developed a wildly different meaning from its role as a component in other characters.
  • Other components with the same meaning function as「手・扌」include「又」(picture of a right hand),「𠂇」(picture of a left hand), and「爪・爫」(picture of a hand pointing downwards).

The「身」part of「射」is a graphical corruption, from a merger between「弓」(bow) and「矢」(arrow):

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In the sequence above, Shape #1 is plainly a picture of a bow and arrow. Shape #2 adds a hand「又」, emphasising the action meaning in「射」. Shapes #3-4 show the corruption process of the bow and arrow into「身」. Shape #4 changes「又」into「寸」.

A character with a similar structure to「射」is「發」(Zhengzhang OC: /*pad/, to shoot arrows > to emit > expand, develop).「發」is comprised of phonetic「癶」(OC: /*paːd/), semantic「弓」, and semantic「殳」(hand holding a striking weapon, emphasising an attacking action).

Throwing (委) the arrow (矢), which should mean "射".

「矮」(Zhengzhang OC: /*qraːlʔ/, short stature) is comprised of semantic「矢」and phonetic「委」(/*qrolʔ/).

  • 「矢」(arrow [shaft]) is being used as a length measurement here; you can view it as either the length of the arrow itself or a standardised distance for measuring archery prowess. In English, yard, feet, etc. were similar measures of length, taken from actual objects.

    • Compare some characters describing length or measurement: 短矩矬矱.

    • There are other characters that use「矢」for the meaning arrow rather than length, measurement.

  • The sound development is /*qraːlʔ/ > MC: /ʔˠɛX/, 烏蟹 > Pinyin: ǎi.




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(1) (本作“射”。会意。金文字形,象箭在弦上,手(寸)在发放。小篆把弓矢形讹变成“身”字,误。 本义:用弓发箭使中远处目标)

射 is a 会意字 (ideogrammic compound character)

The 寸 part in 射 was originally a pictograph of hand (手)

The 身 part in 射 was originally a pictograph of bow (弓) and arrow (矢), it was mistakenly changed into 身 when the character evolved to 小篆 style


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矮 is a 形声字 (phono-semantic compound character)

The 矢 part in 矮 was originally a pictograph of an arrow head, that represents short stature (arrow head is short compare to all other pointed weapon); the 委 part is the phonetic component of the character, it is there for the sound, and the actual meaning of 委 is irrelevant.


Looking at modern forms of characters and trying to analyze them for their meaning doesn't always work out. If you are planning to go deeper into these studies you might want to try out Outlier Linguistics' Dictionary. You can see their analysis of the two characters you're asking about below.


矮 ǎi is composed of 委 wěi (also wēi) and 矢 “arrow,” hinting at the original meaning “to be of short stature.” 委 gives the sound.

李學勤,2012《字源》,天津:天津古籍出版社,2013年7月2次印刷。p. 473

Ancient form:
射 was originally a bow (弓) and arrow (矢) being drawn by a hand (寸), depicting the original meaning “to shoot an arrow.” Over time, 弓 and 矢 merged together and were corrupted into 身.

李學勤,2012《字源》,天津:天津古籍出版社,2013年7月2次印刷。p. 471

Here is the original reference material outlier translated above:



shè 船纽、铎部;船纽、祃韵、神夜切。
yè 喻纽、铎部;以纽、祃韵、羊谢切。

会意字。像矢(箭)在弓弦上将射发之形。《说文》:“䠶,弓弩发于身而中于远也,从矢,从身。”又说:“enter image description here,篆文䠶,从寸。寸,法度也,亦手也。”商代文字偶见繁形,像一人两手拉弓射箭形。一般商周文字射字则省去“人”,只作弓上注箭形。西周文字或作一手(又)拉弓射箭形。战国文字“射”形变,“弓”、“矢”二者不再互相配合为象形字,而是相并立;“弓”不再用象形字,改为简省形并且成为偏旁;“矢”字倒书并加短横,或虽正书而形变较大。秦简中“弓”又被讹作“身”,“又”则被加一短画成为“寸”。汉代隶书显然受秦文字的影响而定型。射用做动词,义为射箭,多见于商代田猎卜辞。 《粹》 1018:“王其射鹿,(擒)。弗。”或指祭祀之射牲。《粹》314:“于且(祖)丁[𠦪]。于父己𠦪。于父甲𠦪。其射。”做名词用时, “射”指官名或射手。 《粹》15:“贞:令多射䢍。”西周金文“射”指射箭。长甶盉:“穆王鄉(饗)豊,即井(邢)白(伯)大祝射。”西周有“司射”之官。静簋:“王令静司射學宫。”静盖任“射人”官职。战国文字“射”字通“夜”,《包山楚简》 138有“坪射公”,“坪射”,地名,读为“平夜(舆)”。《春秋·桓公九年》“射姑”,《史记·鲁周公世家》作“夜姑”,可证。

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