I am new here, recently discovered this site to learn more about glyph origins of certain characters.

I often see this character 袭 when related to terrorist attacks in the news. 袭 means raid or attack as far as I know. At first I thought it was phono-semantic, like a dragon attacking, and clothes 衣 as phonetic. But zdic states that it's original meaning means grave clothes, so 衣 is the semantic here. Shuowen says the dragon is doubled 龖 and acts as the phonetic. However 龖 is dá which sounds nothing like xí.

Where did 袭 originate from, was it related to dragons, or clothes, or both? And if it used to mean grave clothes, how did it end up meaning raid/attack?

1 Answer 1



「龖」is indeed thought to be the phonetic.

Since these characters were created very early on, we need to use our best guesses of the sounds of these characters when they were created to make sense of the phonetic components. Zhengzhang's Old Chinese reconstructions gives

  • 龖: /*l'ɯːb/
  • 襲: /*ljɯb/
    • Middle Chinese: /ziɪp̚/, Mandarin: /ɕi³⁵/

Bypassing a detailed treatment of the phonology involved, a very simplified explanation is that consonants pronounced at a similar place of articulation and vowels articulated with similar tongue positions tend to change into each other over time.

To see the relationships between the consonants according to their different places and manner of articulation, you can view the columns and rows of the IPA table given in Wikipedia:

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Please note:

Paleography and semantics

In the modern form, the two「龍」have been reduced to one in「襲」.


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The original meaning is indeed to do with fabric on clothing for dead people, extended to mean layer upon layer of clothing, then finally carry on and on; following customs, traditions. This meaning is written as「沿襲」.

The link between clothing and attack is obscure, if any, and is more likely to be a rebus borrowing.

If you must link clothing with attack, a rather far-fetched way to analyse it is through the following series of extensions (the meanings of which have actually all existed in literature):

Layers upon layers of clothing > to hide or conceal something > surprise raid/attack > attack.

  • 1
    Layers upon layers of clothing --> heavily surround-->fully contact --> rush upon-->attack. surrounding someone and make contact = attack
    – Tang Ho
    Aug 9, 2019 at 18:45
  • @TangHo yes, good suggestion, but I still think it's too far-fetched. I would prefer to explain it as a rebus borrowing. These meanings were first found in 春秋戰國, when China expanded far beyond 商殷中原, so it's plausible that they were borrowed from an originally non-Chinese language.
    – dROOOze
    Aug 9, 2019 at 18:50
  • Not as far-fetched as words like 叟 (elderly man). The pictograph depict someone searching the house. Since young men were outside hunting, farming or working most of the time, Only elderly men would be home when there's need to search for things in the house.
    – Tang Ho
    Aug 9, 2019 at 19:01
  • @TangHo @@ I think that's another 通假字, 叟 originally represents the word now written as 搜...
    – dROOOze
    Aug 9, 2019 at 19:05

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