I teach a basic class in Mandarin to kids.

They enjoy seeing where characters came from.

I will be teaching them how to express their ages soon and hence the character 岁.

Is there an interesting etymology or story behind this character ?

There's obviously a mountain in the simplified character. Something about harvesting crops annually on the mountainside ???

I can't find anything online.

Another question, is there a good research somewhere for studying the origins of characters ?


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「歲」 (Baxter-Sagart OC: /*s-qʷʰat-s/, motion of Jupiter > year > years old) was originally comprised of semantic 「步」 (steps, referring to motion) and phonetic 「戉」 (/*[ɢ]ʷat/). Jupiter appeared brightest to ancient astronomers approximately once a year in the night sky.

「步」 is comprised of two mirrored feet 「止」, indicating the meaning steps, walking.

As a component of 「歲」, 「戉」 was sometimes variously corrupted into 「戈」, 「戊」, or 「戌」. The modern form is from a corruption into 「戌」.

All four of 「戉」, 「戈」, 「戊」, and 「戌」 depict different types of bladed weapons, so they're quite easily confused with each other graphically in older writings.

  • Why do you describe the reflexes of 戉 as "corruptions"? Mar 3, 2020 at 8:35
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    @Wilson "Corruption" is a standard academic term in paleography - something is "corrupted" if the original function of the graphic unit is obscured. In this case, 戉 is corrupted into 戌 in the modern glyph, so that the original rebus function (phonetic hint /*[ɢ]ʷat/) is obscured: 戌 has sound /*s.mi[t]/ and meaning axe-weapon, neither of which have anything to do with 歲.
    – dROOOze
    Mar 3, 2020 at 8:44

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