I'm not sure if this is just a coincidence, but there's two related words:

  • 只得 (zhǐdé) = "be obliged to"
  • 得 (děi) = "to have to"

They have similar meanings, and share the character 得 (although with different pronunciation). It seems like they may be etymologically related.

Question: Is there an etymological connection between 只得 (zhǐdé) and 得 (děi)?

I wouldn't know where to begin investigating this, but Googling 只得 得 didn't help.

3 Answers 3


Sure they are etymologically connected. Hanzi itself is the etymology mark.

This phenomenon is called Literary and colloquial readings of Chinese characters. Particularly in Putonghua, colloquial reading (dei in this issue) is from Beijing natives, and literal reading (de in this issue) from probably Nanjing pronunciation's (in Ming and early Qing) reading of Literary Chinese texts. It's basically similar to 'doublet words' in English, such as warranty from Norman, guarantee from French. As long as Chinese don't use an alphabet, the doublet words with the same etymology are written under the same character.


The pronunciation of "得 (děi)" is not a formal usage, which is from a dialect.

"只得 (zhǐdé)" has two kinds of meanings in this pronunciation. 1, Meaning "only have": "我只得这么一个弟弟” - “I only have this one little brother”; 2, Meaning similar as "不得不” (have to), usually connecting with a verb, and indicating there is a limitation from objective circumstances. While "只得 (zhǐdé)" usually follows by actions out of personal choice / decision, "不得不” usually follows by actions with no choice. e.g. "由于下雨,我只得取消徒步计划” - “I have to cancel my hiking plan since it is raining” (I can still go out for hiking but I decided not to)


This is one of those pronunciations that confuse native speakers too. 得 when pronounced as děi, means "have to". When pronounced as dé, it has many meanings including "get", "be able to", etc. (By the way, děi is NOT a dialect usage. It is formally included in the Mandarin dictionary published in both mainland China and Taiwan.)

So you'd think that if "have to" is děi, "just have to"/"have no choice but to" should be pronounced zhǐděi, but the correct pronunciation is indeed "zhǐdé". The reason behind this is complex, mostly due to historic reasons as well as government-appointed scholars decided that this is the "correct" pronunciation. But as a native, I can tell you that if you say "zhǐděi" no one would bat an eye. So personally I regard both as correct, and many people would probably say the same.

Of course, there are many examples like this in Mandarin. The word "说服" (to convince) is technically pronounced "shuōfú", but many people say "shuìfú" instead because the character "说" actually means "to convince" when pronounced as "shuì". In a way, the authoritative pronunciation actually got it wrong!

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