For some reason 秘书 (mìshū) is the Chinese word for "secretary"; it breaks up into:

  • (mì) = secret (long version: 秘密 (mìmì) = secret);
  • (shū) = book.

I feel like there's a etymological story here.

Question: Why is 秘书 (lit. "secret book") the Chinese word for "secretary"?

I didn't find the answer on Wiktionary nor Yellowbridge.

2 Answers 2


「秘書」 was originally written as 「祕書」, and indeed described "secret books". More specifically, they were the documents hidden away in the imperial library which kept national records of paramount importance.

This was then extended to the imperial officers acting as the bookkeepers or librarians of these documents in the libraries.

Finally, the modern spelling 「秘書」 extended the bookkeeper positions to the meaning secretary, that is, those who assist someone else, like a leader of an organisation or department, to keep records.


  • 《漢語大詞典》

秘 = secret --> private

书 = 书记 = clerk; secretary

秘 has the meaning of 'secret' , and it extends to 'private'

书 in 秘书 doesn't mean book, it is short for 书記 (clerk; secretary), a job title.

In fact, another common translation of 'secretary' is "书记" as in "党书记" ( Party secretary)

秘书 is literally a "private secretary"

书记 can be working for a department or for one person, to differentiate the two, we also have the term 私人书记 (personal clerk) = 秘书 (private secretary)

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