Many Chinese words make a lot of sense when you consider the meanings of individual characters. However, others aren't quite as obvious at first glance.

For example, Why does 有机 as in 有机食品 mean organic? answers the question of why 有机 means "organic" (as in food).

My question is: Is there a good resource for looking up this kind of information, like a book, website, etc?

I'm not talking so much about glyph origin here, although that might be related--I'm talking more about the meanings of compound words or 成语 that don't quite seem (at first) to line up with the meanings of the individual characters.

More examples of the kind of information I'm hoping for this resource to contain:

  • Why does 取缔 mean "to ban" when 取 means "to get" and 缔 is "close connection"?
  • Why does 干脆 mean "straightforward/clear-cut"?
  • Why does 马脚 mean "let the cat out of the bag"?

BTW I totally understand that some of these words may just be the way the are without a clear reason (there are tons of English words that just don't make a lot of sense), but some words, like 马脚 I'm sure have some interesting story behind them. I'd love to have some resources to be able to look these up besides Googling, which tends to be rather hit or miss.

  • For most common words, examining the meaning of the characters is usually enough. This is true of your first two examples. In general though, many words that may seem somewhat confusing often have their origin in idiomatic 成语, and there isn't exactly a convenient way of looking up these things. These days, mobile dictionaries e.g. Pleco often provide some kind of string-matching functionality that helps (e.g. put 干脆 in Pleco and it will return both 干脆 and 干脆利落 which is a 成语 that means the same thing roughly). Pleco also provides a brief intro to most historical-based 成语 – Marko May 26 at 6:33
  • 1
    My personal routine is to consult 漢語大詞典 first. If the word is old, it will likely have some kind of explanation. If the first usages are after late 19th century, I check whether the word is from Japanese by checking 日本国語大辞典 on kotobank.jp for earlier attestations. – Alexander Z. May 26 at 12:01
  • Etymology of Chinese 词 has lagged way behind that of 字, and even the most basic lexicographical pieces of data like first attestations of said expressions can be difficult to find. – Michaelyus May 26 at 12:08

Unfortunately, there is not a single, complete Chinese etymology dictionary in this world yet. Therefore, it could be very hard for you to even find the etymology for a certain word.
However, you may try your luck if it's a loan word (like 取缔, surprisingly, it's from Japanese) in 汉语外来词词典 (published in 1984).

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