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
    Commented May 26, 2020 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. Commented May 26, 2020 at 12:01
  • 2
    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
    Commented May 26, 2020 at 12:08
  • Does this answer your question? What etymology dictionaries are available?
    – Wes
    Commented Dec 25, 2021 at 18:36

4 Answers 4


Try this: Hong Kong, Arts Faculty at "cuhk.edu.hk" such as https://humanum.arts.cuhk.edu.hk/Lexis/lexi-mf/search.php?word=%E9%98%9C


  • (Replying to myself). The OP seems to mean to ask about Words, this links only meant for Characters. Apologies.
    – GuestDoel
    Commented Jan 8, 2021 at 22:02

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).


What you need is a friend who is a native speaker. lol.

Seriously, you may need make good use of Chinese Internet.

Some of your examples are quite intuitive such as 干脆利落耿直 gives me a feeling of crispy, and 优柔寡断 gives me a feeling of wringing some cloth and not easy to get it dry.

取缔 is quite interesting, most Chinese don't know its origin. It's from Japan while it has different meaning in Japanese. see https://www.zhihu.com/question/49800350. The modern Chinese had two big updates last century. One is called 白话文运动 which changed written Chinese from 文言文 to 白话文. During this update many words from other language were introduced to Chinese. Some of the translations were not correct but it was spread. The another is simplifying you probably know about.

As for 马脚, it's from folklore. Once upon a time people would dress up horses, walk them through the streets and claim they are kylins. What will you think if you see a horse foot under its dress.

All these answers can be easily found on Chinese websites. Now for your homework, why 猫腻 means its meaning today?


Wiktionary https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Wiktionary:Main_Page has an etymology section for many Chinese characters. It's pretty incomplete, but it's a quick and definite yes/no result instead of parsing Google results.

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