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I don't understand how 言 ("to say"; "speech", "words") relates to modesty. Language, speech, words can be used to boast, exaggerate, and lie!

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Above is Yellowbridge. Below is Oxford Chinese Dictionary (2010) p 577.

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There really isn't much to say here - 「謙」 originally meant modest words or modesty in expression.


I don't understand how 言 ("to say"; "speech", "words") relates to modesty. Language, speech, words can be used to boast, exaggerate, and lie!

This looks to be a problem in the way you're thinking and reasoning about language, rather than a specifically Chinese language question. This is like asking

I don't understand how the word "gutless" relates to little; without. You can be without fear ("fearless")!

Statements like this are very difficult to respond to in a context relevant to language, and these really aren't the right kinds of questions to help understand language better.

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  • If "language, speech, words can be used to boast, exaggerate, and lie!" Then what about 誠 which is honest? ;) – Fishuman Apr 14 at 13:34
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Simply put, not certain. Multi-function Chinese Character Database does not expound on this (see here).

We do have 孫以出之 in The Analects that suggests humility is related to speech, but this may be unrelated to the etymology of the character.

Duan Yucai's annotation on were:

  • 敬、肅也。謙與敬義相成。 which suggests semantic relatedness to and .
  • 謙或假嗛爲之。 which suggests phonetic loan of (now an uncommon character). Shuowen explains as 口有所銜也 ('to hold something in the mouth').

I must however emphasise that your reasoning is flawed. Just because language can be used negatively (you may be interested in the character ) does not imply it must mean negatively in every instance (e.g. in , , ). This is an over-generalisation of the semantic component.

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    Quote:- "...words can be used to boast, exaggerate, and lie!" How about "words of love"?...and even "white lies" have some positivity in certain circumstances? It's like those Rorschach inkblot test used in psychological tests; what you see is a refection of your underlining mental make-up. – Wayne Cheah Apr 12 at 5:30

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