1. I understand the meaning of 量 is measure, estimate. But how the capacity also was the meaning? any background, etymology?

量 liàng measure, estimate, capacity, quantity

  1. 不自量力 bùzìliànglì not have a proper measure of oneself, to overestimate one’s capabilities

can this idiom be used “to underestimate one’s capabilities? “

  • The short answer is no.
    – Betty
    Apr 14 '21 at 4:01
  1. The glyph origin is uncertain. Some think it means crop-field at first, others think it means to measure. These are all hypotheses.


  1. as a noun means 'quantity', as in 數量, 大量. As a verb, it means 'to measure as in 量度; to estimate as in 估量; to deliberate (a more abstract meaning, as in 思量, 打量)'. It is very important to note its part of speech for your understanding.

  2. How should we understand 不自量力? When a person does not () measure ( as verb) their own () abilities (), you are implying they are overestimating themselves (i.e., they are less able than thought). For example, you would normally think twice before you challenge something/someone way out of your league (e.g., 專家 an expert). If you don't, you are 'not measuring your own abilities'.

  3. I would prefer the idiom 妄自菲薄, or the expression 低估自己 if you want to say 'to underestimate yourself'. 高估自己 means literally to overestimate yourself (i.e., an alternative of 不自量力). Note we only say 高/低估, not 高/低量. However – you can criticise your own self as 高估自己, but never 不自量力. 不自量力 works only as a criticism from others. Therefore,

    我以為能用一天完成十天的工作,實在是太【高估自己✓ 不自量力✖】了。

    I thought I could finish ten days' worth of work in one day. I am really overestimating myself.

    你以為能用一天完成十天的工作,實在是太【高估自己✓ 不自量力✓】了。

    You think you can finish ten days' worth of work in one day? You are really overestimating yourself / biting off more than you can chew.

  • 1
    How about translating 不自量力 as equivalent to "Bite off more than one can chew"? Apr 14 '21 at 14:19
  • This is indeed a much better translation.
    – L Parker
    Apr 14 '21 at 14:23

Words gain extended meanings all the time, 量 is no different. Most characters have more than one meaning and some even have ten or more

A common reason for a noun to gain the function of a verb is for convenience

Imagine after the noun 量 (amount) was coined, it was convenient to use it for the verb 'to measure' because we measure 'amount'. And the meaning of the noun 'amount' extended to mean 'capacity'

不自量力 is a common expression. It cannot be simply and literally used as "not measure one's own capacity". 不自量力 always implies 'most likely taking on more than one can handle' -- not overestimate or underestimate but not estimate at all, which is always a bad thing.

“to underestimate one’s own capabilities“ is 自視過低 (see oneself too low)

“to overestimate one’s own capabilities“ is 自視過高 (see oneself too high)

不自量力 and 不知自量 (not knowing one should measure oneself = not knowing one's own place) express a similar sentiment

  • I just used my outlier dictionary. the information is as follows: I think I should be using this dictionary for this word and for the amount;;; liáng 1 (orig.) to weigh heavy objects 2 → to measure 3 ⇒ to evaluate liàng 1 (orig.) to weigh heavy objects 2 → scale 3 → amount
    – user27485
    Apr 14 '21 at 12:38

量 is one of the more controversial glyphs that doesn't have a confirmed origin. It's likely sun 日 and heavy 重 (extension of 東). You could think of weight 重 and time/movement of the sun 日 as things than can be measured.

The definitions are all linked as "measure" can be related to "amount" and "capacity", both which can be measured.

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