Is it because we all begin life via a female ?

My Pleco dictionary doesn't give any other meaning for 始 other than to begin.

3 Answers 3


I've updated and added some comments in response to other views mentioned in other answers. I didn't bring them up originally because those views are, I think, not incredible or at least not conclusive.

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始、姒 are developed from the same character.

Since 司、以、台 are only related phonetically, but not semantically, 姒/始 is likely only phono-semantic, where 以、台 only give the sound. 女 is mostly used as a semantic component in bone scripts and bronze inscriptions and its meaning is quite literate. So in my view the original meaning should point back directly to women, thus the beginning is not credible. When crafting this glyph, it should refer to something more specific, then extended to a general meaning of the beginning.

The exact form of 姒 isn't found in《说文》, while 《尔雅》explains it as 娣妇谓长妇为姒妇, that is the wife of the little brother calls the wife of the oldest brother 姒.

始 was first found in the bronze inscription, but its form (written as 台女) was not fixed. Every variant has the semantic component 女, but some use 以 as the phonetic component, others use 台, and still others add 司. In bronze inscription, in many cases 始 is the later 姒, which is an ancient family name (姓).

《说文》:“始,女之初也。” For one thing, we cannot trust 《说文》 blindly. For another, this sentence is by itself subject to interpretation. What exactly is the women's beginning?

There is one view: 始 is both ideogrammic and phono-semantic, showing a women who is happy to find out pregnancy. 台 meanings happy, and it also gives the sound.

I agree with other answers that this is not the most credible, but there's not enough evidence to decipher the exact original meaning. Its meaning is extended from the beginning of pregnancy to beginning in general. I think this is enough for non-scholars who are interested in the stories of Chinese characters.

There's another view: 始 is an eldest woman, partially corroborated by what I quote above from 《尔雅》. But the wife of the oldest brother 姒 is not necessarily the oldest women among the wives of brothers. This ranking is very patriarchal while the glyph was crafted at a much earlier time where women had a higher social status. Theoretically speaking, this meaning could well be extended from the beginning, not the other way round. Also, by that time, 始 and 姒 have already became two distinct characters.

Personally, I'm for the pregnancy or happy to found out pregnancy view. Pregnancy is a very natural upstream meaning that beginning can be development from. "Happy to found out" specifies the stage of pregnancy, which strengthens the meaning of beginning. While at the stage of creating the glyph, "happy to found out" implication was unlikely existent. It's likely to be a semantic coincidence and 台 (happy) is only used phonetically. But the fact that later only the 始 form survives with the meaning of beginning could be a hint of people connecting the semantic meaning "happy" to this glyph before it finally reached a fixed form.


「始」 (Zhengzhang OC: /*hljɯʔ/) is a variant of 「姒」 (/*ljɯʔ/), which was used early on for various meanings to do with elder female. You may treat the meaning begin as a either a phonetic loan, or semantic extension (elder female > first (born before others) > begin, start).

Phonetic component of 「始」







「台」 is graphically derived from 「㠯」 combined with a distinguishing mark 「口」. Usage-wise, the stand-alone 「台」 is overwhelmingly used for what we now write as 「以」 (by; with; by means of; using), which also came from 「㠯」:











The reading of 「台」 as modern-day 「以」 can be seen in e.g. 配兒鉤鑃《殷周金文集成》427:


... ⿱睪廾(擇)氒(厥)吉金,鉉鏐⿰金膚鋁,自𠆦(作)鉤鑃,「台(以)」宴賓客,「台」樂我者(諸)父 ...

... picking solid and sturdy metals, of dark bronzes and the finest brass, I self-cast these musical bells, entertaining our honoured guests with them, and bringing joy to the dukes, lords, and King with them ...

The shape 「以・⿰㠯人」 was not in common use during this period, with 「台」 being much more prevalent, so the word which we now write as 「姒」 was originally written as 「始」.

We have several characters in circulation today which use 「台」 as a phonetic component and sound close to 「以」 and 「始」, e.g.

  • 「怡」 (Mandarin Pinyin: )
  • 「冶」 ()
  • 「治」 (zhì)

Meaning of 「姒」

「姒」 is variously used in the context of a woman in a senior position; for example, from Ěryǎ:



When women are wedded off to a single man, the elder wife is called 「姒」, and the younger wife is called 「娣」.

From Mòzǐ:



It is true that there are sons who die before their fathers, and younger brothers before their elder brothers. But, as the saying in the world goes: "He who is born first dies first." So then those who die first would be the mother if not the father, and the elder sister if not the elder brother. At any rate, we should prepare clean cakes and wine reverently to do sacrifice. If ghosts and spirits do exist, then it is to serve father and mother, elder sisters and elder brothers with food and drink. Is not this a great blessing?

——Translation by W. P. Mei

By a stretch of semantic extension, you may possibly link senior female with first born, then start; begin.



About the original meaning and literal sense of 始, according to baike.baidu.com there are two different explanations.

Explanation 1 (less accredited)

According to this explanation, the original meaning and literal sense of 始 would be "a woman who just got pregnant".

It relates to the parts the character is composed of.

台=abbreviation of 怡 which means "happy, joyful". It would indicate the joy of a woman who gets to know that she is pregnant.

Explanation 2 (more accredited)

According to this explanation, the original meaning and literal sense of 始 would be "original, beginning". It relates to the 女 part.

女=indicates the meaning, because all people come (have a beginning) from a woman.
台=its ancient sound indicates the pronunciation.

  • "对于其本义,有两种说法。第一种,是从字形分析。古文字形“台”是怡的省文。所以有高兴之义。表示女子刚刚怀孕很高兴。故说“始”的本义是女子刚刚怀孕。但这种说法大多不被采用。第二种也就是被大众认知的说法。“始”的本义是指最初,开始。因为万民都由“女”出。是与“终”相对。由本义引申出首先。"
    – xpt
    Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 15:25

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