This character 乖 is used in words like 乖離, 乖違, and 乖戾, and means something along the lines of “to deviate from the norm or reason” or even “to disobey”. I’m wondering how it came to be used for a quite opposite sense as an adjective in reference to a child.

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    If you can read papers in Chinese, there's 李莉.“乖”的词义演变[J].现代语文,2018(08):20-24.
    – lilysirius
    Commented Oct 7, 2022 at 15:17
  • @lilysirius - Thanks. I found this link. If I read it correct, the author is not too conclusive about the origin. While they are inclined to the 正反同詞 theory (就“乖”字而言,如果一个人奸猾到了极致,做尽了邪恶之事,那么换个角度来看这个人一定具有非常聪明、机灵的头脑,才有可能在做事时耍花招之事。), they don’t seem to completely rule out the 方言 theory. In any case, I understand that the change occurred no earlier than the Song period. This explains why the character is used only in its original sense in Japanese.
    – aguijonazo
    Commented Oct 7, 2022 at 16:06

2 Answers 2



According to Wiki, 乖 does mainly mean "break away from the norm" and only meant "well behave" in slang.

乖 meaning obedient may have come from 乖巧

乖 (unusually) was used as an adverb to describe the degree of pleasing here

巧 --> - an obedient child is unusual (unusually pleasing)

It is like English using "sick" for "great" e.g "he has the sick skill" = "he has a skill so great that's to the point of abnormal (sick)

Another example is 贼 in slang usage

贼 (immoral) --> abnormal --> greatly/ extremely e.g. 贼好吃 (extremely delicious - it is a crime to be so delicious )

  • So do you read 乖巧 as 乖 modifying 巧 as an adverb (like "extraordinarily") rather than two characters with already similar meanings ("clever") put together? Was it how the word was originally formed, and is it how it is generally perceived now?
    – aguijonazo
    Commented Oct 8, 2022 at 2:37
  • 乖 mainly meant "extraordinary", e.g 乖戾 (extraordinary/ extremely vicious) it never was similar to 巧
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Oct 8, 2022 at 2:58

乖 (会意。小篆字形,象羊角形,从“北”。从“北”,取其分背的意思。本义:背离,违背,不和谐) has the following meanings:

    1. 不顺,不和谐:~舛(谬误)。~谬。~戾(性情、言语、行为别扭,不合情理)。~僻(怪僻)。~张(怪僻,不讲情理)。出~露丑。
    1. 机灵,伶俐(多指小孩听话):~~。~巧。卖~。~觉(jué)。~顺。


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    See here for why answers which are almost entirely copy/pasted from the Internet are often deleted. Would it be possible to improve this answer to e.g. explain how this is relevant to the question? (In the future, if you think a question can be adequately answered by copy/pasting an answer, then please instead consider downvoting and/or voting to close so the question, and maybe link to it in the comments.)
    – Becky 李蓓
    Commented Oct 8, 2022 at 5:09
  • Yes, that's my point. But I think the question and the answer are valuable to many people. I happened to find its original meaning, and I have nothing to add but to offer the source and its content honestly.
    – r13
    Commented Oct 8, 2022 at 12:44
  • Policy from the politics forum: "Please don't let your answer rely almost entire on links. Links break. Quote what needs to be quoted to answer the question. – CGCampbell"
    – r13
    Commented Oct 11, 2022 at 13:42

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