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Usually when two characters combine I can puzzle through how they obtained their combined meaning.

However, even after years of study I have no idea why 即使 means even if.

I’m looking to better understand its etymology.

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4 Answers 4

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即使 ("assuming that", "even if") introduces a concessive conditional clause. This type of clause refers to an event that may not necessarily be the case, but that you are assuming to be the case in order to argue that it would not prevent another event (in the main clause) from happening.

The logic behind 即使 is that when you are assuming that first hypothetical event, what you are doing is "causing" it to happen, if only for the sake of the argument.

That's where 使 comes in. 使 means "to cause/send/tell someone to do something" and is often used in causative constructions. When you are "causing" an event as a thought experiment (as you do when you use a concessive conditional), 使 is there to indicate that you're forcing the event to happen, like make-believe, i.e. that you're assuming it.

This sense of 使 is literally spelled out in 假使 ("pretend-causing" => "in the event that"), a synonym of 即使. While 假使 is unambiguously hypothetical, 即使 is more neutral, with 即 only standing in for the linking word "就是".

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It takes work to answer the question. We Chinese usually use the expression quite smoothly and never think of it. To reply to your question, I've checked the dictionary but pity that there are no explicit explanations for how this 2-word was initially comprised. Even so, I'll try to explain it according to my comprehension. We can detach 即使 into and 使, which further can be understood as abbreviations of 即便 and 假使. More confused, right? In fact,

  即使 = 即便 + 假使  

即使 acts as a conjunction, followed by an adverbial clause of concession, meaning negation. With this in mind, then we go back to see 即便 + 假使

seperating 即便 into and 便, both means right away, at once.

Example
暴雨即将来了。
9点一到他便走了。

on the other hand, 假使 means suppose() somebody makes something happen(使).

Conclusion:

  So the combined meaning is even immediately  makes something happen (hypothesis) , it's unavailing.  
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(1)[adv] promptly; immediately; at once

使

(4) if; supposing; provided

即使 (promptly supposing) = even if

Example:

Suppose (假設) the entire police force was here, it is too late to save the hostages

Even if (即使) the entire police force was here, it is too late to save the hostages

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has the meaning of ; 使 has a not well know use as 假如, 如果 or 若:

  • 使举国之少年而果为少年也,则吾中国为未来之国,其进步未可量也。- 清· 梁启超《少年中国说》

  • 使无先生相助,岂有我之今日?使能发愤图强,必定前途无量.

即使 = 就假如/若

即使他不來 = 就假若他不來, both sentences are guessing and predicting that "he won't show up".

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