Today when I was learning the glyph origin of 由 (yóu; cause, reason, from), I happened to find out that its actual origin is unknown and that there were many theories out there that try to interpret what 由 could possibly be.

For reference, here's a chart of the ancient forms of 由 from xiaoxue.iis.sinica.edu.tw: evolution chart

As for the interpretations, the ones I could find are listed below:

  • The Outlier Linguistics Dictionary of Chinese Characters: Depicts a type of vessel or container.

  • 季旭昇《說文新證》 p.877: Depicts a kind of utensil/implement. (This character is listed under 甾 when I looked it up since it didn't exist in 《說文解字》.)

  • zi.tools: Depicts a kind of can.

  • Kanji Networks: Depicts an alcoholic container with a long neck.

  • Alex Adler, The World of Kanji p.90: Depicts a piece of food entering a mouth.

  • Wiktionary: Depicts either a container or a helmet. (The helmet theory was later proved to be false as 由 in 冑 was only used as sound component according to 漢語多功能庫.)

These are some of the available theories I could find as according to most of them, this character seemed to depict a type of vessel. However though when I take a look at its ancient form, the resemblance of a vessel doesn't exactly look like it to me.

So if anyone can, it would be appreciated if anyone could help me out with this one and possibly pick the most recent theory!

Also note, I'm aware that this character was most likely phonetically borrowed to mean "cause, reason" and "from".

  • FYI, according to 康熙字典, 由 came from "㽕". zdic.net/hans/%E7%94%B1
    – r13
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 19:51
  • I think I've seen this info when I looked up info on that character, wasn't sure though if this was true
    – prismcool
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 20:52
  • 2
    Here's an extensive survey: www2.ihp.sinica.edu.tw/file/3016BRkwZuA.pdf. Outlier's entry isn't clear - they're referencing 《說文新證》 directly, which is certainly talking about 「甾」 (and which is known to be mixed up with the shape of, what was then written as, 「由」). Good luck!
    – dROOOze
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 21:14
  • Thanks!! Didn't knew a survey existed about 由!!
    – prismcool
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 21:25
  • 1
    @zagrycha You've posted this multiple times in multiple locations. My previous comment still stands, and I'll emphasise something else - if you can't judge the explanatory power of something, denigrating it as "all theories" is not only misleading, but encourages laziness.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 20:34

3 Answers 3


a response to a comment

I think such oracle bone and bronze inscription exists though. I already checked it up on xiaoxue.iis.sinica.edu.tw and it seems this character did exist at the time

indeed, as droooze revealed some times ago, most oracle bone and bronze inscriptions are searchable 🙀

several websites are involved, here’s my procedure

first, check 漢語多功能字庫, with a glance, one can find if a character could be identified in the oracle bone script, and bronze script. most important, read the page “component semantic tree” (部件樹), quite inspiring 😺


next, check 小學堂, this site has more, and bigger pictures

third, check 先秦甲骨金文簡牘詞彙庫, depends on the need, use either 詞彙檢索資料庫 or 全文檢索資料庫

eg the search of “由” in 全文檢索資料庫 has 212 results, #36 stated:

貞惟由 商 甲骨 甲骨文合集 17320 0

that, the text “貞惟由” was identified in item 17320, in the book “甲骨文合集”

fourth, check 國學大師, choose the “甲骨文合集” or “殷周金文集成” in the topmost menu bar, use the item no (eg 17320) to search, voila

enter image description here

judging from the 212 results, and the linked pdf file, i agreed the “由” used as “worry” (憂) in some circumstances, in oracle bone script. other usages need more time to think 😸

have fun :)

  • For 《甲骨文合集》, someone took the tremendous effort to upload it onto archive.org with better quality than 國學大師!
    – dROOOze
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 2:54
  • @dROOOze, omg, i’m outdated again 😹 thanks for the links 😺 Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 3:22
  • Tysm!!! This literally works well for me. :) And thanks to the PDF provided @dROOOze, I think I changed my mind that 由 didn't come from 冑. In fact I think I have to agree with the survey that 由 likely came from a pictograph of a type of helmet and was maybe the original form of 冑! Of course I can't be too sure yet but I think that's most likely the case.
    – prismcool
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 3:27

Ok so after all day of researching this character, I can say that this character most likely depicted a type of battle helmet used by the ancient warriors. I will now explain this in more detail in the usual style I explain character origins :) :

Visual etymology (PY: yóu; cause, reason; from) origin is currently unclear. However, one of the most recent theories scholars interpreted it as was likely a pictograph of a type of battle helmet worn by ancient warriors with a round tube on top for putting the tassel in. It is also believed to be the original form of 胄.

The original meaning of this character is currently unclear but it was most likely phonetically borrowed to mean "cause, reason" and later extended to "from".

Hopefully this theory seems a bit accurate to the origin of 由 as there is no Shuowen entry present for this character. 😅

Sources used:

  • Academia Sinica
  • xiaoxue.iis.sinica.edu.tw (小學堂)
  • 漢語多功能字庫
  • 蔡哲茂 《說殷卜辭「由」字》 (Once again, thank you dROOOze for providing the PDF!)

I am not an expert, I can only look things up on the net of nets. I found this below. Seems weird that everyone is just guessing for a fairly simple character. Apparently there are no oracle, bronze or seal characters for 由, only 六书通的字

Main pronunciation 主要发音: yóu

Other pronunciations 其它发音: yóu,yāo

Original meaning 本义: Meaning from or cause.

English senses 英语理解: cause, reason; from

Character decomposition 字形分解 [?]: Component 由 (name- sprout 由 yóu)

Decomposition notes 字形分解说明 [?]: (- modification sprouts-miao 苗 miáo)

由 looks like 甲 upside down!

  • I think such oracle bone and bronze inscription exists though. I already checked it up on xiaoxue.iis.sinica.edu.tw and it seems this character did exist at the time.
    – prismcool
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 17:36

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