I've been trying my best to combat this sort of thing recently but I couldn't really find a good way to solve this sort of problem I have when memorizing Chinese characters whose original meaning is completely unrelated to the modern one, or characters with phonetic loans (e.g. 不 "ori. calyx, borrowed to mean no/not", 叚 "ori. whetstone, borrowed to mean borrow; false", 又 "ori. right hand, borrowed to mean again", 它 "ori. snake, borrowed to mean it; other").

An example that I can think of is 各 (/each, individually, every, all; originally depicting a foot (夂) entering an opening/entrace (口)), in which the original meaning for that character is "to arrive" and was later phonetically borrowed to mean "each, every".

With keeping that in mind, I tried many ways to memorize this kind of thing. For example, I've tried making my own semantic extension attempting to connect the meanings together:

(Original meaning is in italics, Modern meaning is in bold)

  • to arrive -> guests arrives at the building -> each/every (guest that arrives)

Here I don't think this personally works because if I go for this kind of method, then I would just be making stuff up on the spot basically creating folk etymology.

Another one I've tried for example is the classic mnemonic story method:

  • When the guests arrived, each/every guest was greeted by the host.

In which this one kind of doesn't work for me since I like to keep all my mnemonics sort of logical and things that make sense in a way. I tried this classic mnemonic story method for other characters with the phonetic loans but the stories most of the time doesn't make sense when I use this method.

So if anyone has any recommendations, is there a way I could memorize the original meaning and connect it to modern meaning?

P.S: I know for a fact I always study the modern meaning first before the original one but I'm asking here since I like to study my characters with their actual glyph origin.

  • 1
    How far back do you want to get? AFAIK, 隸書 (clerical script) is basically "modern Chinese. "I don't know much about 小篆 (small seal script), but it seems logical that it's pretty close to clerical script. Sep 5, 2023 at 8:25
  • Maybe back to oracle bone script when the original meaning was being used before any phonetic loans applied to the character.
    – prismcool
    Sep 5, 2023 at 18:10
  • 又 is the right hand that you use again and again since majority of people are right-handed, with 右 acquiring meaning for "right-hand". Current meaning of 各 is most likely influenced from 个/個, with its original meaning likely evolving into various other characters including 路, 客, 略, and 格
    – Fishuman
    Sep 10, 2023 at 14:30

1 Answer 1


I always study the modern meaning first before the original one

it’s normal. because, we’re using regular script (楷書), for original meaning of a character, one must familiarise with oracle bone script and / or bronze script.

for example: the characters “从”, “比”, “北”, the components are different in regular script. however, in oracle bone script, and bronze script, these three characters are composed by two homo sapiens “人”

“从” (甲 2279 合 22151) https://xiaoxue.iis.sinica.edu.tw/jiaguwen?kaiOrder=20505

enter image description here

“比” (京都 1822 合 2450) https://xiaoxue.iis.sinica.edu.tw/jiaguwen?kaiOrder=144

enter image description here

“北”(甲 3506 合 7094) https://xiaoxue.iis.sinica.edu.tw/jiaguwen?kaiOrder=189

by oracle bone script, the explanation of the 說文解字 is straightforward:




enter image description here

read and think in oracle bone script, or bronze script lah 😸

  • Actually funny enough, this is what I do when I want to study the original meaning. I always look back at their oracle bone and bronze script forms to better get idea of the original meaning before the modern one takes place. Especially with characters that are phonetic loans.
    – prismcool
    Sep 5, 2023 at 3:22
  • A lot of borrowed meanings had their current meaning derived from other closely sounding characters, like 其 (others), originally a basket 箕, modern meaning probably coming from 佢 (note the 其 example may not be the most accurate as I got it from wiktionary)
    – Fishuman
    Sep 10, 2023 at 14:40

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