Recently, I've been thinking about this but after figuring out later written forms of 四 (sì; four) in bronze scripts (see below chart from 小學堂 for reference) depict a nose breathing out air and was the original form of 呬 (sì; to rest; to breathe, to gasp) (according to 說文新證, 漢語多功能字庫, 文源, etc.), I've been wondering if 四 is used in 泗 (sì; mucous; nasal flow; sniffle; river in Shandong) as some sort of form component besides it's usage for sound.

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I've did came across a few sources (and a question here) that claimed 四 also being the original form of 泗, but further digging into this, I couldn't determine whether or not 四 was being directly used as a picture of a nose in 泗 since not many sources talk about this and I thought it made sort of sense for 泗 to be a depiction of a nose (四) with mucus (氵) running out from the nose or just a simple phonosemantic character with 四 happening to also be a form component.

Just to clear things up here on my question, did 四 had another purpose in 泗 besides being used as a sound component? Was 四 even the original form of 泗? How can I be sure if this is actually true since I'm not entirely sure yet? I know I probably overthinking this but it probably either has to be a coincidence or it's true.

Would be much appreciated for answers on this question of mine! :)

Note: I am aware that 四 started off in the oracle bone script as a pictograph of four lines to represent four. I'm discussing about the more later interpretations of 四 when it changed it's shape.

  • 1
    If you can establish that 泗 was consistently used for the meaning nasal mucous in pre-Qin texts, then maybe 四 could more than just a phonetic component in 泗. I haven't found anything suggesting this, however; AFAIK (1) the sole pre-Qin appearance of 泗 meaning nasal mucous is from a received text (傳世文獻) version of 詩經 in the word 涕泗, and this word was more often written as 涕洟 in other places; (2) the sole pre-Qin excavated text appearance of 泗 is in a Chu-era text referencing the name 泗尹 (now written 伊尹). Interestingly, 伊 is also the name of a river.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Mar 25 at 4:53
  • 1
    See also the 3rd and 4th discussion points (其三、其四) in 《詩經》“涕泗滂沱”之“泗”新證. I'm not convinced by any of the arguments for the main conclusion in this article (they claim that 泗 is a variant of 益), but it's an interesting read nonetheless.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Mar 25 at 4:58
  • @dROOOze Just read the article and there's definitely some points in it that I've pointed out already in my question (such as 泗 being a depiction of water running from the nose, which has already proven to be false) and some that I'm pretty skeptical of. Looks like 洟 it's more commonly used to refer to nasal mucous. If I had to guess, 泗 was probably created as some sort of variant character.
    – prismcool
    Commented Mar 25 at 5:27
  • Also since from the many pre-Qin texts I've read, 泗 seems to be referring to the name of a person. So my best guess here is that the character was maybe borrowed to mean "mucous", which in this case may be pretty unlikely.
    – prismcool
    Commented Mar 25 at 5:29

2 Answers 2


One speculation: If 四 in 泗 wasn't solely chosen for its sound, then it might also refer to four rivers. It is easy to imagine switching 四水 to 泗. but I can't find any references online

Other note:

"All" is an implied meaning of 四 which is extended from 4 in number

Since there are four main directions: East, West South, and North, 四 took on the meaning of "All"

For example:

四方 = All lands (in four directions)

四海 = All seas (in four directions)

In Cantonese 四 in 四正 (neat) doesn't mean "four" but "overall"

  • That could be a possibility there, I personally think that the meaning "mucous" probably had came first before it was used as the name of a river in Shandong, unless if that's not the case.
    – prismcool
    Commented Mar 24 at 6:57
  • Taking a look at the character's usage on Chinese Text Project though, I'm seeing that it's mostly used for the name of the river itself and occasionally used to mean "mucous".
    – prismcool
    Commented Mar 24 at 7:03

I think the wiki note below provides the clear link between 四 and 泗 you are looking for - ...a dispersal of breath (四) with mucus (氵) --> snivel(泗).


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*The bronzeware style of the character featured a repositioning of those four lines inside 口 (kǒu); this later evolved into the combination used today of 口 (kǒu, “mouth”) and 八 (bā, “divide”) which meant a dispersal of breath. It could thus be said that four is a borrowed meaning for this character. The original sense is preserved in 呬 (OC hrids), by adding an extra 口.

小學堂 - 四

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小學堂 - 泗

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