Lost Glyph Origin


奇 ( jī | qí ) is a character that means strange but the glyph origin appears to have been lost. At least as far as I can tell after researching offline books, zhongwen.com, and zdict.net ( qí ). The character is composed of (dà) 大 and (kě) 可 but none of my references can explain why the meaning is "odd" (numerically) or "strange" (as in unusual).

This is just one of the characters that seem to have lost it's history. I know that I could just accept it's meaning and memorise it but I really appreciate the storied history behind each character as a method to discern meaning. Can someone share information on the etymology of the character 奇?

I am also interested in how I should deal with discrepancies between Chinese and Chinese-English dictionaries in general (see below for an example). Often, I note that the Chinese dictionary has more information (whose implications I am missing) than Chinese-English dictionaries (is there a better method than just using a source like www.zhongwen.com)?


While researching this character I noticed that the Chinese dictionaries have much richer information available than the Chinese-English sources.


奇 jī
奇偶 | 奇数
身长六尺有奇 | 奇零
另见 qí。
奇 qí
奇形怪状 | 奇观 | 奇特
奇遇 | 奇计
不足为奇 | 惊奇
奇冷 | 奇痒难忍
用法说明读 qí,基本义是特殊、稀罕;读 jī,与数目有关,指单数或不成双的。
另见 jī。

(Simplified Chinese Dictionary)

a lot of which is quite hard to decipher and contrasted with my Simplified Chinese English Dictionary below:

奇 jī
→ 奇偶, 奇数
sixty odd
→ qí
奇 qí
remarkable man/woman
unique pine trees and strangely-shaped rocks
→ 奇耻大辱, 奇迹, 奇妙
→ 奇兵, 奇袭, 奇遇, 出奇制胜
→ 不足为奇, 惊奇
very ugly
be terribly itchy
→ 奇缺
→ jī


Zhongwen.com hints that this may just be a person exhaling in wonder (to imply strange??) but is that a stretch?



Chinese Etymology seems to have very little information on this character (Source)

User Discussion

Zdict.net has a user forum (here) in which this character is discussed but I am afraid that I may have missed the gist of the conversation. So any help would be appreciated. The following reference image was shared in a post by user if that is any help. I am unsure of the original source and whether or not this is a composite.

user-discussion Zdict.net

  • re "discrepancies between dictionaries" — I've often wondered about this too; you should post that as a separate question! – alxndr Jun 5 '14 at 1:44

The discussion on zdict basically explains that the Oracle bone script morphed (讹变) into its current form, but this transformation did not follow standard rules.

The original Oracle bone script shows a man riding a horse, which means "to ride" (i.e. what 骑 means today), but when small seal script was developed, the horse morphed into 可, which violates the usual practice of keeping the meanings the same. The character also acquired the meanings of "unusual" or "strange":

enter image description here


◎ jī 单数、与“偶数”相对:奇数、奇偶、奇函数。

  • 1
    Thanks for the explanation. I still don't see how "to ride" and "unusual" have any related meaning. I don't really see the horse or the man in the ancient symbol (when compared to other symbols I've seen before). – Tommie C. Jun 3 '14 at 14:25
  • @TommieC. thanks, I misread that part. The text says that the "unusual" meaning came later. – congusbongus Jun 3 '14 at 23:05
  • 1
    @TommieC. A lot of the characters changed their meanings as time passes. When it did, people would create another character with the same pronunciation to replace the original one. In this case, they created "騎" to mean "to ride" since a new meaning was added to "奇". – LulalaBoss Aug 27 '14 at 19:54
  • @TommieC. Look at the explanation here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_character_classification – LulalaBoss Aug 27 '14 at 19:56

According to the 漢語大字典, which has a graphic of the character in various scripts, in some earlier versions the top element of 奇 is written as 立 ‘to stand’. It further cites an early analysis from the "六書故” (liushu being the theory of 6 types of character composition):

“一足立也. 別作踦.” “奇,古踦字.”

Karlgren’s Analytic Dictionary gives 踦 as meaning “one-legged, halt, lame; single.” In other words, “standing on one foot” is semantically linked to “strange, odd number,” and the character 奇 originally had both meanings. It’s also easy to see the “man with one leg” in 奇, if you are looking for ways to memorize this character.

Taking a different tack, both Karlgren and some of the early dictionaries state that 可 is also a phonetic element, although the correspondence is inexact.

  • Very interesting analysis, I will give this some more thought as I continue to research further. – Tommie C. Jul 7 '14 at 14:50

Let me add a few points to congusbongus's very good answer. The most likely explanation is that 奇 originally meant ‘to ride’, but then it was borrowed to represent the word ‘unusual’, which had identical pronunciation. Later, in order to keep the two characters separate, the 馬 ‘horse’ radical was added to the character for ‘to ride’. This is the way the etymology of many characters is explained by Chen Zhiqun in her very interesting dissertation, Compound ideograph: a contested category in studies of the Chinese writing system (for a summary of Chen's main points, you can take a look at chapter 2 of my thesis: Why are Chinese characters so damn hard?)

So, in short, the character 奇 doesn't represent anything related to the meaning ‘unusual’. There are many cases of such phonetic loans. Consider 花. It means ‘flower’, that's why it has the grass radical. But it may also mean ‘to spend’. There is nothing in the components 花 that is related to the meaning ‘to spend’. The only relation is that the Mandarin word for ‘to spend’ is pronounced identically to the Mandarin word for ‘flower’, huā.


The "oracle bone form" that the OP posted looks fake, and no paleography titles that I can find seem to support that「奇」was the original character of「騎」or that「可」originally represented a horse, and all say that the character just uses「大」as a semantic component and「可」as a phonetic component. This is believable from their Old Chinese Reconstructions:

  • 奇, Baxter-Sagart /*[k](r)aj/
  • 可, Baxter-Sagart /*[k]ʰˤa[j]ʔ/

If it came from「馬」, then there should be other examples of「可」morphing into「馬」.


enter image description here


enter image description here

The structure of the character itself doesn't tell us too much about why it came to mean "strange".

The Zhongwen.com explanation has over-interpreted the character as a compound ideogram. "A person exhaling in wonder" plausibly interprets「大」as a person and 「可」as "to exhale", and note that「可」is viewed by some paleographers as a very ancient and possibly original character of「歌」, "to sing". However, this compound ideogram theory lacks evidence, as if「奇」indeed depicts a person exhaling in wonder, there would be textual examples of「奇」being used as a verb meaning "to exhale (whether or not in wonder)". The best thing to do is to wait on more evidence to be gathered rather than subject the character to wild interpretations.

See also http://humanum.arts.cuhk.edu.hk/Lexis/lexi-mf/search.php?word=%E5%A5%87.


All the literature citation is found here :http://www.zdic.net/z/17/js/5947.htm.

For your information, usage of a glyph went through many years of evolution. The original usage pf (奇 Ji) as number derive from I-ching, differentiate the number Ying(feminine, even number, divided by "pair" ) and Yang(Man, Odd, cannot be divided perfectly ) . 一者,奇也(The number "One", is special)。陽奇而隂偶 (yang is odd, and ying is even)

In fact, one is a special (odd/strange) number for most cultures when they start develop mathematics. For unknown reason, the early writer of I-ching successfully derive a binary multiplication from the number one. As we know today, any number power of 0, is 1 . And I-ching binary i.e.

2^0 = 1 
2^1 = 2
2^2 = 4

# conventional math
10^0 = 1
11^0 = 1
55^0 = 1 , etc
# guess what happens when zero power of zero ? 
0^0 = 1 

Due to its special attributes, 1 is also known as 奇 , but only in I-ching. In modern mandarin, it is no longer mean one, but odd number.

(update) I just found a reference of the ancient 奇 glyph.

  • Looks like meaning "1" is backed by “一足立也. 別作踦.” “奇,古踦字.” which is "to stand on ONE leg". And look at the picture in the middle of the OP post. Clearly there is a man balancing on one foot!!! – coobit Jan 13 '18 at 21:04
  • So your comment and neubau's comment are a match too good to be brushed off as a coincidence. But that does 骑 - "riding a horse" got to do with "standing on one leg"? – coobit Jan 13 '18 at 21:06
  • Indeed standing on one leg is "strange". Who would do this? Not an ancient literate man :) – coobit Jan 13 '18 at 21:09
  • @coobit In ancient China, horse riding is strange to the people. As horses is not some "simple" transportation animals compare to mule. – mootmoot Jan 15 '18 at 17:44
  • This is valid only if that character was invented right after chinese tamed the horse. I have no idea when this taming took place, but it should have been looooooooong time ago more than the age of this character. – coobit Jan 15 '18 at 19:55

You have to take some of the old non-scientific etymology sources (like Shuowen) with a grain of salt sometimes, and certainly of forum sources.

It's not credible to me, for example, that the 可 in 奇 could have been simplified from 馬. This is simply not possible. It's also not credible to me that 奇 derived its pronunciation from 可. So what is plausible?

enter image description here

Absent an Oracle Bone character that matches 奇, we don't really have direct evidence for the origins of the Small Seal 奇. Everything is going to be a guess. However, the Oracle Bone character you provide here (if it indeed existed 1): 大 (man figure) + 丁 (some bar), but no 口 (mouth), would come close to being a plausible precursor. It turns out, a well placed 口 at this stage of character development was almost always a phonetic loan marker. So the Small Seal character 奇 is possibly a re-analysis of an (unattested) Oracle Bone character 奇 = (大 + 丁) + 口 that is a phonetic loan of whatever the Oracle Bone character 大 + 丁 is.

Whether the meaning of 奇 is etymologically related at all to the true meaning of 大 + 丁 is unclear. I'm leaning towards no, simply because the first character creator of 奇, by finding it necessary to use 口, didn't consider such a relationship discernible. But various un-etymological meanings could still have been back-endowed onto the pictorial atom 大 + 丁, variously:

  • 大 + 丁: stand on one leg, unstable
  • 大 + 丁: stride across

By the time it becomes 奇, with readings we can reconstruct, the following meanings were also evidently acquired:

  • 奇 [krjaj]: not paired, as in odd number
  • 奇 [grjaj]: unusual, rare

The references do tell us with some certainty that 奇 was the original character for "mount a horse," so that gives further:

  • 奇 [grjaj]: mount a horse

Some say this comes from the "surprising" appearance of mounted cavalry, given that horses were a late import, but more likely it's just a homophone.

There were evidently many other such suggestive loans, created at various times, and 奇 definitely acquired more and more meanings. The rest of the story seems clearer: Radicals were added to distinguish between the various homophones like:

  • 骑 [grjaj]: mount a horse
  • 倚 [ʔrjajʔ]: lean upon
  • 琦 [grjaj]: fine jade
  • 畸 [krjaj]: misshapen field
  • 崎 [grjaj]: jagged mountain
  • 觭 [khrjaj]: tilted horns

etc. That the abstract meanings of "odd" (both "not paired" and "unusual") retained the non-radicalized 奇 is also consistent with common practice.

1 As another answer points out, this is a "fake" in that it did not come from a serious academic source. A source says it is found unattributed in the book 《汉字密码》 ("The secret code of Chinese characters") by the "alternative theory" author 唐汉. It's not clear if the entire character is made up, or it is simply given a made up semantic explanation. The answer assumes the character itself (or one substantially like it) is found somewhere in the Oracle Bone corpus, and proceeds from there.

  • How did you get 丁 from that form? 丁 depicts city walls and was a close homograph to 囗. – droooze Jul 26 '18 at 4:47
  • 1
    @droooze I didn't get 丁 literally. I'm just using it to stand in for whatever turned into the analogous part of 可. It clearly has no relationship to 丁. – Nimrod Jul 26 '18 at 4:50

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.