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One thing I've been curious about while learning Chinese is the use of 月 in many 汉字 representing anatomical features (for example, 脸, 腰, or 腿).

What is the etymology of the use of 月 as a radical?

  • It is not exactly 月. The two horizontal bars are actually a 点 and a 提, which in fact means 肉. It is still the standard writing in Taiwan. In mainland China, they have changed it to 月 for easier writing under the orthography of simplified Chinese – user58955 Jun 7 '14 at 15:59
  • @user58955 I think I should mention in 舊字形 (old-style glyph, like in 康熙字典), the two horizontal bars are not 點 and 提. So, it may be not correct to say "actually a 点 and a 提". Anyway, in seal scripts, it's written just as 肉, and when developed to 隸書 (clerical script), they became two bars -- sometimes the second bar slanted a little -- but no standard said it should be 點提 in the old times. – Stan Jun 8 '14 at 13:37
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    @Stan Point taken. Indeed, 正字通 says 《石经》改作月,中二画连左右,与日月之月异,今俗作⺼以别之。 – user58955 Jun 8 '14 at 13:45
  • because the 月 look like the 肉,when the character related with flesh,It could use a 月 as radical. – user4545 Dec 11 '14 at 12:49
  • Downvote because this is not contributing. Someone has already given a much better answer long before you did. – Wang Dingwei Dec 12 '14 at 4:36
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The 月字旁 was originally '肉' & not '月' - 肉 has the meaning of 肉体 meaning 'flesh' or having to do with the 'human body' so it's often seen with body parts.

Wikipedia:

肉字旁:臺灣標準中,凡肉字旁的字,都寫作「提肉旁」即enter image description here,使其不會與「月字旁」相混。《字形表》中,肉字旁只在字的左旁時才寫作「提肉旁」,在字的右旁時採用首筆豎的方式與「月字旁」區分(「月字旁」在右方時,首筆為撇)。但在下方時,則「肉」與「月」首筆都作豎,兩者會相混。

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@Stan very right! The distinction sometimes made between the different origins of what today (and has been so for thousands of years) is indistinguishable from 月 is entirely misguided, artificial, and continues to fail. Blatantly, the Ministry of Education tries to prescribe a somewhat boiled-down version of the 'Original Sin' (that was started during the Tang dynasty and taken up again by the editors of the Kangxi dictionary) and they fail. Read more about this in my lengthy answer here: https://chinese.stackexchange.com/a/12455/3674.

To answer the OP more constructively in broad terms: When Clerical script developed from Seal script sometime before the First Emperor of Qin, the goal was to find a way of writing that was easier and faster. Consequently, many rounded strokes were simplified to straighter lines, many components were written with a simplified outline, and some components were given an abbreviated form when appearing as a 'side-element' (偏旁); this is why we today have such forms as 氵 for 水, 亻 for 人, 灬 for 火 and so on.

In the latter case, some components that differed in Seal script were written with the same abbreviated form as a side-element, and this happened to 月, 肉, 舟, and 丹 (and some others, it would seem) that ended up as 月. Likewise, 舌 and two other components were confounded (or unified, depending on your point of view), which is why the readings of 活, 括 etc are not from 舌 (活 is explained as '从水,昏声'—no mention of 舌); 入 and 人 were not distinguished; 灬 sometimes goes back to 火 and sometimes to something entirely different (as in 馬 and 熊), and so on.

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This component we Chinese called “肉月旁” in oral. The component of meals which seems like moon.

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