I studied Latin in high school, so I learned all about where certain words came from and how it’s used differently in English as compared to the Latin. And every time I search a definition for a word, the website or dictionary tells me where the word comes from. Then I asked myself, “Where did the Chinese words come from?” I know that certain words are loan words such as “sha-fa” for sofa, (the Chinese characters meaning “sand hair”), but where did those supposed pictures come from? Somebody must have doodled in some sand and said, “That looks like a something, so it means this.”
I googled “Chinese etymology” and came up with two useful websites. One is zhongwen.com which is nice. It tells you the etymology but using the limits of the characters of Unihan, which is the collection of all the standardized Chinese, Korean, Japanese words available on a computer . But when it says 又 looks like a right hand, I just don’t see it. So I went to another website.
Chinese etymology is an amazing site. (I started using this website heavily about 3 years ago, but haven’t spent much time on in the past year.) Enter any Chinese word and the website will show you a collection of the ancient texts. It will show you the different fonts and how they used to look. With this site, I was finally able to see the pictures. It made sense to me. One such example is 又 (pictured below), pronounced you4 (like if you’re saying “yo!” to someone) means “again”. But the original meaning is a “right hand.” In context of other words, it has the meaning of hand.
Now before I give an example of 又 used to mean “hand,” I’ll talk a little about the different types of Chinese characters. (All these are my own thoughts. I didn’t take a course on it or anything, but came to conclusions somewhat logically. On some things, you’ll just have to be creative.) There are three kinds. The first kind is pictorial. It just looks like what it’s supposed to represent. The second is a simple story. The third kind is a complex story.
Before I give an example for a simple story word (SSW), you might be thinking, “How does the picture above, look like a hand and how did it get to 又. I don’t see it.” This is a picture of my right hand. If you try carving that in bone, it’ll probably come out like the picture above. As for the typographical change, I didn’t see it either, until I started writing it. Here’s how it changed:
The forms used today are actually the calligraphic form of the pictures. When you write something, you would tend to write the easiest, fastest way. In doing so, the shape of the words change and sometime becomes unrecognizable from the original. Many Chinese characters have changed in this way.
The SS word that I want to talk about today is the word meaning “to obtain” or “to get.” 取 is pronounced qu3, sort of like chew, if you know German, the u is like ü. Now what does the 取 image look like?
There are two parts: 耳(left) and 又(right). 耳 means ear and 又 means hand. By looking at how this word is structured, I don’t think it meant to get, but rather, to pull someone by the ear. That sure would get a person’s attention and make them come with you. It might have referred to children because equals would most never do something like this. But through the ages, the meaning shifted from a physical action that the characters portray but to something more abstract. Now combined with other words, 取 can mean “to obtain”, “fight for”, “withdraw money”, and other meanings. This is one example of a simple story word. They mostly consist of 2-4 parts and usually describe a physical action.
Next time, I’ll give an example of a complex story.