Advanced etymology / mnemonics

Hi all,

I joined Skritter with a view to try and help answer Chinese language questions, and I was thinking of doing a series of posts if people were interested with regard to advanced historical etymology, and also some of the mnemonics I used when I was learning Chinese based on a more historical context.

Would anyone be interested in this?


Yes, I’d be interested…and I’d be also interested in seeing how native speakers learn Chinese at school which may be different from how foreigners study it.

Hi @fabiothebest,

I only lived in Hong Kong until I was 6, but from what I remember from those days, it was simply learning by rote, which I don’t think is conducive for a deeper understand of the culture and language.

Let me give you an example, the word for autumn, 秋, is made up of 禾 and 火. If you literally think about this, it’s wheat and fire. Why? My reasoning is that in an agricultural society, which formed most of China, you have to burn the wheat chaff in autumn, right? So the season of putting wheat chaff with fire is autumn. But as a child, you don’t really get taught so deeply.

To be honest, even my advanced Mandarin teacher doesn’t really delve into the whole etymology of words - that’s just me being super geeky lol.

Now that I’ve explained a bit more, is this something you might be interested in?


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I like the Outlier Linguistics Dictionary for the depth of research and references they provide for their historical analysis of the characters. My personal experience is that a lot of less-than-accurate sources get brought up as the “reason” behind character history, but Outlier has been quite good at doing their own research at a deeper level to really bring out information. If you haven’t taken a look at it, a link is available at:

An example citation for 秋 is:

秋 is composed of 禾 “grain” and 火 “fire,” which indicate the original meaning “fall; autumn.” Fields were sometimes burned to rid them of pests like crickets. In fact, early versions of this character were depictions of crickets and crickets being burned. The connection between grain and autumn is quite obvious.


Yes, I’d be interested.

@Apomixis I love the Outlier Dictionary. And definitely they’re right in that the very early pictograms show what does look like insects within the character. I believe the one of the older forms of 秋 was written as 龝, which certainly lends credence to the idea that insects were involved with the notion of autumn.

But what I tend to do is make the link shorter and more relevant in my head (for example, since the modern character does not involve insects, I make it relevent to just the 禾 and the 火 component of the character, if that makes sense) so as to help me quickly come up with the character I need. I still try to follow the rules of the 六書 though in terms of character formations for my own mnemonics, so at least there’s some semblance of logic.

The thing I‘m trying to work out at the moment is what kind of lists would you like to follow in terms of orders of characters? Or would you like to leave that to my discretion?

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@ZhengHaohua I’m studying radicals and there is a character that I’m struggling a bit to memorize. It’s 食. I can’t find any clear element in the morphology of the character that helps me to remember the meaning: food, eat. Well, I might recognize it, but I need more memory because I also want to write it. I need a way to remember. Would you know how to make me remember it?

@fabiothebest Heya. Sorry about the delay. Just saw your question. If I were to go through the etymological route, I’m afraid it won’t help you for 食 because the character has just moved on so far from the original root. The original bit under the “ren” at the top used to be 皀, which in ancient script was stylised as someone eating, and doesn’t look too far from it as well. Although the meaning of 皀 is different to what 良 means, you can clearly see how, visually, 皀 has turned to 良 under that top “ren” in 食.

Without using the etymological root with this character, it’s one of those that you may have to learn by rote. Certainly this is one of the more basic characters that you learn as a child, so you are taught it by rote.

It’s a bit difficult to answer this though without knowledge of how many characters you know. But will give a couple of suggestions.

If you know the character 良 (liang, second tone - means good), then if you add a “ren” on top of liang, think of it as what do you put inside a person that’s good… food… and what do you do with food? Eat it. So “ren” on top of 良 is “to eat”.

Or how about the character 很? This is a very popular character which I think is usually found in the early lists for students. Put a dot on top and a ren above the right side of the radical and you end up with 食. I guess one way you might be able to remember the link from 很 to 食 is that the ㄔ radical is often also known as the 雙人旁, meaning, literaly, double person side". That could give you some hint as to linking the ㄔto convert it to the “ren” on top of 食.

These are just two ways I can think of right now as I’m still at work, but they will require links to other characters. Let me know if you’re still struggling with those suggestions and I’ll see if I can think of something else.


Thanks a lot for your answer. I can tell you that I’m studying for HSK3-4. I didn’t know 良 but 很 is one of the first characters we learn. I didn’t notice that I can find a part of that in the character 食. I didn’t learn how to write 很 yet though :stuck_out_tongue: . I can recognize practically all the words I studied and speak for having a general conversation but writing is something I didn’t practise enough and now I want to get better at it, so I’m writing with pen and paper and also subscribed to Skritter. As you said I may have to learn it by rote…anyway your comment was useful and although I’m not sure I’ll remember 皀 unless I write it many times, thanks to that I can see the connection with food and eating. Thank you :slight_smile:

@fabiothebest Sorry if it wasn’t the kind of answer you’re looking for. Hope it helped a bit anyway.

That’s really good you’re upping it a notch with reading and writing. There are unfortunately words with have moved so far from their original root that it’s just necessary to learn by rote. Just lucky we still have characters like 龜 which still looks like… a tortoise haha. Will definitely say stroke order is important though, so don’t skimp on learning those and getting them right!

I think physically writing is still important though because nowadays when typing all you do is type pinyin, and it’s easy to lose the writing of all you’re doing is typing pinyin. This is why I still sometimes opt for 手寫輸入法 on my phone, and also writing physical letters too, although I usually get my brushes out for that as I can’t resist a good letter written with proper brush and ink!