Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What's in a name?

A while ago when I was working on revamping my Chinese page I stumbled upon this cool website called Chinese Etymology. It is actually a bit of a misnomer, because it doesn't tell you about the etymology of Chinese words but in fact allows you to type in a character and then shows the evolution of a character from Oracle Bone script (甲骨文, 12th century BCE) to Lesser Seal (小篆, 3rd century BCE) script.

So, curious, I typed in my family name, 盧, to see how far back it goes and what did it mean. To my surprise there is actually an ancient version of 盧 in the Oracle Bone script:

From the look of it, it is a compound of two other characters. On the left is some kind of pottery vessel (modern Chinese 皿), and on the right is a stylized tiger (modern 虎).

For a while it baffled me why such a combination. Was it some kind of ritual pottery that involved mythological tigers? Tiger drinking out of a basin in some hitherto-unknown poetic metaphor? I was getting a bit obsessed with the tiger since I was born on the Year of the Tiger. I wanted some magical way of tying my name to my birth year.

Further investigation revealed that the tiger character has a mundane, but not necessarily less interesting, explanation. You see, in modern Chinese dialects, tiger is pronounced hu in Mandarin and fu in Cantonese. My name is either lu in Mandarin and lo in Cantonese. However, using the wonders of historical linguistics, scholars have reconstructed the sounds of these words as far back as the Zhou dynasty, around 800 BCE, at an ancient form of the Chinese language called Old Chinese.

Using the STARLING Old Chinese reconstruction database, I found that 盧 had a reconstructed pronunciation of *rā (the asterisk indicates a reconstructed sound), and 虎 was pronounced *hlāʔ. While not identical, the two pronunciations are actually fairly similar, so it would've been likely that the tiger character was used to write the word for vessel in a rebus writing sort of way that is pretty common in early Chinese (another example was using the world for elephant *ziang to write the word for image, also *ziang).

At some point using the tiger character to write both "tiger" and "vessel" must've caused a lot of confusion, and so the vessel character 皿 was paired with the tiger character 虎 to provide the general meaning of some kind of vessel or container. In other words, 皿 was used for its general meaning but not phonetic value, whereas 虎 provided the rough phonetic value but no meaning whatsoever.

And what exactly is the original meaning of 盧? It's still a bit ambiguous but most
likely some kind of vessel used to hold food. That's a bit of a fall from a tiger crouching over a ceremonial cauldron, no? Actually, I much prefer the phonetic explanation of the tiger. This is a snapshot of the important step of introducing what's called "semantic determinatives" (which roughly correspond to modern Chinese radicals) in the evolution of the early Chinese writing system.


Sears, Richard, "Chinese Etymology",

Starostin, S., Bronnikov, G., Krylov, P., "Database query to Chinese characters",\data\china\bigchina&root=config&morpho=0


  1. Incredible article! The notion that the characters are compounded with others makes it easy to learn the script and serves for creative purposes as well. I fully know what you are going through trying to learn characters. I think Chinese Etymology is a great site for character works, click the character decay button in the mouse over menu. I think learning components is a great way to help learning characters and is really useful with writing, but when you start getting up to speed you will not really be looking at the characters just reading a page of text and the data going into your head. A lot of characters are in fact more phonetic than ideograms. It is fairly normal to have heard a word and then later on see a character with a same phonetic component. The truth is if you ask your Chinese teacher to show you, they will tell you how the first straws were bamboo or at all, and it will reinforce the idea of the character, but there is no way to arrive at it. Oh this is pretty incredible. I have always found knowledge of traditional Chinese useful to know kanji, and the etymological trees are showing so many smart linkages between various characters. There are also a major number of characters whose modern meanings are not linked at all to their forms. The main reason for this is sound-loan.

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