Really weird sinographs, part 3

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We've been looking at strange Chinese characters:

"Really weird sinographs" (5/10/18)

"Really weird sinographs, part 2" (5/11/18)

For a sinograph to be weird, it doesn't need to have 30, 40, 50, or more strokes.  In fact, characters with such large numbers of strokes might be quite normal and regular in terms of their construction.  What makes a character bizarre is when its parts are thrown together in unexpected ways.  On the other hand, characters with only a very small number of strokes might be quite odd.  Two of my favorites are the pair 孑孓, which are pronounced jiéjué in Modern Standard Mandarin and together mean "w(r)iggler; mosquito larva".

When I first encountered 孑孓 half a century ago, I burst out laughing.  Both halves looked as though they were the very common three-stroke character zǐ 子 ("child; son; master; seed"), but written by a drunkard who couldn't get the arms of the child straight, with jié sagging down on one side and jué 孓 sagging down on the other side.

Both 孑 and 孓 are classified under Kangxi radical #39, and both are said to have zero additional strokes.  Under the same radical and also with zero strokes, there is 孒, complete with its own Unicode number.  Guess what?  It's pronounced jué and allegedly means "mosquito larva", so it's the same thing as 孓, yet different.  Who needs it?  Furthermore, I doubt that it has ever in history been used in a sentence by itself to mean "mosquito larva".  (I'll explain more about that in a moment.)

If there's a pathetic, useless 孒 for quaint 孓, surely 孑 ought to have a corresponding partner.  Well, it does — sort of, but not quite.  There's (U+2193C), which you might not be able to see in your browser.  It looks just like 孑, except that the slightly upward slanting horizontal stroke doesn't cross through the vertical axis.  Instead, it just stops dead when it hits the vertical axis, so it's not exactly correspondent to 孒, where the horizontal stroke on the right side also stops dead when it hits the vertical axis, but is level.  Nonetheless, we may say that (U+2193C) for 孑 is analogous to 孒 for 孓 without being exactly correspondent.  (N.B.:  As it appears in Unihan, the horizontal stroke of (U+2193C) is level, but elsewhere [as in zdic], it slants upward.)

I asked several highly literate native speakers of Mandarin if they were familiar with the characters 孑 and 孓, their pronunciations jié and jué, their meanings separately and together, as well as the meaning of the spoken Mandarin word "jiéjué", and drew a blank on all of these.  When I asked them how they would say "mosquito larva" in Mandarin, they said something like "wénzi yòuchóng 蚊子幼蟲", which means exactly that:  "mosquito larva".  When I told them that's what jiéjué 孑孓 means, they said that they think it must be an ancient, arcane term.

It's not surprising that literate readers of Modern Chinese texts, even those who have a relatively high degree of proficiency in Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese, would not be familiar with jiéjué 孑孓 since 孑 is ranked no. 4691 in a frequency list of 9,933 "common" characters (total number of characters in the corpus: 193,504,018), while 孓 is no. 6370.  In a further discussion of the shapes, meanings, and usages of these two characters below, we will see why 孑 has a much higher ranking than 孓.

The oldest occurrence of jiéjué 孑孓 that I can find is in an annotation by the Eastern Jin period scholar Guo Pu 郭璞 (276-324) on the Ěryǎ 爾雅 (Approaching Elegance) (3rd c. BC), the earliest surviving lexicon (perhaps more accurately referred to as a synonymicon) for Chinese, which is especially strong on terms for flora and fauna.  Guo Pu's commentaries are a gold mine of local and vernacular terms in the living language of his time.  Jiéjué 孑孓 is undoubtedly one such non-literary term, which would account for its minimal transmission across nearly two millennia to the present day.

My intuition is that, like many early disyllabic terms referring to animals, especially insects, the jié 孑and jué 孓 of 孑孓 jiéjué originally did not mean anything individually.  In other words, I think that 孑孓 was a disyllabic morpheme.

I further surmise that 孑孓 may be the dimidiation of a single word with complex phonology (consonant cluster, etc.), and that it may have a non-Sinitic origin.

Finally, I suspect that the sinographs 孑 and 孓 were devised via deformation of zǐ 子 ("child; son; seed").

What might the original word lying behind Mandarin jiéjué 孑孓 have sounded like?

The Cantonese pronunciation of these two sinographs would be kit3 kyut3.  The Middle Sinitic reconstruction by Zhengzhang Shangfang is /kˠiᴇt̚  kɨoŋX/, and his Old Sinitic reconstruction is /*ked  kʷoŋʔ|kʷad/.  It may be noted that the expected MSM reflex of Middle Sinitic kɨoŋX would be jiǒng, yielding jiéjiǒng instead of the jiéjué in current use.  (Source of reconstructions)

Jonathan Smith suggests an association with the Minnan writing 車蛆 for "mosquito larva".  The two characters literally mean "car maggot".  The first character is evidently being used transcriptionally.


I welcome suggestions from readers about how the Middle Sinitic and Old Sinitic reconstructions might have sounded undimidiatedly and how they may relate to the Minnan pronunciations.

Incidentally, the Cantonese, Minnan, Middle Sinitic, and Old Sinitic for zǐ 子 ("child; son; seed; master") are respectively zi2, chú / chír / chí, /t͡sɨX/, /*[ts]əʔ/, /*tsəʔ/ [Baxter-Sagart]

Now on to a brief investigation of what 孑 and 孓 may have meant, if anything, outside of their incorporation in the lexeme jiéjué 孑孓 ("w[r]iggler; mosquito larva").

It may seem curious that jié 孑 is listed in Paul Kroll's A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese (Leiden:  Brill, 2015), p. 208a, but jué 孓 is not. Not only is jié 孑 listed, it receives elaborate treatment:

1. by oneself, singly, alone.

    a. rdup., sole and solitary; also, unique and unmatched, standing out alone; (med.) also, exacting, fastidious and finicky.

2. leftover, remainder.

3. ☉ 戟 Jǐ 1, guisarme, halberd.

The Shuōwén Jiězì 說文解字 (Explanation of Characters) (100 AD), the Bible of traditional Chinese character studies, states that jié 孑 means "lacking a right arm" and jué 孓 means "lacking a left arm".  I'm dubious.  Such overly convenient definitions are all too common in the Shuōwén and in other early lexicographical works for disyllabic morphemes, e.g., qílín 麒麟 ("kirin" — allegedly the male and female of this mythical species [I am going to write a major post on this term later on]), fènghuáng 鳳凰 ("phoenix" — also allegedly the male and female of this mythical species), pípá 琵琶 ("lute; al-'ud; barbat" — supposedly the upstroke and downstroke used in playing this stringed instrument).

Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 漢語大詞典 (The Unabridged Dictionary of Sinitic), 4.175b-177a gives 17 disyllabic word and 1 quadrisyllabic phrase entries beginning with jié 孑, most of which can be explained by the meanings in Kroll's Student's Dictionary (see the Appendix for additional details)  There are no word or phrase entries for jué 孓 in Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn, 4.177a.  Some sources say that jué 孓 can mean "short".

To conclude, I would like to introduce LL readers to a major lexicographical undertaking that they likely never heard of, namely, the Harvard-Yenching Institute Chinese-English Dictionary Project.  This was to be a mega-dictionary on historical principles.  So far as I know, only two fascicles were ever published:  39.0.1 (Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard University Press, 1953) and 39.0.2-3 (Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard University Press, 1954) — at least those are the only two fascicles I was able to obtain.  I used to joke that, if they ever really did finish this dictionary on the scale of fasc. 39.0.1 and 39.0.2-3, it would have occupied the whole inner reading room of the Harvard-Yenching Library.

Not to prolong the suspense unduly, 39.0.1 is on zǐ 子 ("child; son; seed").  It has 68 double-columned pages of all known terms and phrases beginning with zǐ 子 ("child; son; seed"), plus a 27 page bibliography.  This, of course, was in the days before computers, and there wasn't even a typewriter or printing press available to Harvard-Yenching Institute that could handle Chinese characters, so all the thousands upon thousands of sinographs were painstakingly written in by hand (pen and ink).

And 39.0.2-3?  It is on none other than jié 孑 and jué 孓!  And, believe you me, the coverage is exhaustive.  19 double-columned pages, of which 16 are devoted to jié 孑 and the remainder to jué 孓, plus a 6 page supplementary bibliography. The treatment in 39.0.2-3 covers graphic variants, phonological variants, and semantic diversities.

Appendix of paleographical and inscriptional evidence

(by Matt Anderson)

Your ideas about 孑孓 are basically the same as the ones I’ve had. I looked into it a little bit more just now, and the situation is a little messier than I expected (and it’s possible that all instances of 孑 aren’t all directly related to each other), but I think there’s good reason to believe that your intuition is at least fundamentally correct.

I can’t find much palaeographical evidence. The only clear example I’ve found is the 孓父乙爵, a mid-Western Zhou vessel so named because it is inscribed with the graphs 孓父乙. So not much to go on there, and not clearly related to any future uses of 孑 and 孓. Note, too, that it’s jué and not jié—otherwise, essentially every use I’ve found of 孓 is combined with 孑 (or is from a dictionary or something).

There are also seals that references books say include 孑 and 孓 like Xihui 0468 (王孓) and Xihui 2999 ([冂+責]孑), but in both of those cases, the graphs in question aren’t really 孑 and 孓 but instead [疒+孓] and [疒+孑], respectively.

I then looked through the early uses included in Hanyu da cidian. Here’s what I found, in rough chronological order (word followed by rough definition followed by source):

1. 孑孑 outstanding, prominent (詩經)
2. 孑遺 leftover, trace (詩經)
3. 孑 a kind of halberd (左傳; this is also supposedly defined in the 方言, but I can only find references saying that it’s in there, not the passage itself in the Fangyan)
4. 孑然 all, whole (國語)
5. 孑 surplus, remainder (方言, the full passage reads “孑、藎,餘也。周鄭之間曰藎,或曰孑。青徐楚之間曰孑。自關而西秦晉之間炊薪不盡曰藎。” So that suggests at least something of a southern connection)
6. 孑/孓 no right/left arm (說文解字)
7. 孑 single, alone (used by Han writers like 張衡 and 孔融)
8. 孑盾 small shield for chariot (from 孑 ‘small’? this otherwise doesn’t seem to be attested early) (釋名)
9. 孑孓 (the earliest appearance I can find of this term is in Guo Pu’s annotation of the Erya—the immediately preceding (and presumably earlier) text says that 孑孑 (jiéjié, not jiéjué) is another word for yuān 蜎 and xuān 蠉 ‘mosquito larvae’)

So what does that leave us? I think the inscriptional evidence mentioned above could easily be unrelated, so I’ll ignore it. Otherwise, 孑 is used in reduplicated form to mean ‘outstanding’ in the Odes, so that sounds like a likely sound borrowing. The Shuo wen definitions can be ignored—Xu Shen needs to define each half of a bisyllabic compound, but there’s no evidence for either of those meanings existing otherwise (at least not until Xu Shen created them). (2) and (5) seem to be the same basic meaning—but the 遺 of 孑遺 already has that meaning on its own—the 孑 prefix in the Odes could be used for sound, or it could be related to the (southern?) term that Yang Xiong mentions in the Fangyan with the same meaning… Or the Fangyan meaning could derive from the Odes usage. (8) could also be related. (4) and (5) also seem possibly related—but the 孑 of 孑然 could easily be being used for sound alone, with the later Han uses deriving from the Guo yu. That leaves (3), about which I have no idea.

And also (9) of course. My guess (and it’s only a guess), based on the above, is that 孑 was used for its sound value and nothing else—from the Shijing through the Han and beyond. When characters were needed to write jiéjué ‘mosquito larvae’ (which certainly seems likely to be a borrowing from a non-Sinitic language), whoever created the form just grabbed 孑 and added a reversed 孑 (孓) to make a phonologically and graphically appropriate written form of mosquito larvae.

But there’s a lot of guesswork going on there.


  1. Nick Kaldis said,

    May 16, 2018 @ 5:58 am

    Do the characters 老 and 考 which both have the 老 radical fall into the same category?


  2. Victor Mair said,

    May 16, 2018 @ 7:33 am

    From Tsu-Lin Mei:

    For ‘mosquito larva’ I know what the characters mean but have no idea how they are pronounced. Recently the President of Peking University mispronounced a character and he is roundly criticized. To tell the truth, I mispronounce the same way. Since I did not go to college in China, there are many characters I do not know how to pronounce. When I taught at Peking University, my students and colleagues used to laugh at my illiteracy but soon they realize I am actually a learned scholar in historical matters. I recently read 林沄《商史三讲》。Lin Yun is a distinguished student of Oracle Bone Inscription and in his book he talked about various OB graphs without telling us how they are pronounced or how they can be transcribed into standard graphs.

  3. Sergey said,

    May 16, 2018 @ 5:14 pm

    I wonder if it's some special term for "mosquito larva". I can think of such a case for this object in Russian: normall people would say exactly that, one-to-one translation of "mosquito larva": "личинка комара". But when the same larva is used for fishing bait, the fishermen call it "мормыш". Outside of this bait context, the same fishermen would still cal it "mosquito larva", and they might not even realize that both words mean the same thing: one is something you put on the hook, another one is where the mosquitos come from.

  4. B.Ma said,

    May 17, 2018 @ 2:38 am

    My own favourites are 嬲 and 嫐 and 凹凸.

  5. Rodger C said,

    May 17, 2018 @ 12:02 pm

    I learned in school that mosquito larvae were called "wigglers" in ordinary English, but I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone actually say that. I now wonder if it's a fishermen's term.

  6. Chris Button said,

    May 17, 2018 @ 3:22 pm

    @ Matt Anderson

    When characters were needed to write jiéjué ‘mosquito larvae’… whoever created the form just grabbed 孑 and added a reversed 孑 (孓) to make a phonologically and graphically appropriate written form…

    That seems eminently plausible

    I then looked through the early uses included in Hanyu da cidian. Here’s what I found…

    Ignoring the ones related to weaponry, these meanings for 孑 seem to correspond semantically with Latin sōlus "alone, only, single, sole, forsaken, extraordinary". This also makes me wonder if there is possibly any relationship between 一 *ʔə̀c < *ʔjə̀t "one" (Baxter& Sagart *ʔi[t])

    @ Victor Mair

    I suspect that the sinographs 孑 and 孓 were devised via deformation of zǐ 子 ("child; son; seed").

    Yes – I think 孑 with its missing arm is probably just an iconic representation of the sōlus concept.

  7. Chau said,

    May 17, 2018 @ 4:17 pm

    My favorite is 乒乓. 上 and 下 also often go together in set phrases as well as in sinographs 忐忑.

  8. Chris Button said,

    May 18, 2018 @ 3:06 pm

    This also makes me wonder if there is possibly any relationship between 一 *ʔə̀c < *ʔjə̀t "one"

    Incidentally, almost 50 years ago William Boltz (1969 – "The Numeral 'One' in Old Chinese") suggested that 日 *nə̀c "sun" might be related to 一 *ʔə̀c "one" with the suggestion that Latin sōl "sun" might come from the same root as sōlus. I don't think there any Indo-European support has been found for this (as Boltz himself notes) and personally I would put any graphic convergence of the central component of 日 with 一 down to a later partial phonetic convergence of 一 *ʔə̀c < *ʔjə̀t with 日 *nə̀c < *njə̀k via *-ə̀c.

    Related to this, I recently heard an excellent presentation by Lai Guolong in which he suggested that the conspicuous 目 "eye" component in earlier forms of 馬 "horse" might be the result of a partial phonetic association. A velar /ɣ/ coda in 馬 *mráɣʔ, which is unfortunately ignored in many contemporary reconstructions, certainly chimes well with the velar coda in 目 *mə̀kʷ in this regard.

  9. John Carr said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 12:02 pm

    I had the opposite reaction when I learned 孑孓 (one of the first Chinese words I learned). The characters make sense to me. The diagonal lines represent a moving mosquito larva and are a visual version of the English term wriggler. Outside of fishermen and ecologists "wriggler" is probably obscure too.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 10:08 am

    From Françoise Bottero:

    The only thing I can say is that the Shuowen analysis is simply based on the small seal graphs, and does not refer to any real word with these meanings for 孑 and 孓.

    On the other hand it is interesting to see that the graph 孓 is used in Chu phonetically.

    孑 (but in fact jué 孓) appears in the Baoshan ms 122-123 as the name of a person.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    May 23, 2018 @ 6:38 am

    Last night, I had a dream about a strange semantic classifier / key / radical / determinant. In my dream, I saw this radical in dictionaries and was amused that there was only this radical itself, but no derived characters listed under it. I distinctly remember saying in my dream, "Who needs it?"

    So vivid was the dream, replete with so much detail, that when I awoke, after morning ablutions, the first thing I did was run to my dictionaries to find this chimerical character. It was nowhere to be found.

  12. Chris Button said,

    May 23, 2018 @ 2:52 pm

    @ Victor Mair

    That sounds like one of those redundant Shuowen radicals.

  13. Chris Button said,

    May 23, 2018 @ 10:10 pm

    @ Nick Kaldis

    Do the characters 老 and 考 which both have the 老 radical fall into the same category?

    Since 考 is a fully legitimate standalone entity by itself, I don't think it can be compared with 孓. Having said that, it's still an interesting question since, in spite of the traditional Shuowen "zhuanzhu" analysis, some would argue that 老 is the actual phonetic in 考 with which it is etymologically related and that 丂 is just an additional co-phonetic.

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