Ask Language Log: why is "inch" a family relationship in Korean?

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Katie Odhner asks:

I have lately been teaching myself Korean and have become quite interested in Sino-Korean vocabulary. Recently two words in particular caught my attention: samchon 삼촌 ("paternal uncle"), from Chinese s ān cùn 三寸 ("three inches"), and sachon 사촌 ("cousin"), from Chinese sì cùn 四寸 ("four inches"). I wondered how "three inches" and "four inches" could turn into family members. According to one website I found, chon 寸 can refer to "degree (of kinship)", which makes some sense. But when I looked on (Chinese Text Project), I couldn't find classical Chinese examples of this usage, so I'm thinking maybe it's a Korean invention.

Have you ever encountered cùn 寸 ("inch") in Classical Chinese to refer to degree of kinship? Do you think it's a Korean invention? And does "third degree of kinship" for uncle and "fourth degree of kinship" for cousin have any roots that you can think of in the Confucian tradition, or is that also a native Korean concept?

In Chinese, whether modern or premodern, cùn 寸 ("inch") does not refer to a degree of kinship.  It has the following meanings:  an ancient unit of length (one tenth of a chǐ 尺 [roughly a foot; in the Western Han over two thousand years ago, it was 0.231 meter]; an inch; short; small, tiny).  As for metaphorical and allusory usages of cùn 寸 ("inch") in early Chinese texts:

cùnxīn 寸心 (lit., "inch heart") refers to the feelings, inner thoughts

sāncùn 三寸 (lit., "three inches") refers to the tongue

sì cùn 四寸 (lit., "four inches") is an allusion to a very large pearl in early medieval times

From Haewon Cho:

Samchon 三寸 ("paternal uncle") and sachon 四寸 ("cousin") are both Korean Chinese words that are used in Korea only, and Koreans are known to have used this chon 촌 system as early as the Koryo Dynasty ( 918–1392). The Korean dictionary (NAVER) lists two meanings of chon : 1) degree of kinship by blood; 2) a measure of length, which is about 3.03 cm. chon 촌  is a synonym of chi 치 , which is 1/10 of ca 자 (Korean foot). 촌 and 자 are said to be pure Korean.

Some say chon 촌 derived from mati 마디 (節), which denotes "a bamboo joint; node" or a "finger segment (between two knuckles)." According to (Ugyo 유교 [儒敎] is Confucianism in Korean), a family tree is like a bamboo growing one joint by one joint, and people figure out how close/distant a kinship relation is by counting these joints (chon 촌).

We add one 촌 for any vertical relationship (i.e., father-son) and two 촌s for any horizontal relationships (i.e., brother and sister). So basically, even numbered 촌s means people are of the same generation or they have grandchild-grandparent relationships. As 촌 refers to any blood related relationship, husband and wife are 0 촌 (無寸).

From Bob Ramsey:

You'll find the word associated with the character 寸 in a lot of Korean reference works. But I think most knowledgeable people say that it's an example of what the Japanese call ateji (当て字)–in other words, a false association. I've said before that I thought the word–and the concept–was a Korean invention, and I see no reason to change my mind about that.

Thus chon 촌 is both a measure of actual distance and of relational distance. The same word / character with the same pronunciation is used to indicate physical distance and is also used metaphorically for the idea of kinship relationship distance.  Korean dictionaries treat chon 촌 as Sino-Korean, and apparently etymologically it is. But the usage is not Chinese, so if chon 촌 really is Sino-Korean, Koreans long ago repurposed it in a way that is uniquely their own.


  1. KWillets said,

    August 21, 2016 @ 12:10 pm

    It's always surprised me that Korean has very specific terms for some relationships ("maternal-aunt's-husband", etc.), but numeric designations for these two fairly close ones.

  2. Michael Watts said,

    August 21, 2016 @ 4:08 pm

    We add one 촌 for any vertical relationship (i.e., father-son) and two 촌s for any horizontal relationships (i.e., brother and sister).

    Seems like an unnecessarily complicated way of saying "we add one 촌 for any vertical relationship[, and we don't consider horizontal relationships at all]".

  3. flow said,

    August 22, 2016 @ 8:59 am

    "husband and wife are 0 촌 (無寸)"—this 'zero' could be interpreted as

    * 'very close' (since 0 < 1);

    * 'very far apart' (essentially, equating 0 with infinity (cf. 1 / 0));

    * N/A (as in the famous koan about dogs and Buddha-nature, where the answer is 無).

  4. Chas Belov said,

    August 22, 2016 @ 11:14 pm

    When I was going for acupuncture at a training school in San Francisco some years back, they would speak of a very short distance of "one chun" or "two chun" which is likely the same as your cún.

  5. Sean said,

    August 25, 2016 @ 7:44 pm

    Are these kinds of kinship terms common in other languages? The Irish word for first cousin is 'col ceathrar' — 'ceathrar' being a counting word meaning 'four people' and 'col', apparently, meaning a taboo or impediment to marriage (though I don't think I've never heard 'col' used except as part of a kinship term).

    Irish uses similar terms for more distant kin:
    * 'col cúigear' (five-person taboo?): first cousin once removed (like 오촌)
    * 'col seisear': second cousin (육촌)
    * 'col seachtar': second cousin once removed (칠촌)
    * 'col ochtar': third cousin (팔촌).
    As far as I know, there's no Irish term that corresponds with 삼촌; we use the loanword 'uncail'.

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