A disyllabic autantonymous stative verb

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Lucas Klein and Nick Williams asked me about this interesting word:  落魄.

It can mean either “free-spirited” or “downtrodden”, which appear to directly contradict each other, and it has at least three variant pronunciations (luòpò, luòbó, luòtuò).  Source

Negative meanings:  "down and out; in dire straits; abject".

Positive meanings:  "unrestrained; unconventional; untrammeled by convention; casual".

Seems to be a literary term.


Goes all the way back to Shǐjì 史記 (Records of the [Grand] Scribe / Historian; completed ca. 94 BC), scroll 97, "Lì Shēng zhuàn 酈生傳" ("Biography of Li Sheng").

Can also be written 落拓 (cf. 落魄 above and note that both the semantophores and the phonophores of the second characters of the two variants are starkly different).

I wonder if it might be related to 邋遢, a possible connection that I have not seen mentioned by commentators and lexicographers before.   邋遢, which is written completely differently from 落魄 / 落拓, means "slovenly; dirty; dowdy; sloppy; slobby; unkempt; ill-groomed", Cantonese "dirty".  Source

(Guangzhou, Jyutping): laat6 taat3 (Taishan, Wiktionary): lat5 tat1

Perhaps 邋遢 is not related to 落魄, because the final consonants (of the entering tones) in Cantonese are different from those for the latter — "t" vs. "k".  Also, this word has no positive meanings.

I do have one other observation about 落魄.  Namely, as is often the case with disyllabic words, the meanings of whose individual characters / morphemes / syllables do not add up to the meaning of the disyllabic term, I suspect that 落魄 might be a dimidiated binom.  When I used this term on Language Log in the past, many commenters professed never to have heard of it and not to know what it signified, but it was used by people like the Belgian missionary and University of Washington professor, Father Paul Serruys (teacher of South Coblin and younger brother of the Mongolist, Henry Serruys), and the Berkeley professor Peter Alexis Boodberg (references available upon request).

In any event, I asked Diana Shuheng Zhang, whether she thought that 落魄 might be a dimidiated binome and, if so, what would the original phonological shape of the undimidiated word might have looked like?

She began her reply:

I do know what a dimidiated binome is, and to be honest, I'm not sure whether 落魄 is one. This is because, although this rhyming binome does bear the shape that resembles a dimidiated binome, 落 already has a *kl- initial cluster by itself. I doubt if a tri-consonant cluster could be possible in the structure of the OC (Old Chinese / Sinitic).

To this, I responded:  Yes, a *kkl- initial cluster would be odd, but it still needs to be looked into.

After a week or two, Diana sent me this detailed, lengthy discussion, which constitutes the remainder of this post and is primarily for specialists:


I now have a better idea on the correlation between 落魄(泊)/落拓.

拓: MC tʰak

In the Chang'an dialect of early Medieval China, 泊 and 魄 are not homophonous.

泊: MC pʰak

魄: MC pʰæk

So, between these two words, only 落泊 was a real rhyming binome in the Tang-time Chang'an reading: lak-pʰɑk, while 落魄 was read lak-pʰæk. This explains why, in the eighth stanza of the 梵語千字文 (yes!!), it writes: "四生頻落泊,六趣幾徘徊" ("All sentient beings [caturyōni] frequently fall into dire straits; the six-destinies [ṣaḍgatīḥ] from time to time hover around"). This is an evident example indicating the vernacular Tang-Chang'an topolectal nature of the Chinese part of the 梵語千字文, which helps authenticate the text's authorship by Yijing (635-713). 落魄, because it was not then a binome, was not as frequently used. We see sentences such as “落魄江南載酒行,楚腰腸斷掌中輕” (by 杜牧) in the transmitted version of Tang poems, however, since Tang poetry anthologies were mostly compiled by Song people — by whose time 泊 and 魄 had already merged in their language — who knows in which form Du Mu wrote those lines in the first place?

The correlation between Medieval Sinitic pʰ- (魄/泊) and tʰ- (拓) initials can be better explained now as follows:

  1. The Old Chinese form of this word, as "unrestrained" or "in dire straits", was probably *rák-pʰrák and *rák-hrák in various OC topolects (the acute accent marks type A syllables a.k.a. faucalized/glottalized syllables).
  1. The sound change goes: *hr > *hl > *tʰ. Two other xiéshēng examples demonstrating this change are:

tǐ 體 (MC tʰ- > Mand. t-) VS lǐ 禮 (MC l- > Mand. l-) &

tǎ 獺 (MC *tʰ- > Mand. t-) VS lài 賴 (MC l- > Mand. l-).

泊 and 拓 is a likely member of this sound change category. The lak-tʰak pronunciation just dropped the pʰ- part and replaced it with h.


The next question is: in which area was 落拓 first used? I suspect that the answer is in the "Eastern Area", namely, the Qīng-Xú 青徐 region in modern Shāndōng. The most prominent feature of the Early Medieval Eastern Dialect is represented by the first entry of 劉熙 (d.216)'s lexical dictionary 釋名 Explaining Names:


[As for "Heaven", the Yù-Yǎn-Jì (modern Hénán & Héběi) prefectures speak it with the dorsal part of the tongue. The Heaven (EHC tʰen) means manifestation (EHC xen). It is lofty and manifest upon high. The Qīng-Xú areas speak it with the apical part of the tongue."] (my own translation)

釋名 informs us that 天 was pronounced as tʰen, apically, in the Eastern dialects, while it was pronounced dorsally, homophonous to 顯 xen in the Middle dialects. This linguistic deduction perfectly matches what the literary example provides to us:  落拓, written as 樂託 (pronounced the same), first appeared in the written record as in 世說新語 — the author of which, 劉義慶, was ancestrally native to 彭城 (the modern 江蘇徐州)!! 一個東部人![VHM:  an easterner]

lak-pʰak, on the other hand, could be in the topolects of most places. This explains why 落魄/泊 is attested in written records with much higher frequency and much longer history than 落拓 prior to the Medieval time. With the Eastern people's thriving as literati, lak-tʰak and lak-pʰak coexisted and became  interchangeable shortly before the Tang. Thus, the same Tang author could use both 泊 and 拓 in his writings because both pronunciations survived in the form of a synonym pair, or polyphonic word. It is like the co-existence of xuè, xiě, xǔe for 血 and ké, qiào 殼 nowadays.

At last, if lak-tʰak 落拓 was an Eastern thing, then what about its 100% Western counterpart? Phonologically, the western counterpart of 落拓 should be a word that is pronounced lak-xak. We do have one: it is written 落瓠 (Mand. luòhuò), derived from 則瓠落無所容 in Zhuangzi 莊子. Metathetically, we acquire the form huòluò, which writes 濩落, attested in 杜甫's famous long poem "自京赴奉先縣詠懷五百字": “居然成濩落,白首甘挈闊”. Our renowned Du Fu resided in Chang'an for his official post and also established his home, along with his wife and children, in a place named 奉先 (still in modern 陝西 as 奉先縣 now). He was on his way returning to his home in 奉先, during the exact journey of which this long 500-character poem was composed. I believe that we do not need too much elaboration on how and why 落瓠 stands for "free-spiritedness", or 濩落 for "down-in-dire" for Mr. Du!


  1. Rodger C said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 6:55 am

    Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.

  2. Phillip Helbig said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 9:20 am

    It can mean either "free-spirited" or "downtrodden", which appear to directly contradict each other

    Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. :-D

  3. Phillip Helbig said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 9:21 am

    Wow! I hadn't seen Rodger's comment before writing mine!

  4. Nick Kaldis said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 10:14 am

    I can't find my copy of the book, but Marc Moscowitz might mention this term in his _The Haunting Fetus: Abortion, Sexuality, and the Spirit World in Taiwan_.[?], which I read too long ago to recall….


  5. Victor Mair said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 11:10 am

    @Rodger and Phillip

    Very nice, both of you!

  6. Daniel Barkalow said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 1:40 pm

    My first thought was the book "Down and Out in Paris and London", to which both meanings apply in a connected fashion.

  7. Chris Button said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 7:21 pm

    Father Paul Serruys (teacher of South Coblin and younger brother of the Mongolist, Henry Serruys),

    And also a teacher of Ken-ichi Takashima I believe

    The sound change goes: *hr > *hl > *tʰ

    So refreshing to see someone acknowledge that *ʰr- and *ʰl- (and also plain *r- and *l-) often alternated in onset position! I think the difficulty in acknowledging it comes from a failure to appreciate the merger in coda position of pre-OC **-r with OC *-l since the latter is often mistakenly conflated with *-j.

    釋名 informs us that 天 was pronounced as tʰen, apically, in the Eastern dialects, while it was pronounced dorsally, homophonous to 顯 xen in the Middle dialects.

    I've never understood the claim made by some that this description in the Shiming can be used as the basis for an entire dialectal distinction to be made across the whole of Old Chinese. I prefer to go with the simpler alternation of *ʰr- and *ʰl- (*ɬ-) noted above and acknowledge the merger of two distinct words as homophonous 天: the first was original 天 *tʰə́ɲ, which was originally composed of the phonetic 丁 *táɲ above 大; the second was 天/祆 *ɬʲə́m (developing as *ʰrʲə́m), which occurs as phonetic in 忝 ɬʲámʔ.

    Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.

    Yes – what a great insight into the semantics!

  8. Chris Button said,

    October 16, 2019 @ 5:45 am

    the merger of two distinct words as homophonous 天

    Sorry, I meant "homographic" (albeit consistently distinguished graphically now) not "homophonous". 天 is tiān "heaven"; and 祆(天) is xiān now "Zoroastrian" (the latter 祆/天 form being the one used with an earlier pronunciation then verging on its Early Middle Chinese xεn as the "Hin" of 天竺 "Hinduka")

  9. Chris Button said,

    October 16, 2019 @ 6:17 am

    Actually instead of two competing forms, 天 *tʰə́ɲ and 天 (祆) *ɬʲə́m, vying with each other, the alternative is that 天 *tʰə́ɲ was completely ousted by 天 (祆) *ɬʲə́m / *ʰrʲə́m which then in terms of the vacillation between *ʰr- and *ʰl- (*ɬ-) in onset position kept both for some reason in this particular case as different "dialectal" forms rather than just opting for one (which perhaps better accounts for the Shiming statement). Long story short, original 天 *tʰə́ɲ with phonetic 丁 *táɲ cannot have had a lateral initial.

  10. Chris Button said,

    October 16, 2019 @ 6:28 am

    The ousting of 天 *tʰə́ɲ by 天 (祆) *ɬʲə́m happening with the Zhou conquest of the Shang when 天 was introduced by the Zhou as the prominent deity via an appropriation of an earlier minor Shang graphic form.

  11. Viseguy said,

    October 16, 2019 @ 9:26 pm

    Sort of like sanction and inflammable in English?

  12. Rodger C said,

    October 17, 2019 @ 11:23 am

    Viseguy, let's table that.

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