Sour waist

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When I first began to have extensive interactions with Chinese friends more than sixty years ago, I was puzzled upon hearing them say, "My waist is sore / hurts / aches / pains".  I thought my puzzlement would disappear when I started to learn Mandarin around five years later, but I actually became more confused because what I heard them articulating in Mandarin, "yāo suān", sounded like they were saying "waist is sour".  In those years I didn't pay much attention to the characters, but focused primarily on the spoken language.

"Yāo" was not a problem because I knew that if you had a body part that was troubling you and it was pronounced "yāo", then it must be your waist.  But in English we don't usually talk about problems with your waist unless you're complaining that it's too wide.  We wouldn't normally think of a waist as being "sour".

Gradually I came to know that the morphosyllable suān ("sour / pain") was written with two different Sinographs, 酸 and 痠.  Both of these are relatively young characters, the first not occurring before the Han period (202 BC-220 AD) and the second appearing much later.  They are certainly closely cognate, originally deriving from the same etymon.  It's easy to understand how "sour" and "pain" might be linked, both metaphorically and physically, in the former aspect because of the sharp sensation and the latter because of the buildup of lactic acid in muscles due to excessive exercise.

suān 酸 ("sour; acid")

From Proto-Sino-Tibetan *suːr ~ *swaːr (sour; be acid) (STEDT). Cognate with Mizo thûr (acid; sour)

(BaxterSagart): /*[s]ˤor/
(Zhengzhang): /*sloːn/

The semantophore yǒu 酉 shows a tapered vessel with narrow neck (amphora) for making and storing alcoholic drink.  From Proto-Sino-Tibetan *jəw (liquor) (STEDT); cognate with (Old Sinitic *ʔsluʔ, “wine” [VHM: –> "brew"]).

(source; source)

The relatively young character suān 酸 ("sour; acid") derives from the following graph, which is on the oracle bones and dates to approximately a millennium before it:

qūn 夋 ("to dawdle")

(BaxterSagart): /*[tsʰ]u[r]/
(Zhengzhang): /*sʰlun/

Note that qūn 夋 is the second-round simplified form of both suān 酸 ("sour; tart; and acid") and suān 痠 ("to ache; be sore"), which has the "sickness; illness; disease" semantophore added to it.  This means that they both reverted to what they were before the two different semantophores were added to them.


More than three dozen additional characters are derived from qūn 夋 (+ yǔn 允).


It's curious that Proto-Sino-Tibetan *suːr ~ *swaːr (sour; be acid) so closely resembles English "sour" in both sound and meaning.


From Middle English sour, from Old English sūr (sour), from Proto-Germanic *sūraz (sour), from Proto-Indo-European *súHros (sour). Cognate with West Frisian soer, Dutch zuur (sour), Low German suur, German sauer (sour), Danish, Swedish and Norwegian sur, French sur (sour), Faroese súrur (sour), Icelandic súr (sour, bitter).


Old English sur "sour, tart, acid, fermented," from Proto-Germanic *sura- "sour" (source also of Old Norse surr, Middle Dutch suur, Dutch zuur, Old High German sur, German sauer), from PIE root *suro- "sour, salty, bitter" (source also of Old Church Slavonic syru, Russian syroi "moist, raw;" Lithuanian sūras "salty," sūris "cheese").


English "sore" comes from a different PIE root altogether


From Middle English sor, from Old English sār (ache, wound, noun) and sār (painful, grievous, adjective), from Proto-Germanic *sairą (noun) (compare Dutch zeer (sore, ache), Danish sår (wound)), and *sairaz (sore, adjective) (compare German sehr (very)), from Proto-Indo-European *sh₂eyro-, enlargement of *sh₂ey- (to be fierce, afflict) (compare Hittite [script needed] (sāwar, anger), Welsh hoed (pain), Ancient Greek αἱμωδία (haimōdía, sensation of having teeth on edge)).


Old English sar "painful, grievous, aching, sad, wounding," influenced in meaning by Old Norse sarr "sore, wounded," from Proto-Germanic *saira- "suffering, sick, ill" (source also of Old Frisian sar "painful," Middle Dutch seer, Dutch zeer "sore, ache," Old High German ser "painful," Gothic sair "pain, sorrow, travail"), from PIE root *sai- (1) "suffering" (source also of Old Irish saeth "pain, sickness").


As I was writing this post, somehow I could not help but contemplate the expressions "pain in the neck" and "pain in the ass", wonder about the difference between them, and think just what is meant by "he's such a pain".

There's another word in Sinitic that means "ache; pain", viz., tòng 痛, which can also mean "hate".  Curiously, the same word can convey the sentiment of "love dearly; have tender affection for".  Selectively continuing a very long list of different definitions for the same character, we have "painful; sad; grieved; sorrowful" and "very happy; delighted", as well as "harsh; bitter; severe", and so forth and so on.  Cf. téng 疼 which can mean "ache; pain", but also "love dearly; dote on".  This is why, when you read Chinese texts, you have to be on your toes and pay keen attention to context and what you think the author is really trying to convey.

Ditto for the "lí 離" in the title of one of the most famous ancient poems in Chinese, "Lísāo 離騷", by the celebrated poet Qū Yuán 屈原 (c. 340-278 BC), in whose memory we eat zòngzi 粽子 ("[sticky] rice dumplings") and observe the Dragon Boat Festival.  Does the title mean "encountering" or "departing from" "sorrow; vexation"?  

By the way, when Chinese people say in English that their "waist hurts", they mean that their "back aches / is in pain" (yāo suān 腰痠)


Selected readings


  1. Chris Button said,

    December 4, 2020 @ 10:14 pm

    … which is on the oracle bones and dates to approximately a millennium before it:

    qūn 夋

    I don't think that's correct. What's the source there?

    The character 允, however, common in the oracle bones in an adverbial sense of "indeed".

    suān 酸 ("sour; tart; and acid")

    I wonder if 蒜 "garlic" is related via the well-attested ə/a alternation? The Old Burmese cognate ka.swan (the first syllable later become krak in Written Burmese) is noted by Hla Pe (1967) to ultimately come from Pali lasuna via Mon.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    December 5, 2020 @ 8:11 am

    From Matthias Ludwig Richter:

    Many thanks for the interesting observations about 酸/痠. What an interesting “Wortfeld” (not sure what the closest English term for that is), especially since I’ve spent most of my life in a state of 腰痠. I wanted to mention the German ‘Schwäre’ for wound or, more narrowly, boil and probably half-way between the plain ‘Wunde’ and ‘Geschwür’ (ulcer, abscess), as well as the related ’schwer’ & ’schwierig’ (difficult).

  3. David Marjanović said,

    December 5, 2020 @ 12:57 pm

    the buildup of lactic acid in muscles due to excessive exercise

    It's not quite clear what the cause of this kind of pain is, but lactic acid is not it.

  4. ktschwarz said,

    December 5, 2020 @ 1:57 pm

    Lactic acid is responsible for the "burning" sensation *during* extreme exercise, but not the ache/soreness the next day.

    I was going to say that English-speakers would recognize suān from the Szechuan dish Suan La Chow Show (dumplings in spicy sauce), but it turns out that although this dish is served in many Chinese restaurants in the US, it's called by that name only at Mary Chung's in Cambridge, Massachusetts (where it's a signature dish), and possibly other Cambridge restaurants.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    December 7, 2020 @ 4:07 am

    "Suan La Chow Show" is not a dish of which I have ever heard (or read), but if one were to attempt to pronounce it, would the third and fourth words carry the same vowel sound ? "chow", to me, is /tʃaʊ/ whilst "show" is /ʃoʊ/, and even with the foreknowledge that the latter was meant to represent a Cantonese rather than an English word, I would have difficulty in thinking of it as /ʃaʊ/ — the latter sound I would represent as "shao" in English (think "Shaolin").

  6. ktschwarz said,

    December 7, 2020 @ 5:43 pm

    You are right, it's chaoshou in Pinyin.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    December 8, 2020 @ 3:26 am

    Ah, chaoshou, thank you — now it makes sense. I certainly would not have guessed that from Mary Chung's spelling, nor would I have pronounced it correctly.

    Incidentally, Google Translate misunderstands Wikipedia's entry, where they transcribe the name of Mary Chung's restaurant as 鍾園川菜館, believing it to be Japanese rather than Chinese and then translating it as "Zhongyuan River Vegetable Museum" !

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