Etymologizing and fantasizing: economy and relish

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Figuring out the etymologies of words has always been one of my favorite things in life, almost as much as eating flavorful food.  All the way back in second grade of primary school, my Mom gave me a Merriam-Webster dictionary, and I treasured it above all my other belongings because of its etymological notes.  Much later, when The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language became available, I was euphoric, since then I was able to trace words to their Indo-European and Semitic roots.

In between, though, I came up against the pseudo-science of Chinese character etymology, which should better be called "Chinese character construction".  Despite almost universal misunderstanding to the contrary, Chinese characters have no direct connection to the sounds and meanings of words.  If you want to analyze the history of the development of how individual Chinese characters acquired their shapes and sounds, all well and good, but that's a different matter from how the sounds and meanings of Chinese words evolved through time.  Always and ever, I emphasize over and over the primacy of sounds for conveying meaning, the same as with all other living, spoken languages.  The writing systems are only there as a makeshift, always catching up and inevitably imperfect means for recording the sounds of the languages.

What prompted this post is a note from a PRC graduate student who wishes to remain anonymous:

I wonder if one day you could write a post about the Chinese penchant for resorting to “etymology / philology” in pre-modern Chinese texts for the explanation of any concept. After some reflections, I just feel that it’s a detrimental habit for the understanding of Chinese notions, whether pre-modern or modern. It is also a misleading method. So far I see this habit, too, in many Indological scholars (I mean Indology by the old Sanskritic and Hindu kind of study) and in 19th- and early-20th-century European activists. Whenever they seek to understand a concept, they would always, always try to find the jīngdiǎn láiyuán 經典來源 ("classical source") in some dead, ancient languages or esoteric, little-known texts as the source from which the meanings must have been derived.

One example is jīngjì 經濟 ("economy" in modern Chinese). The appearance of the expression jīngshì jìyòng 經世濟用 ("administering affairs and facilitating usage; administering matters of social livelihood; attending to matters of social welfare") can be traced back to Zhuang Zi / Chuang Tzu 莊子 (4th c. BC) and Hòu Hànshū 後漢書 (Book of the Later Han; covers the history of the Later Han Dynasty from 266 to 420 AD; published in 648) (respectively for jīngshì 經世 and jìyòng 濟用).  Jīngjì 經濟 ("administer [affairs] and aid / succor [the people]", i.e., jīngshì jìmín 经世济民) or jīngshì jìyòng 經世濟用 ("administering affairs and facilitating usage", etc.) was a relatively high frequency word, too, appearing in biographies in Jìn Shū 晉書 (covers the history of the Jin Dynasty from 6 to 189 AD; compiled during the 5th c.) up to colloquial conversations in Hónglóu mèng 紅樓夢 (Dream of the Red Chamber; mid-18th c.). But does this warrant that the “origin” of jīngjì 經濟 as “economy” and a modern discipline came from China?  No. The modern sense of jīngjì 經濟 came from the Japanese translation of “economy” as keizai in the 19th century during the Meiji period. And then keizai, in its kanji form, came back to China in the early 20th century in the reformation era by the late Qing (1644-1912) and early ROC (1812-1949) governments. 
Another example is kuàizhìrénkǒu 膾炙人口 ("be much relished; enjoy great popularity; appealing to the masses; universally appreciated; liked by many; on everyone's lips" [idiom])​ that we talked about a few days ago. Yes, kuàizhì 膾炙 (n. "thinly sliced meat and roasted meat"; v. "to be appreciated and praised") first appeared in Mencius (372-289 BC). Yet kuàizhìrénkǒu 膾炙人口 was not applied in the literary realm — the context in which the idiom is still used today — until the Late Tang Dynasty under the influence of Buddhism and the Indian aesthetic concept of rasa. I just want to make this point because the Chinese are so so so fixated in skimming through hundreds or even thousands of pages of sources for the “etymology” or “root” of a word / expression, without understanding what this word really means and what its context really wants to say about the society that produces it. That’s a waste of time that should be called to a stop. Moreover, why does one really need to understand what Confucius (ca. 559-479 BC) actually said in order to grasp the significance of Confucianism on Chinese society? Isn’t “Neo-Confucianism”, which flourished approximately a millennium and a half after Confucius and — having absorbed many aspects of Buddhist thought and practice — is in many ways quite different from what Confucius said and taught, yet Confucianism? Why are people so fixated about “origins” or “authentication” — isn’t every stage of the development of a concept an inherent part of the concept?
This is not to denigrate historical research on the origins and evolution of terms and expressions, but we must be wary of projecting earlier meanings and attitudes onto contemporary affairs, since social situations and significations have the potential to change radically through time. Of course, the original meanings and nuances of an expression may help us understand its usage in the present day, but sometimes — if we take them too literally and inflexibly — they may lead us astray. That is to say, first and foremost, we need to interpret terms and expressions in the context of their own times, i.e., when they are current. Consequently, I really think that the penchant for “etymologization” is a harmful, and dangerous learning habit that I observe in Chinese students’ advancement in Sinology.
On the one hand, I am fascinated by my students' ancestral obsession with origins, but I'm also impressed by their earnest willingness to break out of their old mold and see things in a completely new light.  Observing these transformations, I too am enlightened by their illuminating discoveries.

Selected readings

[thanks to Denis Mair]


  1. Terpomo said,

    February 27, 2022 @ 3:15 pm

    TV Tropes Wiki, as it often does, has an entry about this sort of thing.

  2. Gloria Rom said,

    March 1, 2022 @ 1:52 pm

    Grant Barret of tbe A Way with Words podcast likes to say that words grow up and leave home, taking on new meanings and dropping old ones.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    March 5, 2022 @ 5:12 am

    It would be interesting to know what fraction of our current vocabulary has not only taken on a new meaning but also completely dropped its original one. Conservative speakers such as myself will continue to use adjectives such as "nice" with their earlier meaning (as in "a nice distinction") whilst also being willing to use such words in their more modern sense (e.g., "turned out to be a nice day").

  4. DDeden said,

    March 5, 2022 @ 11:26 pm

    I don't know the ancientness of the word kuàizhì, but per my research, thin sharp stone flakes preceded both bifacial handaxes and fire domestication, and I think these were used to cut ultra-thin slices of meat (and yams etc.), and draped in sunlight to warm up to the normal body heat of warm-blooded prey, the UV incidentally damaging all endoparasites, resulting in paper-thin jerky to be chewed and salivated like chewing gum.

  5. liuyao said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 2:36 am

    It is said 膾 was evidence that China had sushi; see生魚片

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