Etymological Dictionaries

Are there any Chinese/English, English/Chinese, or Chinese dictionaries out there that have detailed etymology for each word (example, when that word came into usage, different meanings over time, different pronounciations over time, which language that word is borrowed from, etc.)?

Do you mean for 字 zi4, single characters, or for 辭 ci2, ‘words’ of one or more characters? There are some sources for both, but probably not in a form or at a price acceptable to most. And many of the books out there with etymological info are in fact spewing bullshit “folk etymology”, btw.

Do you read Chinese fluently? How many books would you be willing to buy to cobble together the info you want? Do you need something mostly in English? Are you looking for something scholarly or something lighthearted? For reading or for reference?

I’d be happy to add to this in the next few days, depending on your answers.

I’m guessing from your response that there is nothing suitable for me. Basically I wanted something that compares to a comprehensive English dictionary - detailed and scholarly, mainly for reference.

Is there anything available online? Are there good materials at the public libraries in Taipei?


Not if you need a reliable etymology, as opposed to the “bullshit ‘folk etymology’” Dragonbones warned against.

You say you want detailed and scholarly. You won’t find anything like that written in English, but you did not answer whether you read Chinese fluently; do you? Also, are you looking for origins of characters, or origins of multi-character terms?

Assuming the answers to the above are A) written in English and B) characters, Mesheel’s suggestion of is a convenient place to go for such info, but it is EMPHATICALLY not detailed or scholarly, and the contents are shallow folk etymology at best (i.e., sometimes right but sometimes pure bullshit). Harbaugh, its author, is an amateur who merely wanted to put together a system whereby you could look up any character by any of its component parts (not just by the {Unicode} 部首 bu4shou3 “section header”, often mistermed “radical”). His system, which is better appreciated in the inexpensive print version "Chinese Characters: a Genealogy and Dictionary 中文字譜 - 漢英字源字典 not only makes looking up characters easy, but also helps clarify the apparent (modern, not necessarily etymologically based) graphical relationships between many of them. It is useful to beginners who don’t actually care about real etymology and just want to look characters up and memorize them. However, his deconstructions of the characters are only loosely based on the terribly out of date 說文解字 Shuowen, with many made up as mnemonics or purely from his imagination. Definitely not detailed or scholarly!!!

For example, for 的 de5 (the common possessive particle as in wo3de, my or mine; also read di4 in mu4di4, “goal”), which is statistically the most common character in modern Chinese, Harbaugh really stretches his imagination to come up with " ladle out into the sunlight " (based on the earliest attested (small seal) form 旳, comprising 日 ri4 ‘sun’ plus 勺 shao2 ‘ladle’). He is correct that it originally comprised sun and ladle rather than white and ladle. But he makes no attempt to refer to the actual earliest attested meanings or to scholarly theories of earlier unattested meanings, choosing instead to give a purely imaginary and mnemonic reading. I can assure you that " ladle out into the sunlight " is an absurd fiction of his own creation. The correct answer is something like:

[quote]This was originally written 旳 (i.e., minus the upper left dot) and meant meant “bright”. 許慎 Xu Shen in the Han Dyn. etymological dictionary 說文解字 Shuowen Jiezi defined it as 明也 ming2 ye3, i.e., “bright”. It is likely cognate with 灼 zhuo2, “bright; burn” (comprising huo3 “fire” and shao2 “ladle”); the two graphs were probably once homophonic, as they share the same phonetic element, and their semantic elements are meaningfully related, with both sun and fire being related to brightness. 旳 (的) was, very early, borrowed phonetically for or extended semantically to its other meanings, the earliest attested being 的確 di2que4 “clearly, definitely”, 標的 biao1di4 “target” and 目的 mu4di4 “target”. Consistent with the original meaning of “bright”, the semantic component was later changed to 白 bai2, “white; clear”, creating the modern graph. The phonetic loan of 的 de5 for use as a grammatical particle began relatively late, around the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and became common in the Ming Dyn. (1368-1644). Its usage as a particle was equivalent to that of its homophones ??d??land? [0051] and 庿dĭ ?bottom, beneath, end? [0270], both of which had been borrowed phonetically for use as grammatical particles beginning in the 宿S

Wow, Dragonbones, great post.

No, I don’t read fluently, but I am working on it. =)

I am looking for origins / info of both single and multi-character terms.

Is 漢語大辭典Hanyu Da Cidian available in any of the libraries in Taipei?

I’ve also heard of the Zhonghua Zihai/Cihai (sp?). Some sources have reported that this is the most comprehensive dictionary available with over 80 000 single character entries. I don’t know how accurate this is as I have yet to see this book. Do you know anything about this?

The main reason I am interested in such reference books is that sometimes i will see characters in variant form, or dialect form, and when asking Chinese teachers at the universities here about the characters, they are clueless. Also, most of the available reference materials don’t cover the characters in question. So far, the most reliable tool I have is the unihan database.

Thanks for your help.

Well, I bought the Hanyu Da Zidian back when I reached the 5th-grade level in reading, and had to put it aside for a few years. The reason is that the early definitions are usually in archaic language. If you’re not there yet, you might want to start with Woon, Xie and Wang above, as they’re all in English. Then you can pick up Hanyu Da Zidian later. It’ll still be there, I assure you.

Unfortunately, Chinese dictionaries tend to treat these in separate volumes. And the cidian don’t tend to provide etymological info, only definitions.

Yes; I’ve seen it at a library at the Academia Sinica, for example.

Some of the other hardcore posters in this forum are better qualified to talk about some of the other large Chinese dictionaries.

Oh, in Mair’s foreword to his index to the 漢語大辭典 Hanyu Da Cidian (辭 - HDC not to be confused with the 建宏 publishers’ Hanyu Da Zidian - 字 mentioned earlier) he says that the HDC is as close as you can get to an OED for Chinese, but at the same time says it lacks etymological information. In his foreword, he contrasts it with two works about which I know little: Morahashi’s Dai Kan-Wa jiten and the Zhongwen Da Cidian (which Mair says is essentially a translation of Morohashi’s work). Mair says they are encyclopedic, including people, places, texts, phrases, literary allusions, etc., while the HDC is a dictionary more specifically of polysyllabic words, modern vernacular back to ca 6th cent BCE. I believe some of our fellow Forumosans can provide more info on these than I can.

Well, if your main concern is historical variant forms of single characters, the Hanyu Da Zidian is your baby.