We recently sent out a tweet asking people to tell us which characters they’d like to know the etymology of. Ollie Guest from chinesemusings.com asked about 高 and 興. Both characters turned out to have really interesting etymologies, so we decided to dive in a little more deeply and find out what’s really going on.
Let’s start with 高
No, scratch that. We’ll have to start with 京. Why? Well, the form of 高 is a derivative of 京¹.
In oracle bone script, 京 was a picture of a tall building. According to Chi Hsiu Sheng (季旭昇), “the top represents the roof, the middle part is the columns which support the roof, and the bottom is the plinth” (original: 上象屋頂，中為屋柱，下象柱礎². The plinth may have been stone or rammed earth). During the Shang Dynasty, average people lived in pit-like dwellings (半穴居)³, and only rulers lived in tall buildings. The original meaning of 京 was thus “tall, imperial building.”
Later on, 京 also developed the meanings “tall hill,” “tall,” and “capital city” (the only place in those days that had tall buildings). Later, to distinguish the meaning of “tall” from that of “capital city,” a new character was created: 高. It was derived from 京, but had a distinguishing mark (口) at the bottom so that the two characters wouldn’t get confused. The 口 in 高 doesn’t represent a mouth here, it is merely a mark meant to distinguish the two characters from each other.
During the Shang dynasty, these two characters also shared the same initial and main vowel, and even in modern Southern dialects they usually still retain the same initial, such as in Cantonese: 高 gou1 and 京 ging1.
So, we can explain 高 this way:
Form: a tall building (京) with a distinguishing mark (口)
Meaning: tall, high
And now for 興
The modern form of 興 consists of 舁 and 同. 舁 was originally a picture of two sets of hands, and in this character they’re picking up a tray:
同 wasn’t always 同 in this character. It was originally 凡. In oracle bone and bronze script, 同 was 凡 plus 口.
凡 was originally a picture of a tray (it was the original form of the character 槃, which means tray). According to Jì Xùshēng, a 凡 was a tray that required at least two hands to lift (“一定要二人以上才能抬得動“)⁴. So 興 was a picture of two sets of hands 舁 lifting a tray 凡, and meant “lift/raise up.” The 口 was added later, turning 凡 into 同. Here’s a quick overview of how the form changed over time:
So we can explain 興 in this way:
Form: two sets of hands (舁) lifting a tray (同, originally 凡)
Sound/Meaning 1: xīng — rise, arise, start
Sound/Meaning 2: xìng — interest (in something), delight, happy, to like
Now, as for why 興 means happy⁵ in modern Chinese, it isn’t too difficult to get from “lift/raise up” to “happy.” In English, we talk about “raising” one’s spirits, being in “high” spirits, etc. The meaning of 興 evolved over time into what it means now.
Now, it should be easy to see why 高興 (gāoxìng) means happy. It is quite literally, “high-happy,” or perhaps a high level of happiness.
So there it is. Questions and comments welcome! Wondering about the etymology of a character? Ask us! If it’s a good one, we’ll do another post like this!
Please note that the etymological entries in our dictionary will be more of a summary. Here, we’re trying to make the most of the blog format to get people interested in paleography and to show some of the behind-the-scenes research involved in developing the dictionary.
1. All character images come from 小學堂.
3. The original version of this post stated that the bottom of 京 was a stone foundation. After some dialogue with our friend and colleague Scott McGinnis at Berkeley, we’ve decided that it’s a plinth, which may have been either stone or rammed earth (we’d have to look into that a bit further to be sure). Scott also informed us that 半穴居 refers to pit-like dwellings rather than cave-like dwellings, which was a careless translation on our part. So, apologies for the confusion, and thanks to Scott for the help!