Online Kanji Dictionary

An Etymological Dictionary of Chinese Characters
Interpretations by Lawrence J. Howell and Hikaru Morimoto

Covering 6,500 Chinese characters as used in Japan

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About This Site

 3,500-4,000 years ago the Han Chinese invented characters to express their spoken language in written form. This spoken language was systematic, with clearly identifiable conjunctions between sound and meaning. Scholarly reconstructions of the sounds of ancient (or proto-) Chinese allow us to make a preliminary identification of the phonetic matrices according to which the Chinese characters were devised, opening a window to the worldview of this fascinating language as possessed by its early speakers.  

 The etymologies in this online dictionary are written specifically to account for the meanings the characters express in modern Japanese. These meanings often but not always overlap with the characters' meanings in Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese. CKV students may benefit from the dictionary's presentation of the characters' origins, but should be sure to consult appropriate reference sources for the modern meanings the characters possess in CKV.


 Each entry is organized as follows. The character; the number of strokes, ON reading(s), KUN reading(s), ancient forms (where applicable) and the etymological explanation. Present-day meanings in Japanese are in boldface. As is customary in Japanese dictionaries, ON readings are given in katakana, KUN readings in hiragana.

 To streamline the etymologies, no attempt is made to match meanings with their KUN readings within each entry. For the 1945 basic characters taught in Japan, you can verify which meanings correspond to which of the KUN readings by clicking on the reading in the top line of each entry. This will take you to the heading of the appropriate section of the Japanese-English Glossary. Similar crossreferencing will eventually be available for all characters in the dictionary.

 The entries are hyperlinked: clicking on any character in an entry will take you to the full etymology for that character. Specialized terms are likewise clickable at each appearance.

 Those who prefer to learn about the background of Chinese characters before plunging into the etymologies can look over the page of reference terms.

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Etymological Keypoints

 This column of keypoints appears on each page of this online etymological dictionary of kanji, Chinese characters as used in Japan. For detailed information on any of the following topics, click the MORE hyperlinks to reach the appropriate sections of the Reference Page.

Types of Characters

 Chinese characters are of three types: pictographs, ideographs and compound characters.


 Pictographs are representations of concrete objects: moon, sun, river, mountain, bird, sword, mouth, hand and so on. Pictographs also account for nearly all of the radicals (or classifiers) as described below in the Compound Characters section. There are several hundred pictographs in all. MORE


 The handful of ideographs among the Chinese characters convey abstract notions such as unity, concealment, extension etc. MORE

Compound Characters

 Compound Characters are composed of two elements. The first element is a "radical" (or "classifier"). Character dictionaries assign nearly all characters to one of approximately 70 of these radicals.
 The second element is a sound note, suggesting both the pronunciation and the meaning of the character. In a small number of compound characters the sound conveyed by the second element is anomalous, for which reason compound characters have traditionally been divided into phonetic compounds and semantic compounds.

MORE on Phonetic Compounds

MORE on Semantic Compounds

 Phonetic elements (or sound notes) most often match that of the compound character precisely, such as 夬 KUAT and 決 KUAT. In other instances the initial or final consonants are altered: 甚 TAM and 勘 KAM; 胥 SAG and 婿 SAR. In a smaller number of cases the vowel is transposed: 而 NAG and 需 NUG. We also find phonetic elements functioning in other ways such as to convey onomatopoeic or mimetic sounds, to transliterate loan words and so on. There are eight types of sound notes in all. MORE

Word Formation In Proto-Chinese

 This dictionary arranges Chinese characters according to word families of phonologically and semantically related terms. Building upon research undertaken by Bernhard Karlgren and Akiyasu Todo, the earliest sounds of the terms in proto-Chinese are reconstructed along the pattern Consonant-Vowel-Consonant. MORE

 Initial consonants are K, L, M, N, P, S and T. The vowel in most terms is something between short A and E, here rendered as A. The vowel may also be O or U, and a number of word families feature the medial glide UA. Final consonants are G/K, NG, M, N, P, R and T.

Semantic Function of Consonants

 Each initial consonant suggests a broad semantic background for characters beginning with that consonant. Here are the semantic indicators for each initial consonant, followed by a partial selection of the kinds of terms found in each initial consonant network.

Initial K- = Frame: boxes and containers; foundations of buildings; cavities; enclosed passageways; shackles/handcuffs; square tools; crossroads; humans, gates and other objects framing each other by standing in opposition; nuts in shells, grain in husks, beans/peas in a pod, shellfish in shells and other objects in containers; yokes; molds; footwear and garments that contain the body in full or part

Initial L- = Continuum: footpaths; literal and figurative belts; strips of material; stripes; dripping, flowing or trickling water/liquid; linked waves; patterned grain of wood; chains/cables; lengths of rope; interwoven vegetation; furrows; stretching vines

Initial M- = Conceal: the sun concealed (by darkness, cloud cover, vegetation); threads, insects, and heads of grain that are fine/tiny to the point of near-invisibility; persons concealed by passing away; fish nets or traps concealed beneath the surface of the water; physical/figurative blindness; concealing grass/vegetation; concealing curtains or pieces of cloth

Initial N- = Supple: supple female bodies; supple body parts (ears, earlobes, droopy beard); vegetation/food softened/made supple by being heated; cloth/fabric softened in liquid; bodies wasted/softened by illness; swordblades and other flexible weapons; clinginess; seals created from softened clay; pliable hides; vines and other supple objects that coil/twist about; gently bending arms and vegetation

Initial P- = Spread: goods spread for display/sale; food spread for a feast/meal; spreading leaves/vegetation; liquid/fragrance that spreads to right and left, or in all directions; liquid overflowing its container; hands spread to slap/strike, or to grip a handle; spreading wounds; spreading tiles; lightning spreading through the sky; waterplants spreading over the surface of water; sails and other types of spreading cloth; seeds spread through fields; pelts/fabric wrapped about the body; wings wrapped around a bird's body; sea creatures enveloped in shells; objects such as fabric or soft boards that spread in being folded back upon themselves

Initial S- = Small/Thin/Slender: piles of vegetation, plant matter, grain, food etc; piled rocks; piled earth; pile of wood shavings; objects that are cut/aligned irregularly; long or tall, slender objects such as masts, reeds, wells or fences; hairpins, phalluses, trails of liquid and other slender objects that penetrate tight spaces; fragments of metal, wood or bone; moss, coral, baby teeth and other small, tightly adhering objects; arrangements of small/fine objects such as thorns on a plant, birds in trees or sand on a beach; sheaves, wheel spokes converging in hubs, arrows compacted in a quiver and other tightly compressed objects

Initial T- = Straight: literal piles of objects such as firewood, meat, valuables or metal; figurative piles; lizards, snakes, wriggling insects and other straight creatures; the shuttle of a loom, a horizontal bar on a vehicle and other machines/machine parts that move in a straight line; straight movement in both vertical and horizontal directions; pipes, tubes, caverns and other straight, tubular objects; flames, gas, the sun and other rising objects

 (Initial S terms represent a branch of the initial T group, emphasizing small/thin/slender applications of the idea of straightness.) MORE

 Among the final consonants, the G/K ending suggests that the meaning of the character is directly connected with the main idea expressed by the initial consonant (see above). KAG/LAG/MAG/NAG/PAG/SAG/TAG and their final K variants KAK/LAK/MAK/NAK/PAK/SAK/TAK may be considered linguistic templates which the other finals modify to create more specific meanings for the relevant terms. Each of the remaining final consonants suggests a specific semantic nuance for the characters ending with that consonant. Here are the semantic indicators for each final consonant, followed by a partial selection of the kinds of terms found in each final consonant group.

Final -NG = Extend: bodies that stretch and/or go stiff; persons or objects standing in distant opposition; sound/fragrance drifting from one point to another, linking the two points in distant opposition; actions or processes that continue a long time, such as savoring food in the mouth, protracted spasms, lengthy songs or dramatic performances; endlessly flowing water; vegetation spreading out of sight; long strings of shells/jewels; writing/ornamentation spread at length over a surface; tall piles or long trails of objects; steam, vapor or gas that rises high in the air

Final -M = Encompass: people fallen into holes; food or other objects contained in the mouth; fruit encompassed by skin; grain encompassed by husks; objects covered by thick vegetation or by darkness; drenched objects; a fetus encompassed in a womb; needles, hairpins and other slender objects concealed in filling narrow spaces; cavities and containers filled with liquid

Final -N = Adhere/Be proximate: weapons contacting an enemy's body; contact of body parts with other objects; hunting/fishing implements contacting their targets; tightly knit groups of people, birds, fish and other creatures; tight rows of like objects; cloth tightly wrapped about (parts of) the body; roofs fit upon buildings; paired objects in close proximity; points of contact between land and water; proximate pieces of finely cut/chopped objects such as vegetation and food; objects lying flat on the ground

Final -P = Press: be pressed upon by attackers; objects sandwiched between others; objects exerting pressure downward, or directly upon the ground; tight compaction of like objects such as threads, insects or vegetation; human bodies pressing upon bedding or upon other human bodies

Final -R = Continuum: elongated objects such as garments or weapons; prolonged activity such as speech, prayer, singing, rituals, irrigation, erosion, carving, scraping, polishing or sharpening of knives; prolonged sensations such as reverberations, irritation or illness; continuous states or relationships such as human friendship, reverence of ancestors or the lasting effect of glue-like substances; neat lines of people or of objects such as eaves, fruit or footprints; abstract elongation such as in the slow passage of time

Final -T = Cut/Divide/Reduce: reduction in size by cutting of vegetation, carving of wood, or biting/chewing of food; division of objects such as in the splitting of logs or the ripping of cloth; reduction of empty space in objects such as rooms and containers, or in the covering of open space by vegetation or water; reduction in length such as in knotting a rope; reduction of darkness by the application of light; reduction of physical capacities on account of fatigue, illness, blindness or numbness; reduction of physical capacities of animals by trapping, tethering or penning them; reduction of emotional capacities on account of anger, distress or excitement MORE

Semantic Function of the O and U Vowels

 The vowel O suggests the idea of curvature, sometimes extending to "curve and surround/envelop."The U vowel, when it is the lone vowel in a term (examples: KUG, LUG, SUG, TUNG) refers to a circle (whether full or nearly full) or to a bulky/lumpy mass. However, when the U vowel is employed as part of the diphthong UA (examples: KUAN/KUAR/KUAT, SUAN/SUAR/SUAT), the signification is most often the O vowel sense of curving/round.
 Here are the semantic indicators for these vowels, followed by a partial selection of representative terms.

Vowel O = Curvature: backs bent with illness or age; tree branches or the necks of humans/animals bent with weight; contorted bodies; trees bent with decay; arched bridges; curved stretches of land or other natural phenomena such as caverns; winding constructions such as palaces and official buildings; birds or the sun curving into sight over the horizon; coiling vegetation, snakes or threads; curved movement such as in kneading or bending objects into shape, sweeping with a broom, or rowing a boat; bulging objects such as water jugs, gourds, pimples or pregnant bellies; curved objects such as eggs, nuts or colanders; objects with curved portions such as a swordblade, the hull of a boat, or a flag attached to a pole and flapping in the breeze; arcs formed by liquid poured from a container, or by humans/animals moving in a semi-circle

Vowel U = Circle/Mass: round objects such as baskets, huts or circular buildings; lumpy objects such as heads, hunched bodies, breasts; skin protuberances or tree stumps; massive objects such as pillars, ridgepoles, downed boars or heavy bells; crowds of people or swarms of insects/creatures; curved objects such as earthenware, roofs or animal horns; round cavities filled with fluid or occupied by bodies; circuitous trails, winding hills and other curved landscape features; masses of hair such as in topknots or shaggy dog fur; masses of grain/vegetation; heaps of food; tightly-massed inanimate objects such as ships in a harbor, spokes in a hub or precious stones in an accessory; objects compacted by hand or tightly grasped in the fist

Vowel UA = Curving/Round: melons; wings; hoops; baskets; round and tubular containers; pools of water; objects enclosed in the hands; crowns; arcs or halos of light; circular piles of vegetation; round fruit; barrels; revolving objects and other forms of rotating/circular movement; rounded mountain tops or hill peaks; round bundles of goods or of vegetation; curling of the fingertips or cupping of the hands; strips of cloth wrapped about and covering the eyes; bound objects such as scrolls and tablets; round fish eggs; blossoming buds; cylindrical tubes, skewers or blocks; puckering of the lips; persons or objects arranged in a circle; squatting figures; winding waterways or passages; round holes and tools for drilling round holes MORE

Sample Terms

 Semantically related terms are by no means restricted to a single consonant network. Five kanji concerned with the humble pea or bean and their seed vessels (the pod) suggest why and how this is.
 The KAP word family (Frame + Press) contains the character 莢, meaning "pod." Here, the twin sides of the seed vessel are visualized as framing elements that press against the peas or beans contained within.
 In the KUAN word family (Frame + [Curving/Round] + Adhere/Be Proximate) we find 豌 ("pea"), referring to the round legumes contained in and adhering to the framing element, the pod.
 The NAM word family (Supple + Encompass/Conceal) has 荏 "beans," that is, beans covered and hidden by a supple pod.
 荅 "bean pod" belongs to the TAP word family (Straight + Press). Here, the emphasis is on the pod as a straight object the sides of which exert pressure upon the contents.
 Finally, 荳 "bean" is a member of the TUG word family (Straight + Circle/Mass + Straight). In this case, the emphasis is on the round or lumpy shape of the bean contained in the straight object, the pod. MORE

Using the Dictionary

 Hyperlinks to individual word families are located at the left side of this page. To look up individual characters, use the search box at top right or one of the four indices at the located at the top center of the page.
 For ease of reference, characters presented within an etymology are hyperlinked to their full etymological explanation.

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Site Contents Copyright (C) 2004-2008 Lawrence J. Howell