Friday, 13 April 2018

冰 | bing

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: bīng 🔊) could be a noun meaning “ice”, a verb “to freeze”, or an adjective for “freezing”, “frozen” or “ice-cold”. It is also a slang term for a recreational drug methamphetamine (probably from “ice”, one of its English synonyms).

looks very much like the character “water” with two additional strokes which, in turn, represent a radical form of , which is a pictogram of ice (also pronounced bīng). We also saw two (slightly different) strokes in “winter”, a season that has something to with “ice” and “cold”!

is an alternative form of featuring only one extra stroke; this form is more common in Japan. Lawrence J. Howell writes in his Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters:

The relevant seal inscription form shows cracks spreading over the ice of a river frozen in winter → icebe frozen; freezing cold.
Compounds of include The Chinese name of Disney’s animated blockbuster Frozen is 冰雪奇缘 (bīng xuě qí yuán), literally “Ice and snow romance”.

More photos of ice @ Shutterstock.

Monday, 2 April 2018

贝 | bèi

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: bèi 🔊) means “shellfish” or “cowrie”. In ancient China, cowries were used as money, therefore this symbol also has an ancient meaning of “money” or “currency”. According to Wiktionary,

Guo (1945) proposes that cowries used by the ancient Chinese dynasties in Central China must have come from the southeastern shores of China and areas further south, as the species of sea snail used as decoration and currency — Monetaria moneta (money cowry) — is not native to the eastern seashores of China.

is a simplified form of the traditional character , which evolved from a pictogram of a cowrie shell. Lawrence J. Howell writes in his Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters:

A depiction of a bivalve (one split open to reveal its contents) → shellfish; (sea) shelltreasure.

Unsurprisingly, there are many compounds of related to shellfish, for example 螺贝 / 螺貝 (luóbèi) “conch”, 贻贝 / 貽貝 (yíbèi) “mussel”, or 扇贝 / 扇貝 (shànbèi) “scallop”. is also used phonetically in words of foreign origin, such as 贝鲁特 / 貝魯特 (Bèilǔtè) “Beirut”, 诺贝尔 / 諾貝爾 (Nuòbèi'ěr) “Nobel”, or 分贝 / 分貝 (fēnbèi) “decibel”.

More photos related to shells and shellfish @ Shutterstock.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

甲 | jiǎ

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: jiǎ 🔊) is a noun that means “armour”, “shell”, or “nail”. It is also the first of ten celestial stems and, by extension, means “first”.

Uncle Hanzi says that is a “pictograph of natural crack joints in the underside of a turtle-shell”. On the other hand, Lawrence J. Howell writes in his Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters:

Originally, a depiction of objects being pressed down, suggesting “press down on objects in containing them” → armor; helmet; shell. From the bronzeware inscription style onward, however, the character becomes a depiction of a hard, seed-bearing husk. First in a series and first calendar sign are borrowed meanings.
Compounds of include
  • + = 龟甲 (guījiǎ): tortoise shell
  • + = 甲虫 (jiǎchóng 🔊): beetle
  • + = 甲基 (jiǎjī): (chemistry) methyl group
  • + = 马甲 (mǎjiǎ): corset; camouflage; online pseudonym
More photos related to shells @ Shutterstock.

Monday, 26 March 2018

א | aleph

The Hebrew letter א (aleph), just like Greek letter α, Latin a and Cyrillic а, was derived from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤀 (ʾālep) which, in turn, was derived from 𓃾, the Egyptian hieroglyph of an ox’s head.

El Aleph (The Aleph) is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. In this story, The Aleph is a point in space that contains all other points. In mathematics, the aleph numbers are a sequence of numbers used to represent the cardinality (or size) of infinite sets. The smallest infinite cardinal number is called 0 (aleph-naught or aleph-null).

More photos of letters, numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Friday, 23 March 2018

下 | xià

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: xià 🔊) has many meanings but all of them have something to do with direction “down”. Predictably enough, it looks very much like the character flipped upside down.

Lawrence J. Howell writes in his Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters:

The relevant oracle bone form of this character is a depiction of one line below another, suggesting the idea of under (contrast ) → low; lower; below; down; subordinate; descend. Extended meanings from “down” or “below” include come/go down; fall; drop; hang (down/from); hand down; younger; have diarrhea; abort (a fetus); step/move back; withdraw; leave the capital; retire and surrender. By further extension are carry, remove and clear a table (← take down from a table); grate (← grated shavings that fall below); give and do someone the favor of (← hand ← hand down); obtain (← be handed/given); and latter half (← bottom/lower of two halves).
There are a great number of compounds of , for instance
  • + = 下午 (xiàwǔ 🔊): afternoon
  • + = 上下 (shàngxià): up and down, high and low, etc. but also in a sense “about” or “more or less”
  • + + + = 上上下下 (shàngshàngxiàxià): everybody; all; the whole
  • + = 天下 (tiānxià): everything under the sky; a lofty name of China (but of course!); an ancient Chinese concept of tianxia
I think the physics community should adopt the symbols and for up and down quarks instead of rather boring “u” and “d”.

More photos related to down, downward and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

上 | shàng

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: shàng 🔊) has many meanings but all of them are ultimately connected with direction “up”.

Lawrence J. Howell writes in his Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters:

A depiction of one line above another, suggesting the idea of rising above (contrast ) → up; upper; toprise; raise; offer. Other extended meanings include ascent; readiness; completion; just after; go up; climb; enter; end; increase; improve; on; beyond; first (half); emperor; raise/bring up (a matter); record; upward (bound); go to the capital; and reach.
There are a great number of compounds of , for example More photos related to ascent, upward, raising, rising and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Friday, 9 March 2018

西 | xī

In Mandarin Chinese, 西 (Pinyin: 🔊) means “west” or “western”. Attention Russian speakers: sounds very much like щи (Russian-style cabbage soup).

Now that we know the words for all cardinal directions, it’s not difficult to guess the meaning of 东西南北 (dōngxīnánběi): east, west, south and north — in other words, everywhere. The shorter compound 东西 is a trickier one. One set of meanings (when pronounced dōngxī) is “east and west”, “nearby” or “everywhere”. When pronounced slightly differently (dōngxi 🔊), it means “thing”, “something”, “stuff”. Applied to a human, dōngxi becomes an insult: it is implied that the object of one’s rage is less than human, as in 不是东西 (bùshì dōngxi), “a contemptible person” or “good for nothing”.

The shape of 西 looks familiar, isn’t it? In my classification of Chinese characters, 西 (which looks like the Greek letter π poking out of the box) sits somewhere between (π hiding in the box) and (π poking out of the box while standing on a bench). From the etymological point of view, however, these characters have nothing in common. has evolved from repositioning of four strokes inside the square while originally was depicting a wine jug. According to Wiktionary, 西 is a pictogram of

a bag or basket, borrowed for phonetic value. Compare (“bundle > east”). Traditionally explained as a pictogram of a bird settling into its nest, which by analogy with the setting of the sun means “west”.
More photos related to west and sea glass @ Shutterstock.