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Where does the kanji for 凄い come from? I don't know what any of the component strokes mean, and it just looks really strange to me. Can I get an etymology of the word? In Chinese I think it means something completely different...

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It has an 音読み of セイ which is a 漢読み. In words using that reading, the meaning seems to be cold or harsh. That may have a meaning similar to the meaning in Chinese (I cannot speak to that point). The two components are ni-sui (related to 水 but often meaning cold) and tsuma (妻). – virmaior Dec 14 '13 at 2:28
What is tsuma? And also what is kanyomi? – user3457 Dec 14 '13 at 3:58
Japanese sound readings fall into several categories. One of them is the 漢. These refer to different waves of pronunciation take from China (ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E9%9F%B3%E8%AA%AD%E3%81%BF) つま means wife. It's an element in the Japanese system for writing characters... – virmaior Dec 14 '13 at 10:55
up vote 6 down vote accepted

凄 = 冫 + 妻 

The radical 冫 is named にすい and it means "ice".

妻 means "wife".

凄 means "ice-cold", "bleak", "mournful", "frigid", etc., so it is a kanji with highly negative meanings.

You stated that the kanji meant something completely different in Chinese but it DOES NOT. Your statement appears to be based on a comparison between the positive modern colloquial meaning of 「[凄]{すご}い」 in Japanese and the negative original Chinese meaning of 「凄」, does it not? If so, it is not a fair comparison.

凄い in Japanese was originally a very negative word, too. It meant "dreadful", "unearthly", "grim", etc. You probably had the modern meaning "fantastic" in mind, did you not?

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