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服 by itself means "clothing" (e.g. 服を着る), and there are also some related derivative terms like 私服, 制服, 和服, 洋服, etc. On the other hand, you have words like 征服 "conquest", 克服 "overcoming", 承服 "compliance", 服従 "obedience", which I have broadly classed as being related to the idea of "submission".

How did 服 come to have these two seemingly-unrelated meanings? Is this a purely Japanese innovation, or is it like this in Chinese too?

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Wow, Kill la Kill actually make sense now. – Deinonychus Mar 24 '14 at 15:47
@Deinonychus, I joined just to upvote your comment. I noticed that between watching Kill la Kill and World Conquest. – Matt Sieker Mar 24 '14 at 15:51
I find it interesting that another きる is 斬る, i.e. slash/kill a with a sharp object (a more aggressive 切る). – cirno Mar 10 '15 at 0:46
up vote 7 down vote accepted

The Online Kanji Etymology Dictionary has some rather terse notes on how these two meanings came to be. A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters (Henshall) describes its history as:

Once written showing a boat 舟, a person 卩, and a hand 又. [...] The early meaning is known to have been work, and some scholars feel that it meant literally bend down in order to work on [a boat]. Yield/serve is felt to derive from a combined idea of bending down and performing work. How exactly it came to mean clothes, however, is not clear. It is assumed to be a borrowed meaning, though it is also possible that 服 once came by extension to indicate a servant's livery.

Going back to the Online Kanji Etymology Dictionary, you can see that the original form () had 舟 (boat) replaced with 肉 (⺼; flesh) in seal script (), which may be where "clothes" comes from---"clothes that spread over/cling to the body".

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+1 for the Kanji Etymology Dictionary link. Awesome new reference for the collection! – Kaji Mar 24 '14 at 15:00
@Kaji Be careful: Kanji Networks uses a decidedly non-mainstream approach for coming up with character origins. I suggest not relying on their analyses. – snailplane Mar 24 '14 at 23:50
Thanks for the heads up, I'll keep that in mind. – Kaji Mar 25 '14 at 0:47
@snailboat what would be a better source on etymology? – cirno Mar 10 '15 at 0:48

It's a question about Chinese rather than Japanese. The word 服從 once appeared in Book of Rites (道合則服從,不可則去。Obey if you share the same idea, or else leave), and the meaning of clothes once appeared in ZhanGuoCe (朝服衣冠 put up clothes in the morning). Both of them were from Chinese thousands of years ago.

According to this link, 服 meant to put shackles on prisoners when it was invented. Then its derivative meanings forked here: to put something on, or to force someone obey or accept. From the latter, there once again derived a new meaning 服用 to take (medicine).

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An even earlier quote “甘其食、美其服” from Laozi, before the 4th century BC. – Yang Muye Mar 25 '14 at 7:21

As this is a Chinese character, I think it would be easier to describe it in Chinese Historical War terms.

The traditions of clothing, is actually determined by a dynasty. Notice one of the major changes during any Chinese civil war or revolution is the changes of clothing. Good Example: Tang Dynasty clothing or Qing Dynasty clothing. In fact, if peasants refuses to change the way how they dress (even the way how hair looks), the peasants then will be considered as being against the government.

Ideogrammic compound: 卩 (“kneeling person”) + 又 (“spread hands”) + ⺼ (“person's back”) = a kneeling person attending another person's back.

Another very interesting way to look at clothing: there was an idioms named "被发左衽" (as the way how Mongolians dress). The saying of "Chinese might ended up 被发左衽" literally means that Chinese might ended up losing their country to Mongolians.

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