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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...

  • 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
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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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  • For what it's worth, there have been similar semantic shifts in English. Consider the term terrific. Now, it has very positive meanings, but it comes from the decidedly negative word terrify. Same for terribly as a positive intensifier, coming from terrible. – Eiríkr Útlendi Aug 9 '17 at 22:28

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