Why does 前 mean "past" in terms of time, but "forward" in terms of direction?

So far I was able to find that 前 is constructed from Chinese: 舟 and 止, which can be interpreted as "leaving a footprint", hence the "past" meaning, but it seems kind of far-fetched.

  • Where did you find that 前 is constructed from 舟 and 止?
    – istrasci
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 14:57
  • @istrasci I think that's the explanation given in most dictionaries; originally 歬 with 止 > 䒑 and 舟 > 月, with 刀 added later. That doesn't necessarily tell us anything about the Japanese word まえ, though.
    – user1478
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 15:03
  • Interesting. Never heard of that...
    – istrasci
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 15:39
  • How does 前 mean "forward"? AFAIK, it describes a position (前, in front of) rather than a direction (真っすぐ, straight).
    – jarmanso7
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 9:04

5 Answers 5


There are many issues with the question, because it doesn't differentiate between words and characters. Fully addressing the question requires a discussion of the following:

  1. The glyph origin of「前」
  2. Spatiotemporal metaphors
  3. The Chinese word (Old Chinese: /*[dz]ˤen/) meaning front/forward, past and translating this Chinese word into the Japanese word「まえ」

Firstly, there is no demonstrable link between the character「前」and the meaning forward. The oracle bone version of「前」looked like

enter image description here

That is, a compound of「止」(foot) and「凡」(a tray, now written「盤」). The original meaning was to wash one's feet (e.g. in a basin), and sometimes to emphasise the meaning, drops of water「氵」were added around the foot, and「凡」was replaced with「用」(a tub/bucket, now written「桶」).

enter image description here

The original meaning was extended to mean wash in general, now written「湔」.「凡」is often confused with「舟」(seen in many characters such as「盤」, where the tray-shape is morphed into「舟」), because「凡」and「舟」looked very similar in many bronze inscriptions:

enter image description here

(Bronze script forms; Left: 舟, Right: 凡)

This leads to the form「歬」, and by this time「凡」and「用」were long gone from the character and「歬」was used for the meaning forward.

The character didn't stop changing, however, and eventually「刀」was added to represent the meaning cut, later written「剪」(to emphasise the meaning cut differentiated from forward via the addition of yet another「刀」). An overview of the change over the years looked something like this:

enter image description here

Hopefully this demonstrates the importance in separating the concepts of words and characters; the one series of characters「前」has been used to represent three completely different words (meaning wash, forward, cut) which merely sounded similar.

Now that we've determined that the character has nothing to do with the meaning, the second point of interest is the association of forward and past, and backward and future. Neurobiology/psycholinguistics terms the description of temporal directionality using spatial language as spatiotemporal metaphors, noting that words that describe spatial locations are borrowed in most languages around the world to also describe temporal sequencing. Studies relating to the English language typically categorises these as time-based and ego-based metaphors:

  • Time-based metaphor, viewing a sequence of events from past to present. Future is behind, past is in front.
    • English: after, before
    • Chinese:「後」,「前」
  • Ego-based metaphor, viewing a sequence of events as approaching you or leaving you. Future is in front, past is behind.
    • English: forwards (what's coming ahead), backwards (what's left behind)
    • Chinese:「未來」,「過去」

It is clear that English also has a metaphor equating front as past, which is directly translatable to「前」; however it is the time-based before rather than the ego-based forward.

Japanese「まえ」(etymology/historical spelling:「[目方]{まへ}」, the direction which the eyes are looking in), as a spatial term is an easy enough correspondence to Chinese /*[dz]ˤen/ (front), but did it carry a connotation of before, past prior to the importation of kanji? The presence of a few other Japanese vocabulary items specifying the past suggests a preference towards ego-based metaphors:

  • 「[古]{いにしえ}」 - from「[往]{い}にし[方]{へ}」, in the direction of that which has left you;
  • 「[昔]{むかし}」 - from「[向]{む}く」+「し」, in the direction of that opposite to the present (where you are located).

To summarise:

  • 「前」has nothing to do with forward/past in terms of glyph origins;
  • Chinese uses「前」as a time-based metaphor indicating the past;
  • It is unknown whether「まえ」had the association to the meaning past before「前」was imported. Such a meaning would at least not be obvious from the etymology「[目方]{まへ}」, and we would expect an abundance of fossilised words containing a derivative or cognate of「[目方]{まへ}」referring to the past if「まえ」was associated with the past before the importation of「前」.
  • 1
    Excellent analysis. I would like to point out that English (and indeed many [most?] PIE daughter languages that I'm aware of) uses the same set of words (or roots at least) to mean the same set of ideas: before refers to both "physically in front" and "temporally behind". Consider also German vor, Spanish ante and antes, Czech před. Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 17:19
  • 1
    Even non-PIE Hungarian előtt and Hawaiian mua. Just in terms of how the ideas happen, if someone goes before you, they are physically in front and temporally behind -- this seems to be intrinsic to the very concept, hence the broad agreement even among languages that aren't at all related. Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 17:20

Probably for the same reason that someone who is "ahead" of someone else is both in front of them physically and also arrives earlier. For that matter, the English word "before" also shares the same meanings of "earlier" and "in front" (though the latter meaning is rarer in current usage).

Equating temporal directions with physical ones is a tricky matter that's more complicated than it might intuitively seem. 前 is actually the simpler Japanese example here, because it is at least very consistent in which direction it refers to in each context. 先 is so nebulous that it can actually refer to the past or future.

  • 1
    Right, I'm always confusing the meanings of 先日 and 前日.
    – istrasci
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 14:59
  • 1
    So it's basically safe to summarise as "look up preceding in an English dictionary"? The definitions read about the same heh
    – Kaithar
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 22:16
  • @BenRoffey Your last sentence is so zen ;) Commented May 10, 2018 at 2:44

As a Chinese native speaker who knows a little bit about Japanese, I would like to talk about this character on a Chinese perspective. I believe the origin of your question can be traced to the Chinese origin. Source of "前" in Chinese, source: http://www.fantizi5.com/ziyuan/ and search "前"

Picture source: http://www.fantizi5.com/ziyuan/ and then search "前".

Translation: Original character: (止 over 舟). This character is from 舟 and 止, where 舟 is a boat, and 止 is a foot, indicating the boat is going forward.........

Consider duck, which is an animal that uses its feet to pedal, 舟 with 止 should be considered as a person using his/her feet to pedal the boat to go forward.

In Chinese, 前 has almost the exactly same meaning as in Japanese - the first is something in front of something. E.g.: 面前, which literally means "in front of the face", or just "in front of (a person)"; 站前, which is used by many cities as "the area in front of the (main) train station". This can be considered as a priority queue (sorry, but I'm a computer scientist, and this is a computer science term, but I do think it is not hard to understand), 前 means A has a higher priority than B.

The second meaning is about time - which means "before". However, in Chinese, 前日 means "the day before something happens" (e.g.:结婚前日, "the day before wedding"). Interestingly, 前天 means "the day before yesterday", though people usually treat 日 and 天 as two characters with the same meaning. More interestingly, "先前几天/先前几日" in Chinese both have the same meaning: "preceded days before today (or someday)", "昨天/昨日" both mean "yesterday". Nevertheless, 前 means "preceding time". Time can also be considered as a queue - the preceded time can be considered as having a higher priority. Or front another perspective, the preceded time is "in front of" the following time.

Another meaning is "proceed". For example: "前进" literally means "proceed forward", which means "proceed". When proceeding, it means to get higher priority.

All in all, 前 means "a higher priority" as a state/time/etc, or "to get a higher priority". Therefore, it means going forward.

I saw someone said that he/she is "always confusing the meanings of 先日 and 前日" in Japanese - it's normal, as you can see from above, they are complicated from the root (which is Chinese itself) of this question.

P.S., for Chinese, the words with "天" that can be changed to "日" without changing the meaning (e.g. "昨天/昨日", "先前几天/先前几日", "三天/三日 (three days)", "星期天/星期日 or 周天/周日(Sunday, 周天 is rare, 星期天 and 周日 are most used, 星期日 is a little bit formal)", "工作天/工作日(Weekdays, though the first one is rare)"), the one with "天" is more informal, and the one with "日" is more formal. Even for most words with "日" that is not interpreted as "day" (e.g.: "日" itself can either mean "sun" or "day" (and sometimes can be used as f-word in Chinese), but "天" only means "day"), it's more formal than its synonyms (e.g.: 日 vs 太阳, both mean "the Sun", and the first one is more formal; same when interpreting "日" as a swear word, it is more formal than its synonyms).

It's hard to feel the inner meaning of a word when learning another language. I personally learn English (since 2001-2002, when I was 4-5) and German (since 2014), and I do speak better English than most of my Chinese friends - but still worse than real native speakers...... It is necessary to be soaked in that environment in order to be a better user of one language.


My understanding is that it's analogous to English usage of the word before.

In some cases, before in English has the connotation of something that occurs prior:

Before I go home from school, I have to go to the library.

In other cases, before has the meaning of something that is in front of you (i.e. standing before you):

Suddenly, Alice stood up before (or, in front of) me, and said "I love you".


Because one thing happens ‘before’ another thing in time. Actually it has the meaning of ‘in front of’ or ‘before’. So something can happen in front of you. Or something happens before another thing happens.

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