I see how 落 can be a failure. But how is 第 relevant to failing an exam, is this a meaning other than 'number, -th' or implicitly falling below first place?

2 Answers 2


I suggest that「落第」is a Chinese loanword. It originally meant failure to be selected as a ranked Imperial bureaucrat due to unsatisfactory results from the Imperial Examinations.

 曾瑞 《留鞋記》楔子:"人都道我落第無顏,羞歸鄉里"

Everyone spoke about me not being selected for Imperial service, and to ashamedly return to my home village

  • 「落」means to fall to the ground > fail
  • 「第」refers to the grade-ranking result of a candidate's attempt at the Imperial Examinations (「科第」in Chinese)

    北齊 顏之推 《顏氏家訓・勉學》:"明經求第,則顧人答策。"

    [Testing] one's thorough knowledge of the classics and to obtain Imperial rank, candidates are invited to answer these questions.


  • 《{{kr:漢語}}大詞典》
  • 2
    This is right. The antonym of 落第 is 及第 (to pass the imperial examination).
    – jogloran
    Apr 21, 2019 at 6:06

According to this website about etymologies,




Paraphrasing the relevant part about 第: the 第 comes from 第何位 and referred to the stairs in a staircase or the ordering of things. It then evolved to refer to tests that comes in tiers/steps. Then, 落第 would mean to fall down from a step in the sequence of tests.

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