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I was studying some radicals and I found this: ⺹ (old, old-age) and this: 匕. But why this: 老 (old + spoon) means "old man, old age, grow old"?? Do Japaneses think a spoon can make you older in a shorter time? Should I stop using spoons and start to use only chopsticks?

Please help me clearifying all these doubts floating in my mind xD Thanks in advance!!

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It appears that the 匕 component that we see in 老 did not start out as the same character as 匕 "spoon", but instead as a stylization of long hair and a cane. This is more apparent if you compare the progression of forms from ancient Shang inscriptions through to the modern shapes: see the 匕 glyph origin at Wiktionary, the 老 glyph origin, and by way of comparison, the 比 glyph origin, where the 匕 component again developed from a non-"spoon" origin.

When exploring the origins of Chinese characters, it's important to recognize that the modern forms are not necessarily indicative of the original forms. Things change over time, and there's a general trend towards simplification and standardization.

If you're really interested in the historical development of Chinese characters, look into getting a good character dictionary. I've heard good things about the 大漢和辞典 (Dai Kan-Wa Jiten), a serious and large monolingual Japanese resource. For English readers looking for a starter character etymology dictionary, I found Kenneth Henshall's A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters to be pretty good. Avoid anything by Heisig, however: he provides fanciful descriptions of each kanji that might be helpful for memorizing, but that have nothing to do with historical development.

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    That 比 explanation on Wiktionary is not correct, compare the component in 比 with and then 匕 again. I will concede the differences are rather small, so then we should look at it from another angle: [匕]{/*pijʔ/ > ひ} is a phonetic component in [比]{ /*pij-s/ > ひ}
    – dROOOze
    Sep 6 '19 at 6:19
  • @droooze, I'd be more apt to view 比 as semantic + phonetic if the two components in the oldest forms of 比 weren't identical. I'm not 100% sold on the theory that the character is composed of two 人; as you note, the component variants in the Shang script are facing opposite directions in the two characters 人 and 比, and the component in 比 seems to have an additional shape element (the upward tick at the end of the shorter "leg"). That said, neither of the two identical components in 比 appear to be 匕 either, at least at the Shang stage -- unless that uptick is irrelevant? Sep 6 '19 at 15:57
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    You can contrast 比 with . Well it seems that Wiktionary doesn't have enough glyph forms! Shang forms of were characterised by one or both of the following features: (1) the "uptick", and (2) the bottom/longer leg was curled backwards slightly. The facing direction is not a characteristic, and both and 匕 faced either direction.
    – dROOOze
    Sep 7 '19 at 2:21
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    The differences between 人 and 匕 were greatly eroded later, possibly contributing to them eventually being standardised with different facing directions, and contributing to the fall in use of 从 and the rise of the more complex variant 從.
    – dROOOze
    Sep 7 '19 at 2:22
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    @droooze, excellent additional info, thank you! Some of the other Shang-era versions you posted and linked to make me think more of a bent fork or similar implement -- interesting that none show a closed-circle shape on the end of a stick, which is more what I'd expect for a "spoon, ladle" sense. Anyway, thanks! Sep 8 '19 at 22:23
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The other answer is correct. What you see as「匕」is a corruption of a walking-cane shape, not spoon, and you shouldn't break down「老」into two separate components.

「老」(old) depicts an old, decrepit person with long, unkempt hair, hunched over a walking stick.



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As「老」is ultimately a depiction of a person, the core shape originally contained「人」. For reference:



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This should serve as an indication of how dramatically simple shapes can change.


Chinese characters generally became more complex (not more simple) over time because (1) characters were often overloaded in usage and (2) shapes that were too simple were too easily confused with something else.「匕」is one of those components that you shouldn't take on face value, precisely because the shape is too simple, and several shapes that originally looked like something else have all converged into「匕」in the modern script.

As an actual component which provides some sort of function upon character decomposition,「匕」is a merger between two originally independent components which started to look extremely similar very early on.


(1) Semantic spoon and/or phonetic



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  • 「[比]{ひ}」(close/near, compare), from doubly semantic and phonetic「[匕]{ひ}」(spoon), depicting two spoons side-by-side;



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  • 「旨」(delicious), from semantic「匕」(spoon) and semantic「口」(mouth) which later changed to「甘」(sweet), now looking like「曰」;



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  • 「[匙]{し}」(spoon), from semantic「匕」(spoon) and phonetic「[是]{し}」.



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(2) A shape variant of「人」(person) found on the right-hand-side of characters

Note:「比」is generally not confusable, at least originally, with「从」(Shinjitai:「従」).「从」is also a rare exception to the right-hand-side shape change of「人」.



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  • 「死」(death), from semantic「歹」(picture of human remains > bad, wicked, evil) and semantic「匕・人」(person);



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  • 「北」(back (anatomy), now written as「背」by adding on semantic「⺼・肉」meat/flesh), from semantic「匕・人」and its mirrored shape, depicting two people back-to-back;



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  • 「此」(to trample on something, now written as「跐」by adding on semantic「足」foot), a compound of「止」(picture of one foot > stop) and a person「匕・人」.



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To finish off, here's some other examples of how not to decompose characters to produce what looks like「匕」:

  1. Animals' legs.

  2. Body of a snake「它」, now written as「蛇」.



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  3. Corruption of feet「舛」in「乘」(Shinjitai:「乗」).



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    「乘」was originally a picture of a person「大」climbing on top of a tree「木」; feet「舛」were added on to the person later.

    The original meanings were to ascend, to ride an object, extended to mean to take advantage of [a situation].

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