Haven’t tried a any dictionaries with dedicated etymology yet.
But what I have been using repeatedly has been Jisho.org, which is an English-based dictionary/resource of Japanese words, but also kanji, radicals, and even sentences.
The strength of Jisho, IMHO, is the many-featured search that it uses. It actually is more of a search engine built on top of other Japanese-to-English resources and databases. In particular, a word/phrase dictionary called JMdict, and a kanji dictionary called Kanjidic2. These databases are loaded with info, but by themselves are hard to use. Jisho gives them a quite powerful, somewhat integrated, but also much more user-friendly search interface.
For example, when I want to more-fully understand a kanji, I will search for it on Jisho, then go to the kanji details, sometimes read through the details, or often I will just do a search for “Words containing [the kanji]”, which will bring up all the words/phrases in the database containing the kanji, and ordered generally by usage frequency. This is often enough to get a kind of ‘survey’ of where the kanji is used in different words, and in this way you can often get a much more general ‘gist’ of what the kanji means, by kind of ‘blending’ or ‘combining’ the meanings of the various words/phrases to try to find a common seed or thread of meaning.
As a concrete example, when @Rrwrex used the word 熟語, I didn’t know what it mean, so I copied and pasted into Jisho, which yielded this search: 熟語 - Jisho.org
Okay, so now I know from JMdict that it basically means:
- kanji compound
- idiom; idiomatic phrase
And I’m familiar with 語, but what is 熟?
Well, if you look on the right of that page, there’s a listing for the specific, individual kanji from your search, and the first one lists 熟. This is a brief summary of info from Kanjidic2. The meanings listed are: mellow, ripen, mature, acquire skill.
Not quite sure how that relates to ‘kanji compound’ or ‘idiom’ – maybe something related to ‘acquire skill’ or ‘mature’, as you have to have some practice/experience with a language to pick up its idioms. But if I want to explore further, you can click on the small “Details” link below each kanji summary on the right. [Alternatively, you can click on the ‘Links’ menu under the 熟語 word listing on the left, and click on “Kanji details for 熟 and 語”, which will bring you to the same kanji details page, but it will have details for both of the kanji, not just one.] So, clicking on the little “Details” link under 熟 on the right, leads me to 熟 #kanji - Jisho.org.
Now, first of all, you get a pretty decent breakdown of the kanji into its (traditional) radicals/parts. This is incredibly useful in conjunction with Jisho’s “Radicals” input panel, which allows you to find kanji by visual recognition of radicals within it. (This can be useful for discovering the ‘etymology’ of common radicals, too. But that’s another story! Play around with the “Radicals” button to the left of the search text input box at the top of any Jisho page to see what I mean.)
For etymology purposes for a particular whole kanji, what I usually do is:
- Scan the sections of examples of “On reading compounds” and “Kun reading compounds”. But these are a bit limited (though useful in their own right).
- Click on the “Words containing [the kanji]” link. This tends to be more fruitful, in my experience.
Example, in the kanji details page for 熟 , if you click on “Words containing 熟”, it will bring you to this search (note the presence of ‘*’ characters, which are part of the advanced search features I hinted at earlier): *熟*
This search result lists 106 words (at the time of this post) containing 熟, and just by scanning down the page of them, you can quickly get a sense that this kanji is more about maturity, proficiency, and mastery, than it is about ‘compound’.
So ‘kanji compound’ as a definition for 熟語 is very likely to be a more modern, specialized meaning – and perhaps it may also be tainted by English translation, as it would likely come up for Japanese-language learners, when trying to understand how kanji can be combined together. But its more accurate meaning is probably closer to ‘idiom’. And a more-literal kind of translation might be something like ‘mastery-level word’, something only expected of those very proficient in the language. (But that’s just my guess, based on this not-really-etymology ‘etymology’ investigation.)
And also, we learn that even the ‘skilled’ and ‘proficient’ meaning of 熟 is probably secondary to the ‘maturity’ meaning, particularly because 熟 is also used to describe ‘ripeness’, which if you think about it is probably why the primary meaning of the actual kanji 熟 is listed as ‘mellow’. In other words, an unripe fruit will be bitter, but it will be made ‘mellow’ over time as it ripens into maturity.
Anyway, sorry for the wall o’ text, but that’s basically my typical method for getting at the etymology of various kanji, without actually using a proper etymological dictionary. (But now that Rrwrex has linked to one, I might just start using that!) In any case, hopefully this info will help you in your quest. And introduce to some of the very useful search capabilities of Jisho (there’s even more usefulness there, but that’s another post).