Kanji etymology

I am looking for a good website/book to learn more (when possible) the etymology of a kanji. I find it amazing, like: thread + meet = drawing, but hard to find info on it.
Thank you!

Someone can probably recommend some resources in English, but if you’re okay with Japanese, you can use a site like this. Here’s the page for 絵.


If you scroll down to the 成り立ち section, it will show what the oldest version of the kanji looked like, what those shapes represented and why they were chosen, and then how they look today.

On that page, they explain that the idea of 絵 was probably initially based on embroidery, which is how you can make sense of 糸 and 会う. Over time that developed into a more general idea of any drawing.

Note that the 会 part is simplified in modern Japanese, and looked like 會 before.

That might be a bit hard to get from that page though, if your Japanese level is lower (I’m not sure what level you might be at).

But I like that site and use it often, so I figured I’d share it.


Wiktionary often has a short etymology for Kanjis


I have both The Key to Kanji and The World of Kanji, both great books for Kanji etymology. Personally I prefer the latter. The Key to Kanji is more streamlined, but a bit lacking in some minor ways - the book’s wide shape makes it less comfortable for study, has half as many kanji and uses artist interpretations rather than the more accurate images of ancient characters that World of Kanji provides. World of Kanji is a bit messy at times and its layout isn’t perfect but it’s incredibly thorough. I think it’s the best book available for kanji etymology at the moment, or at least the best one written in English.


Lots of good links in this thread :slightly_smiling_face:

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I have used and enjoyed the Complete Guide to Japanese Kanji by Christopher Seely (published by Tuttle).

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Thank you Leebo! I am unfortunately not good enough to use Japanese books. But one day I hope I will be able too :slight_smile:

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World of kanji looks good. I will follow your advice and give it a go. Thank you Alexglaz!

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Aaah cool, thank you distantflower!

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Looks like a good book too. Thank you MaraVos :slight_smile:

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Yes I imagined it was the reason but wanted to know if it was true. Also sometime I find a kanji association poetic, but I do not know if it is poetic only for me, a french speaker, or is it also poetic for a native Japanese. I hated Latin and Greek etymology lessons in school but I find it wonderful in Japanese :slight_smile:

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