Resource to learn kanji by etymology?

Hi, everyone.

Whenever I learn a new word, I like to look up its etymological origin, to see how it connects to other words, learn of its historical development, and the likes. I’d like to have something like this for kanji as well. Have been looking around in the internet, and all I seem to have found are dead websites, a failed kickstarter campaign, and this book. I might buy the book, but I would also like some sort of website where I can quickly look things up. Not as much something directed to learners, like the book I mentioned, but an actual etymological dictionary. Kind of like etymonline but for japanese kanji (and, because I’m still new, preferably with english comments!).

Thank you in advance!


Most wiktionary articles for kanji have the information I imagine you’re looking for, though in the case of a kanji it would be the “glyph origin” rather than the etymology. The etymology section talks about how the word for dog came to be, as opposed to the kanji.

For instance, for 犬 it tells you that it was originally a pictogram of a side view of a dog. And it shows the various stages of development the kanji went through over thousands of years before it became the modern shape.

There are books out there as well, but this is a good starter.


I have that book. I really ought to read it someday.

… If I can remember which box I packed it in.


I also have that book, and found it’s made a huge difference to my retention; I now spread my kanji lessons out, doing 3 a day, then look the kanji up in Henshall’s straight after my WK lessons.

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I did mean glyph origin, but tbf I’m interested in the etymology too anyway just for curiosity :stuck_out_tongue: XD

I had tried wiktionary and it does seem to give that information, but people have said it doesn’t have many kanji :confused: I’m probably still going to use it while it fits my needs

Most of my go-to resources have already been listed:

  • The Complete Guide to Japanese Kanji, by Henshall
    I use the e-book version, which is quite handy for Ctrl+F:ing stuff

  • Wiktionary - Inconsistent, but some “glyph origins” are very detailed. The dropdown for hanzi in the same phonetic series is handy, too, even if does take some work to find the ones used in Japanese.

  • Yellow Bridge - Consistent, but not very detailed; useful as a starting point.

  • Sinica Database - Useful for looking up older versions of hanzi. It’s in Chinese, which can make it a bit tricky to use at first, but you learn to recognize the most important terms after a while. Chinese Etymology is easier to use, but seems to contain fewer details.
    For one thing, the oracle bone symbols (甲骨文) on Sinica have an associated collection number (合xyz) which can be used to look them up. I used to use, but unfortunately it seems to be offline. The latest cached version is only about a month old, so hopefully it’s only temporary.

  • Kanji Portraits - Useful for a second opinion. The explanations often differ from those found in other sources, for example by seeming to focusing on picto- or ideogrammic etymologies in cases where other sources focus on phono-semantic etymologies.

There’s also a nice book by Cecilia Lindqvist called Tecknens rike, but it’s in some weird Dutch dialect or something. She also has an English book called China: Empire of Living Symbols that appears to be very similar, though.
It isn’t particularly useful for looking stuff up, but it’s a useful introduction to the history of Chinese writing, and beautifully illustrated.
If I had a coffee table, I’d put it there, and if I also had social skills I’d invite people over for coffee so that they could go “Oy, what’s this then?” and leaf through it.


I hadn’t thought to look for an ebook version, and I don’t yet know what Ctrl + F does, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

Delightful last paragraph, to which I can relate :no_mouth:

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Ctrl + F is the shortcut for the search function to let you search for a letter/word/phrase in specific


I’ll just add a few little things:

  • This one’s in Chinese too, but if you do any etymology searching in Chinese (as I do, since I speak it), you’ll find that this is the source of a lot of the illustrations. Even if you can’t understand the Chinese in the illustrations, you’ll at the least be able to get an idea from the pictures (because they often involve physical objects, not just glyphs), and you’ll be able to see how the way the kanji was written changed over time.

I’m honestly never sure whether to trust Noriko Williams precisely because her explanations tend to differ from what I find elsewhere, and just generally speaking, I feel that Japanese sources tend to favour relatively concrete explanations, which are sometimes quite gruesome. (E.g. one origin story favoured by Japanese sources for 道 involves using a severed head to… ward off spirits on a path, I believe? I haven’t read the theory in a while. The explanation given in Chinese generally involves looking off into the distance and leading people at the head of a group. I’m not translating this verbatim, obviously, but you get the idea.) However, at the very least, Noriko Williams’ explanations are quite detailed and complete, which is a plus.

What I’d like to provide is another resource by Noriko Williams that apparently covers 1100 kanji:

  • This site contains a whole bunch of videos that discuss kanji origins and meanings, generally in the form of PowerPoint presentations with a voiceover. I think it’s very well done. I tend to be biased towards explanations from Chinese sources, but since kanji etymology is rarely cut and dried, with multiple origin theories being possible, I feel it’s only fair to provide this source.

Another resource that might interest you is Bu-Sensei’s Kanji Dojo from NHK’s Japan-Easy series:

  • Bu Sensei's Kanji Dojo - Japan-easy II, Japanese lessons - NHK WORLD - English The person handling the explanations is an American who managed to pass Kanken Level 1, which is really very impressive. He tends to tackle these things from an etymological perspective, and once again, things are very well done and well illustrated too. I think there are specifics I wouldn’t agree with, like the idea that 忍 has something to do with the sharpness of the heart/mind being patience – most Chinese explanations refer instead to tolerating the pain of a sharp blade cutting into one’s heart, which ties into a Chinese phrase meaning ‘my heart is as if it is being cut by a knife’, and I strongly doubt that Chinese culture has the same reverence for blades as Japanese culture does – but again, I think that’s probably because he favours Japanese sources and explanations, whereas I favour Chinese ones.
    He doesn’t cover a lot of kanji, but I think what he does cover is a good way of getting into etymology.

Yeah, it definitely shouldn’t be one’s go-to resource for answering “What’s a commonly accepted etymology for this character?”, and it does seem to favor explanations that make sense as ideograms, but some of the articles do provide some interesting elaborations and comparisons between old sources, making them worth a look. I’d say the article about 道 and 導 is worth a read … and, true to form, it doesn’t even seem to consider a phono-semantic interpretation :stuck_out_tongue:

I’ve seen that one, too, although I haven’t really reflected on whether or not they were based on Chinese or Japanese sources.
I suppose it is possible that folk etymologies become more appealing the further you get from the source, though, whether that distance is temporal, spatial, cultural or linguistic.

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Yup, I guess so. In all fairness, the Chinese explanation I provided about 忍 sounds a lot like folk etymology too since at least based on the pronunciation, it looks like 忍 is pictophonetic, with 刃 providing the pronunciation (at least in Chinese/in on’yomi).

In this particular case, I think it’s just because the phono-semantic (=形声, right? If that’s the case, it’s more literally translated as ‘pictophonetic’, but I agree that phono-semantic makes more sense in English. I just want to make sure I’m understanding you correctly) interpretation doesn’t seem to work if you’re talking about 道 itself. However, if you’re talking about 導… yeah, a phono-semantic relationship with 道 seems likely. Who knows though? Maybe there is an overlap between 会意文字 (associative compound kanji) and 形声文字. I’ve never looked into it before. What I do know is that 道 really did contain the meaning of 導 initially, at least according to the Chinese sources I’ve seen, and it’s not uncommon to add another part to an existent kanji to make its meaning clearer when its original meaning has faded. That’s what happened to 支 when 枝 was created. Another way of thinking about it is one involving dissociating the kanji from the word itself, since all languages, including Chinese, were likely spoken before they were written: perhaps dǎo always meant ‘to guide’ while dào meant ‘road’, and it’s just that the two characters split at some point, with 導 reserved for the meaning involving guidance. In that case, 導 might be a 会意文字 related to 道 but formed somewhat independently, and therefore not strictly a phono-semantic kanji.

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Yup; I believe picto-phonetic and phono-semantic are basically interchangable. I do like that “phono-semantic” sounds more neutral as to the etymology of the semantic component … although I will admit that I probably mostly use it because 1) it’s what I heard somebody use ages ago and 2) it’s what Wikipedia uses :stuck_out_tongue:

Indeed, there are a lot of cases where there are multiple possible interpretations, and I don’t think one has to assume that only one of them is correct. After all, if you’re going to make up a character for something, and you have several different phonetic components to choose from, you might as well pick one that also has a relevant meaning.

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Yup. I apply the same logic to 当て字 in Japanese at times, honestly. The character choices probably aren’t completely random, even if they’re primarily chosen for phonetic reasons.


There’s actually a term for that, at least when it comes to ateji/jukujikun for loan words: Phono-semantic matching

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Do you guys have any thoughts about the Outlier Kanji Dictionary? It looks interesting to me but I’m not well informed enough to know the difference and tbh their marketing makes me a little nervous but maybe that’s just paranoia.

Edit: it somehow only occured to me after I made this comment that I could search the WK forums and r/learnjapanese directly for discussions about Outlier instead of googling it. I see the information seems to be well researched but they’ve mostly failed to produce an actual usable product. Getting it through KanjiStudy seems like a pretty decent option, though.

I just wanted to second this one. It was recommended to me by one of my Japanese Linguistic professors.

I would look into more, but I just don’t have time and would prefer to read manga and webcomics in Japanese at this point.


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