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Character shapes used in Chinese words

It’s very rare that you can guess the meaning of a character just by looking at its shape. You might be able to guess 龜 if you look closely (it’s a turtle). Once you know that it means ‘person’, you can kind of see where 人 is coming from.

Most of the time, however, you’ve got to know the meaning of the radicals to have any chance. But sometimes the shape of a character is used very directly to express a totally unrelated meaning. Often words that use this trick involve the character 字 to indicate that they refer to the character itself rather than its meaning. Here are some examples of character shapes being used to express meaning in Mandarin Chinese words.

Words using the shape of 十 (shí)

The word 十字形 (shízìxíng) in Mandarin refers to things that are cross-shaped or cruciform, including the following.

  • 十字路口 (shízìlùkǒu): crossroads
  • 十字绣 (shízìxiù): cross-stitch
  • 十字頭螺刀 (shízìtóuluódāo): Phillips screwdriver
  • 十字花科 (shízìhuākē): flowers in the Brassicaceae family, which look like crosses
  • 十字軍 (shízìjūn): crusaders, the Crusades
  • 十字架 (shízìjià): crucifix
  • 十字架刑 (shízìjiàxíng): crucifixion

Words using the shape of 丁 (dīng)

丁字 is used to refer to things that are T-shaped. Interestingly, ‘T-shirt’ is not written with 丁 but with the Latin letter T: T恤 (T-xù) or T衬衫 (T-chènshān).

  • 丁字裤 (dīngzìkù): thong, G-string
  • 丁字鎬 (dīngzìgǎo): pickaxe
  • 丁字路口 (dīngzìlùkǒu): T-junction
  • 丁字街 (dīngzìjiē): another T-junction
  • 丁字步 (dīngzìbù): T-step (a dance position, e.g. in the Melbourne Shuffle)
  • 丁字梁 (dīngzìliáng): T-girder (there’s also 工字梁 for I-shaped girders)

Words using the shape of 八 (bā)

Another one with an English equivalent. 八字形 (bāzìxíng) means V-shaped, except the other way up.

  • 八字眉 (bāzìméi): sloping eyebrows
  • 八字鬍 (bāzìhú): sloped moustache in the shape of 八
  • 八字腳 (bāzìjiǎo): splayfooted

Words using the shape of 井 (jǐng)

Words using the shape of 米 (mǐ)

  • 米字键 (mǐzìjiàn): star key (*)
  • 米字旗 (mǐzìqí): the Union Jack

Other character-shape words

  • 人字拖 (rénzìtuō): flip-flops
  • 一字马 (yízìmǎ): the splits (gymnastics)
  • 金字塔 (jīnzìtǎ): pyramid
  • 品字插座 (pǐnzìchāzuò): three-point socket
  • 国字脸 (guózìliǎn): square face, square jaw
  • 万字旗 (wànzìqí): swastika (although the actual character 卍 is more commonly used for this)

Contact me: mhg@eastasiastudent.net