The relation between 弔, 吊, 弟 and 尗

According to Ochiai, 弔 started as a semantic compound, consisting of a stake with rope wrapped around it. A variant has instead of a stake, a person wrapped in a rope. This variant prevailed later on, but remarkably the shape of 人 got abbreviated to a single vertical line.¹ However, other scholars maintain that 弔 shows not a rope, but a snake wrapped around a stake or a person. Also, there seems to be no agreed upon argument that connects 弔 to its later readings and meanings.²

吊 is simply a variant way of writing 弔.³ Interestingly, according to Ochiai and a few other scholars both 弟 and 尗 originate in 弔 as well. Judging from the reconstructions of the words, 弟 and 尗 were different words at the time, but shared a semantic space (someone younger, or having a certain place in a sequence).

Were these words and 弔 at some early stage all written with the same graph? Superficially 弔 and 弟 look somewhat the same, but the Sinica Database pulls the early shapes apart (see below). If that separation is valid, then 弔 and 弟 appear to have had different shapes early on. Unfortunately Ochiai doesn’t elaborate on this.

Schuessler shows a possible linguistic relationship between the words 第 (“order, sequel”) and 弟 (“younger brother”), the latter being the endoactive of 第 , with the word 弟 literally meaning “the person who is following in sequence”. He also writes that Karlgren connected 第 to the word 梯 “ladder”.

Seeley et al. suggest that 弟 originally depicted a weapon with a handle wrapped in leather. They go on to write: “There was a set, ordered process for wrapping the handle, which can be thought of as the lower part of a weapon. Mizukami lists associated meanings as ‘low; order’, and ‘younger brother’ by extension”.

As stated in this way, it’s unclear to me what Seeley et al. are trying to imply here. In his earlier book Henshall wrote: “There was a set order to the manner of binding, and hence [the word 弟] also came to mean sequence or order”.

While Seelay et al. and Henshall assert that 弟 is the depiction of a weapon or lance with (leather) wrappings, they neglect to write what the word 弟 meant. Except that Henshall explicitly writes that it “...also came to mean sequence or order” (my emphasis) and that Mizukami apparently thinks that the word 弟 (whatever its original meaning) had the “associated meanings ... ‘low; order’”.

Outlier follows a similar line of thought, but is explicit in the supposed original meaning of 弟. It was “leather strap tied around a spear handle in an orderly fashion”. So not the spear itself, but the wrapping. And because the wrapping was applied orderly, sequentially, the word “wrapping” could be used in that sense as well? Or maybe it can be turned around, perhaps there was a word “fix; order” that was used to designate the wrapping—the “fixer of the spear” (or something like that).

I doubt that there is much evidence for these theories. However, to add more speculation, it could explain the graphical development that 弟 and 弔 might share, where “wrapping” was applied to a stake and a person alike. Ochiai speculates that the “wrapped person” might indicate “a captured person”—in other words, a person fixed, or put in order? Pure speculation of course.

At the time Wieger was doing his research (in the 1920s) it was unknown what 弟 was about. Wieger tells that it depicted a “thread that is wound on a spool, having a catch on the top, and a winch at the bottom.” (Wieger, p. 223). Later discovered early graphs expose that explanation as an after the fact interpretation of the later shapes, but scholars still disagree about what the early forms depict.

The same goes for 弔. Wieger thought in his time that it was “a man who carries a bow 弓 (L. 87) over his shoulders” and tells a ethnographic story about it. From the early shapes that have been identified now, the bow must be a fabrication. However, the stories that scholars tell now, are contradictory and also quite hypothetical.¹⁰ This situation delegates 弔, 吊, 弟 (and perhaps also 尗) to the status of arbitrary signs,¹¹ and stories that do exist as just-so stories made up as mnemonics for the baffled mind.

Graphical development

Note that the use of bow 弓 to draw the curved lines that used to depict a rope or a snake is an example of standardization, whereby unique shapes are drawn with predictable shapes. Substantially, 弓 functions as an empty component.



1. Ochiai, 2016, p. 450.

2. Seeley et al., p. 509.

3. Qiú, 2000, p. 301.

5. Ochiai, 2016, p. 450; See also Seeley et al. pp. 434-435 (on 叔 and 淑).

6. Schuessler, p. 210.

7. Seeley et al. p. 94; Mizukami (quoted in Seeley et al.): Mizukami Shizuo, Kōkotsu kinbun jiten. 2 vols. + Supplement (Bekkan). Yūzankaku, 1995.

8. Henshall, p. 50.

9. Wieger: “The Chinese of olden times did not bury their dead. The corpse was packed up in a bundle of grass ... and left to rot away in some remote place. The rite of condoling, at that time, consisted in offering one’s self with a bow, to protect the corpse against wild beasts.” (p. 84)

10. For example, the curved line is seen as a rope (Ochiai), a snake (Ogawa, Katō), a vine (Tōdō) and a string with an arrow (Shirakawa). Also, some scholars see a shared graphical development between 弟, 弔, and 叔 (Ochiai) or at least 弔 and 叔 (Shirakawa) while other scholars disagree (Ochiai, 2016, p. 450; others quoted in Seeley et al., p. 509).

11. A graph that is unintelligible on itself. See also terminology: sign.

Creative Commons License