About the origin of respect (敬 jìng)

Pronounced: jìng. At the left-hand side of the modern form 敬 is 苟 (jì), which in this case is derived from 勹 (envelop), 口 (mouth), and the component on top of 勹, which stands for the horns of a goat. The first two should be taken together: a mouth that is enveloped, or restricted, not being able to speak freely. This meaning is emphasized by the horns on top, which were changed into 艹 (grass), and is a plant that goats love to munch, preferable while staring into the distance. Maybe they are having some deep thoughts, maybe about how simple and wonderful life can be if you are a born goat. Sometimes it’s what I also like to do: stare in the distance, munching something, and having some deep thoughts. Usually I’m sitting, though. So there’s at least one difference between me and a goat. Most important is that they are not running around, but standing still. And that is what the meaning is in this character: to stand still. By the way, 苟 has also another pronunciation (gŏu), which has a different origin. See the CCD for details.

Therefore, the combined meaning of the components that make up 苟 is: somebody who is standing still, not being able to speak freely or to move freely. The reason for this is provided by the element at the right, which is the radical 攵, which stands for ‘stick’, but should here be taken in its extended meaning ‘authority’.

So, the person from the character doesn’t dare to speak freely or to move because of some kind of authority. Could be a parent, or a teacher, or the government. In any case, this person is  fearful, or at least respectful, of the authority. And that is the meaning of 敬: respect.

While slipping into my goat-like nature munching a sandwich while sitting still on a bench in a park in Hong Kong I was musing about the connection between ‘respect’ and ‘authority’. I wondered whether they always go together. Here on the subway for example, people tend to give up their seat for an elderly person or a pregnant woman. Clearly, they do that out of respect, though they are not fearful of that person. Can we still say that such an elderly person or pregnant woman has ‘authority’? Maybe not. On the other hand, suppose you are aware of somebody who is pregnant, but do not stand up, how would you feel? You are not sitting as peaceful anymore as before. You would feel guilty, you are not doing something that most people in society hold for the right thing to do. So, in fact, these people are having a certain influence, or power, granted them on account of their situation by the society. Sometimes, their authority can be awesome.

Well, that was a lot of ado about one character. Hope you like it.

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After ten years working as database programmer in the Netherlands, I moved to China in 1991 and began to study Chinese. During my study of the language I started to develop my own character dictionary to help me with looking up and remembering characters. In 2016 it was self-published through Amazon. Since 2018 I have been living in Hong Kong, while still working on the dictionary and trying to get attention for it among potential customers.

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