Friday, August 26, 2005

How does "snot" come from 泗(사)?

The Chinese character 泗 has two meanings. One is a "name used for water," and the other is "snot." The character is a combination of "water," 氵(수) and the number "four," 四(사). Though I could understand why the character for water would be used in a character for "snot," I could not understand why "four" would be used, so I decided to research it. Here is what I found out.

Up until sometime about the "Warring States" period, the Chinese character for "four" was four stacked horizontal lines, but because it was often confused with the character for "three," 三(삼), the Chinese started using 四(사) to represent "four." Originally, 四 represented "breath coming out of a nose," but over time that meaning disappeared leaving only the meaning for "four." Therefore, if we think of 四 as a nose and combine it with water, 氵, we get "snot," 泗.


  1. I think it is interesting what the use of this character says about modern (maybe Western?) sensibilities. From 陳風 section of the Book of Poetry, which is quoted in the definition of 泗 from any larger 옥편:

    彼澤之陂, 有蒲與荷.
    有美一人, 傷如之何.
    寤寐無爲, 涕滂沱.

    In the definition, Mr. Mao (毛亨?) gives us: 自目曰"涕," 自鼻曰"泗." So, if we believe Mr. Mao, we have an unambiguous tears and snot.

    In the words of the very literal James Legge, we get:

    By the shores of that marsh,
    There are rushes and lotus plants.
    There is the beautiful lady;--
    I am tortured for her, but what avails it?
    Waking or sleeping, I do nothing;
    From my eyes and nose the water streams.

    When I see people, especially little kids, cry, it's not just tears that run down their faces. That sniffle sound is coming from something.

    But in my more modern translation from the Shandong Friendship Press (just as a handy example), it has:

    By the shores of the water pond,
    There are cattails and lotus flowers.
    I have met with a handsome young man;
    Whatever I do, I cannot dismiss him from my mind.
    I am thinking of him both when sleeping and when waking,
    And my tears stream down like a pouring rain.

    Thank heavens my sensibilities have been spared the unsavory image of snot by a kind translator.

    It's like how I am spared the unpoetic image of 王維 whistling 嘯 1, 2.

    On the subject of snot, there is the word 涕. Kangxi quotes Yupian, glossing it as "tears 目汁出曰涕." Over time, it's meaning appears to have expanded and now the Xiandai Hanyu Cidian 현대한어사전 and other modern dictionaries say it means "① tears, ② snot."

  2. Hi Taemin. Interesting comments and observations.

    I notice that the two translations of the poem differ not only in word choice, but also in whom is being cried over.

    In the first version, 有美一人(유미일인) is translated as "a beautiful lady," but in the second version, it is translated as "a handsome young man." Since 有美一人(유미일인)literally translates as "a beautiful person," I guess both translations are possible, but probably because I am a Western man, I tend to think that it would be a woman crying. Why? Well, men don't cry over women, do they? Besides, if a man misses a woman, he would just go out and find her, right? But if a woman misses a man, especially in old China, she would probably have had to wait until the man came calling?

    I wonder why the poet used 有美一人(유미일인) instead of 有美一男(유미일남) or 有美一女(유미일녀) or some other more precise phrase? Maybe, because of rhyming considerations?

    The phrase 涕泗滂沱(체사방타) is also interesting because of all the water 氵(수), which certainly implies the person is bawling his or her eyes out.

    Here is my translation of 涕泗滂沱(체사방타):

    "The tears and snot flow unceasingly."

    Isn't that beautiful? :)

  3. By the way, Taemin, those poems you linked to are very nice. This was one of my favorites:

    While my little boat moves on its mooring of mist,
    And daylight wanes, old memories begin....
    How wide the world was, how close the trees to heaven,
    And how clear in the water the nearness of the moon!


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