Saturday, September 10, 2005

Can one get drunk on "chicken water"?

The Chinese character for alcohol is 酒(주), which is a combination of 氵(수) and 酉(유). The character 氵(수) means "water," and the character 酉(유) means "chicken." That implies that the Chinese considered alcohol to be "chicken water," which is not something I would want to get drunk on. Anyway, I was curious as to why "chicken water" would be used to refer to alcohol, so I did a little research.

I found that 酉(유) was originally drawn to represent a wine barrel, which my imagination can see. The top part of the character, for example, looks kind of like a cork or some kind of lid. A wine barrel with liquid in it for "alcohol"? I can accept that. However, that now brings up another question.

How does one get "chicken" from a "wine barrel"?


  1. Back in the mid-70s I was in South Korea and wrote some poem about my time there. You can find them at You may have to read down to find the Korea poems but it should be a good read, check it out

  2. Nice blog, David. Very interesting.


  3. I don't know where you did your lookup to get "chicken" for the meaning of the character 酉. Chinese characters typically have a radical for general meaning and a phonetic part for pronunciation. In this case the water radical indicates liquid. The 酉 part represents sound, 유 not being too far from 주. But you're right about it being a pictograph of a wine vessel. The chicken though, I still have no idea where that came from :P. On another note there are tons of chinese characters that are more like "sounds-like" and have no functional meaning from the pictures at all.

  4. 酉(유) means "chicken," but it also used to be the old character for 酒(주), which means alcohol. I have read that it changed to "chicken" because people would start drink to drink at about the time the chickens went to roost, which was around sunset. In fact, according to oriental astrology, 酉時(유시), "the chicken hours," is from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

    The explanation seems a little labored to me, but maybe there is some truth in it. For example, a Chinese farmer tells his wife he was going out to go check on the chickens but goes to meet his friends for a drink, instead. Maybe, over time, "chicken" became a codeword for "alcohol"?


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