Saturday, September 03, 2005

Why does 珀(박) mean "호박"?

These days I have been studying Chinese characters, and today I came across the character 珀(박), which means "호박." The character is a combination of 白(백) and 玉(옥). 白 means "white" and 玉 means "gem" or "precious stone." The combination implies "white gem." That confused me because I assumed "호박" meant "pumpkin," which is not "white" and certainly not a "gem." Therefore, I went to the dictionary to see if I could find an explanation.

I found that there are two meanings for 호박-- one is "pumpkin," and the other is "amber." It turns out that the "pumpkin" 호박 is a pure Korean word, which means it is not made from Chinese characters, but the "amber" 호박(琥珀) is a Sino-Korean word, which means it is made from Chinese characters. When Koreans say, 호박색," they are referring to the color of "amber," not to the color of a "pumpkin."

So today I learned that the Korean word for "amber" is 호박, but there is still something I do not understand. Amber is a brownish yellow color, but the character, 珀, implies that it is "white." What gives?


  1. In a lot of cases like this (I'm not specifically speaking of the word 호박, because I don't have any knowledge of this particular case) the two-word name is a phonetic representation of the word used for a noun by the people around the Chinese through which the item became known to them. One clear example of this is the word 포도.

    I can't vouch for the accuracy of this site but it is possible that the word 호박 was originally written to represent a sound of something like ancient Syrian "Harpaks." The clerk who heard the Syrian trader say Harpaks wrote it down as the first 호 that came to mind (虎) along with the first 박/백 that came to mind (白). There may have been some fluctuation between 白 and 百 for a while, depending on which person was acting as scribe. Then, when it was common enough to be a proper Chinese word of itself, people started adding the 玉--long after the fact--to indicate that we are talking about a kind of mineral and not a tiger's white.

  2. Wow, Taemin, you are full of interesting information. How long have you been studying this stuff?

    The 포도(葡萄) example is quite interesting, at least to me. According to Naver' Chinese Dictionary (here), 포도 is a transliteration of "budau," a Central Asian word. Actually, the Naver dictionary only refers to the 포(葡) in 포도, but I assume both characters were used to represent the two syllables of "budau."

    Grapes are one thing, but it is a little harder to believe that the Chinese would need to borrow a word from anywhere to describe amber, since amber would have most probably been found all over China. I like that "tears of the tiger" (huh p'o) term mentioned on the site to which you linked because China had its share of tigers and because amber looks a lot like a "tiger eye." Therefore, the 호(琥) in 호박(琥珀) is a good descriptive character for amber, and makes it appear to me that it was not just a character pulled out of someone's head for the purpose of transliteration. It looks like more thought went into it. Of course, that still does not explain why 珀(박) is used as the second part of the word.

    Taemin, would you mind telling me how you know so much about Chinese characters? If you would prefer to stay annonymous, that is fine. I am just glad you are posting here.

    I look forward to reading more comments from you.


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