Thursday, July 16, 2009

What does 궤도(軌道) mean?

Here are the meanings of 궤도 (軌道) in my dictionary:
  1. an orbit; a circle
  2. a (railroad) track
  3. a track (in the figurative sense)

The Chinese character 軌(궤) originally referred to the distance between the wheels of a cart, which could have been determined by measuring the distance between the tracks it left on a road. The character 軌(궤) is made up of the characters 車(cart) and 九(nine). Nine was a number that the Chinese also used to mean "many." The combination of the two characters, therefore, literally meant "many carts." Many carts following the same tracks would have left a fixed set of tracks on a road, which would have been hard to deviate from, especially if they were deep tracks. Since the character 道 (도) means "road," 궤도 essentially means a "tracked road."

I assume that the idea of "orbit" developed from the fact that the tracks on a road are equal distance from each other, just as an orbiting object in space would be from the surface of the earth.

Here are the expressions my dictionary gave for 궤도.

  • 궤도 기중기 -- a gantry (crane)
  • 궤도면 -- a plane of orbit
  • 궤도를 벗어나다 -- go out of orbit
  • 궤도 부설 -- track construction
  • 궤도 비행 -- an orbital flight
  • 궤도 속도 -- an orbital velocity
  • 궤도 운동 -- an orbital motion
  • 궤도에 오르다 -- be started along the right lines
  • 궤도에 올라 있다 -- be well under way
  • 궤도에 올리다 -- set (a business corporation) on its way
  • 궤도 체류 연수 -- orbital life
  • 궤도축 -- the axis of an orbit
  • 궤도 표시기 -- a track indicator
  • 극궤도 -- a polar orbit
  • 단선 궤도 -- a single track
  • 달 궤도 -- a lunar orbit
  • 대기 궤도 -- a parking orbit
  • 복선 궤도 -- a double railroad track
  • 위성을 궤도에 올려놓다 -- put a satellite into orbit
  • 위성의 궤도를 수정하다 -- adjust the orbit of a satellite
  • 원궤도 -- circular orbit
  • 인공 위성이 궤도에 올랐다 -- The satellite has gone into orbit.
  • 전기 궤도 -- an electric tramway
  • 전위 궤도 -- transfer orbit
  • 정지 궤도 -- a geostationary orbit
  • 주기 궤도 -- a synchronous orbit
  • 지구 궤도 -- the earth's orbit
  • 타원 궤도 -- the elliptic orbit
  • 편심 궤도 -- an eccentric orbit


  1. I believe your analysis of the structure of the character 軌 is not correct. The overwhelming majority of Chinese characters have one semantic component (or "radical") and one phonetic component. It is common for "folk etymologies" of Chinese characters to treat both elements as semantic, but this is almost always historically inaccurate. In the case of 軌, the right side 九 is a phonetic element. This analysis of the character is already found in the Han-dynasty dictionary 說文解字 of 100 CE, which says of the structure of this character "从車九聲 [derived from 車 'cart' and the phonetic element 九". Although the similarity in pronunciation between the two words written 軌 and 九 may not be obvious from their modern Mandarin or Korean pronunciations, it is more readily apparent when we look at the ancient Chinese pronunciations from around the time that the characters were created. They are kʷruʔ and kʷuʔ, respectively.

  2. Lance,

    Yes, 九(구) is described as the phonetic (음) component of the character 軌(궤), but I do not think that precludes it from also contributing to the meaning of the word, real or imagined. Afterall, the character 車, by itself, does not explain the other meanings of the character 軌. Also, there is another character with a similar meaning that uses 几(궤) with 車instead of 九(구). The phonetic component may have come from 几(궤) and 九 was used because it looked similar to 几(궤) or vice versa. Nevertheless, my analysis of the character was done to provide some mnemonic benefit, not for any strict analysis of the character.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.