Is it a Square, a Box, or a Wide-Open Mouth? It’s Kǒu!
by Min Xiong
This article is inspired by one of the comments to my last article about the Chinese character for people: 人 (rén). One compound word using 人 is population: 人口 (rénkǒu).
The character 口 (kǒu) means mouth. The combination of 人 and 口 refers to the number of mouths a country, state, or kingdom has to feed, therefore, population!
So today, I want to tell you more about the character 口 (kǒu).
Chinese characters originated from pictures. The history of their formation dates back to remote antiquity. Present-day Chinese characters, which evolved from ancient Chinese characters, are sized to fit into squares.
Standing alone, 口 means mouth. It is also used as a measure word for family members. For example, a family of five people would be: wǔ kǒu rén or, five mouths of people. (Measure words may sound strange to you, but we have them in English too: two pairs of pants, six sheets of paper.)
Not only can 口 be used as a measure word, it can also be used as a radical, which is a special character that functions like a cornerstone in the building of more complex characters. Since a mouth is a very useful body part, many other characters incorporate 口 as a radical. For example:
- 吃 (chī) eat
- 喝 (hē) drink
- 唱 (chàng) sing
- 喊 (hǎn) shout
- 吞 (tūn) swallow
- 吹 (chuī) blow
See the little 口’s in all of those words? When you see that, you know the word has something to do with a mouth. Can you find two more Chinese characters with the radical 口? This online dictionary might help you: www.dict.naver.com. Put your answers in the comments. We look forward to seeing what you find. 再见！
Study Mandarin with Min Xiong—journalist, Chinese teacher, and cultural ambassador in Washington DC. Get more of her insights at Yangguang Consulting, including why China’s capital city is called Beijing and not Peking.