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！
Min Xiong is a journalist, Chinese teacher, and cultural ambassador in Washington DC.