The name(s) of the rice plant. I: Chinese

The Chinese name of the domesticated rice plant Oryza sativa is 稻 *[l]ˤuʔ > dawX > dào.  The character occurs in  the Odes (Guo Feng 154 七月),  and in the Zhou Li, at least. The Shuo Wen defines it as 稌 *lˤaʔ > duX > tú ‘glutinous rice plant’, but the textual occurrences imply that the domesticated rice plant, whether glutinous or not, was the referent.  However, early forms of 稻 *[l]ˤuʔ > dawX > dào have the signific 米 ‘grain’ instead of 禾 ‘grain-bearing grass’, suggesting that the word’s original meaning was that of rice in some kind of grain form, rather than the standing plant. A shift of meaning appears to have taken place between the time of creation of the character and the late OC period, to which the above-cited texts belong. Etymologically, it is possible that the noun belongs to the word-family of 舀 *(m-)l[u]ʔ > yewX > yǎo ‘to scoop’  (used in particular of grain), which is also the phonetic element in 稻 dào.  The word’s meaning at the time the character was created may have been something like ‘rice grains as scooped out of storage and into a mortar for dehusking’. Rice grains are kept in storage with the husks on by the Austronesians in Taiwan, as a protection against humidity, rot and pests. The early Chinese may have followed the same practice. From the point of view of consumers, unhusked rice is rice in its most natural form. A semantic shift extending the meaning of 稻 *[l]ˤuʔ > dawX > dào to include the rice plant would be very natural. It is often the case in the languages of East Asian cereal farmers that the same term designates the plant and its unhusked grains. Different terms typically designate the de-husked grains, the de-husked-and-polished grains, and the cooked grain food.

Now if 稻 dào is innovative as ‘rice plant’, it presumably displaced an earlier word of the same meaning. 稻 dào does not occur in the Shang inscriptions. The only word possibly referring to the rice plant in the Shang inscriptions is a hapax in inscription 13505 of Jiaguwen Heji: 秜 *nrəj > nrij > lí.  Success or failure of rice harvests seems not to have been the subject of much interest on the part of the Shang kings. The main cereals economically were foxtail millet Setaria italica and broomcorn millet Panicum miliaceum. According to Shuo Wen, more than a millennium later,  the meaning of 秜 *nrəj was ‘perennial rice’, that is, rice regrowing each year without reseeding.  Perennial rices are normally wild, but inscription 13505 implies harvesting: ” 乎圃秜于(女+自), 受(有)年 ? ” Liu Zhiji et al. (incl. Takashima) (Jiaguwen jin yi leijian p. 441) translate: “will we harvest a good crop if we order Pu to plow paddies at Zi ?”. Compare this other inscription  (Jiaguwen jin yi leijian p. 2) “令眾黍, 其受(有)年 ?” if we order the multitude to plant millet, will we harvest a plentiful crop?”.

How can we make sense of all this ?  I propose this hypothesis: the word for the domesticated rice plant in Shang times was 秜 *nrəj while 稻 *[l]ˤuʔ, etymologically related to  舀 *(m-)l[u]ʔ > yewX > yǎo ‘to scoop’ , referred to rice grain in storage, still with the husks on. At some point in the first millennium BCE, 稻 *[l]ˤuʔ extended its meaning to include the name of the plant from which the grains came, ultimately displacing 秜 *nrəj as ‘domesticated rice plant’. By the time of Shuo Wen, c. 100 CE, 稻 *[l]ˤuʔ was established as the name of the domesticated rice plant, and 秜 *nrəj only referred to wild (‘perennial’) rice.

At this point we should ask this question: why did a new word for the rice plant, as opposed to the foxtail or broomcorn millet plants, evolve out of a verb ‘to scoop’ ? here we may gain some insights from the grain storage and preparation techniques of the Formosan Austronesians, as observed during our recent fieldwork (Nov 2017) by Mr Hsu Tze-fu of the Institute of Plant and Microbial Biology, Academia Sinica and myself.  While rice is stored as grain with the husks on, foxtail millet is kept in storage in the form of bundles of ears. Once dry, these are crushed underfoot or with a large pestle,  before pounding in the mortar to remove the husks, immediately before cooking. This process involves no scooping. If early Chinese practices were similar,  scooping was rice-specific and ‘scooped grain’ would have been synonymous with ‘rice grain in storage’.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "The name(s) of the rice plant. I: Chinese," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 09/02/2018,

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