醜 vs. 丑

So I suppose I’ll go ahead and start with some characters since I’m putting the simplification post on hold for now.

chou3 ugly

So our first character is 醜(chǒu), which means “ugly, shameful, disgraceful”. It is a phono-semantic compound (形聲). On the left side we have you3 rooster 酉(yǒu, the 10th earthly branch), which is our phonetic component. On the right, we have gui3 demon 鬼(guǐ), which means “ghost, sly, crafty”.

So there you have it. a simple 漢字, right? Well, let’s see what China did with it during the simplification process.

chou3 SC clown


So what’s wrong with this character? It already existed in Chinese writing and is still a traditional character.

chou3 clown


丑(chǒu) is the 漢字 for the second earthly branch, and it also means “clown”. So while the pronunciation is the same, you now have a character whose meaning must be interpreted depending on the context. In “simplifying” this character, a.k.a. removing it completely from the language and “borrowing” another character with the same pronunciation (rebus/假借) to replace it, we now have a more complicated situation.

While the 12 heavenly stems and 10 earthly branches are not used too much these days, it still gives a bad name to the year of the ox which is represented by 丑. What an ugly year, huh? 囧

(Note the difference between the two 丑s written above. As a traditional character the 3rd stroke has kept its length. Here is 丑 in 小篆(small seal script): SW chou3 clown


SW chou3 ugly Shuowen says: 可惡也。从鬼酉聲。

A direct translation would be something like” “It’s repulsive. From 鬼 with 酉 sound.” A more comprehensive translation might be: “Its meaning is ‘vile, hateful, repulsive’. Its semantic component is 鬼 and its phonetic component 酉.” (Give me feedback on the Shuowen definitions. Would you like them to be included in my posts? No need? Let me know what you think.)

For more information on the 12 heavenly stems and 10 earthly branches(干支), check out this site.