Graphical etymology
sword; saber; knife
on: TOU
kun: katana sori
names: ki chi to waki
strokes: 2
radical: 刀, 刂,⺈ (no. 18)
knife; blade; single-edged sword; cutlass; CL: 把 ; (slang) dollar (loanword); classifier for sets of one hundred sheets (of paper); classifier for knife cuts or stabs;
pinyin: dāo
[free morpheme] (can be used on its own)
strokes: 2
radical: 刀, 刂,⺈ (no. 18)

Graphical etymology

刀 is a pictogram of a knife or sword with a single edge.¹ More clearly written out it looked like , which clearly shows the blade on top. Probably for ease of writing, the shape of 刀 was distorted early on (see below) and in those forms it is not entirely clear what part is the handle and what part the blade.²

When used as a component in composite graphs, at the right 刀 often looks like 刂, on top like ⺈.


  1. Ochiai writes that at the time of the Shang dynasty the main weapons of the warrior where the lance and the bow. The weapon depicted in 刀 would have been a somewhat small ancillary weapon (Ochiai, 2016, p. 355). Qiú simply writes “knife”, which Schuessler gives as the early meaning (Qiú, 2000, p. 180; Schuessler, p. 206). It seems that as the sword became more important, the word 刀 was used for that as well (Kroll, p. 78).
  2. Ochiai gives the example of “divide” to argue that in that graph the top part is used to divide and therefore the blade. However, the graph “blade” has the mark indicating the blade usually towards or on the bottom part.


Bronze inscription for 刀.

Developmental overview for 刀 [Sinica database].

Additional details for 刀

Morohashi: 1845 2.0188
Item no. in Henshall: 181
SKIP code: 3-1-1
Four corner code: 1722.0
Korean reading: do
Kanjidic cross references: variant kanji (JIS): 06E5B; 13331
Unihan English meanings (for Chinese):
knife; old coin; measure
Unihan on: TOU
Unihan kun: KATANA
Unihan pinyin: dāo
Unihan kSemanticVariants: , [kMatthews]
Unihan kZVariant: