Graphical etymology
officer; an official
on: RI
kun: tsukasa
names: sato shi
strokes: 6
radical: (no. 30) (Nelson uses 丿, no. 4)
minor government official or functionary (old);
[bound morpheme] (only part of a word or expression)
strokes: 6
radical: (no. 30) (Nelson uses 丿, no. 4)

Graphical etymology

According to Ochiai, the graphs 吏, 使, , and have the same origin. It seems that early forms like (see below) show a hand gripping the handle of a container holding documents¹ or writing materials.² Apparently the original word produced a set of extended or derivative meanings for which variant forms of the graph evolved.³ For 吏 Outlier writes that the extra line 一 in 吏 serves no other purpose that to distinguish the graph from 史.⁴

The early meaning for the word 吏 is “government official”.⁵



  1. Ochiai, 2016, p. 113.
  2. Outlier; Seeley et al. seem to argue that 史 only happens to look a lot like 吏. However, Schuessler has a word family that has the word 史 (also written as 使) among words 使 and 吏—with 事 as possibly related also (Schuessler, p. 350; p. 465).
  3. Ochiai, ibid.; Qiú, 2000, pp. 324-325; See also Schuessler, p. 350.
  4. Outlier, entry for 吏.
  5. Ochiai, ibid. Schuessler, p. 350.


OBI for the protoform of 吏, 使, 史, 事.

Additional details for 吏

Frequency in Japanese: not frequent
Morohashi: 3299 2.0838
Item no. in Henshall: 1894
SKIP code: 4-6-4
Four corner code: 5000.6; 5004.6
Korean reading: ri
Unihan English meanings (for Chinese):
government official, magistrate
Unihan on: RI
Unihan kun: TSUKASA
Unihan pinyin: lì
Unihan kZVariant: