Keys: How Many Words Do We Need?

I know I’m going to start to sound like a huài le 坏了 record, but here’s yet another example of why we need better data in the dictionaries.

Recently, on the weibo-sphere, I saw a lost and found notice about a ring of keys. They used the word:

I’ve been in China almost seven years and this was a first for me. I’ve talked about, lost, and copied many a key in my day, and I’ve only heard and seen:

The disturbing thing is: I can’t deny that suǒchí 锁匙 is a real word for keys and it’s really in use. There it was, staring me in the face on the weibo.

But imagine I just arrived in China and saw this weibo post and wanted to know which word to use. How would I know? What’s the difference between these two words? Is it regional? Is it written / spoken? Formal / informal? Are there slight differences in connotations?

The dictionaries I have don’t give me the answers to those questions. None of my paper dictionaries even have suǒchí 锁匙 (although one has suǒyuè 锁钥!).

And to make things worse, I thought to myself, “Well at least I know ‘key’ on a piano / computer keyboard, etc. is jiàn .”

Then I see MDBG’s entry:

  • jiàn (door lock) key / key (on piano or keyboard)

Oh no! “Door lock key” is listed there too! But is it really used that way?

All my experience says that yàoshi 钥匙 is absolutely the most frequently used word. Signs for key copying places use it. People say it. So I’m not too worried about getting this one right. But still, I’d like to know what the difference is between these words. And is jiàn really ever used to mean “door lock key”?

This seems to be the nature of Chinese: It’s rare to find a thing or concept that there’s only one Chinese word for. So we need the dictionaries to help us make sense of all these synonyms.

Any thoughts on keys or dictionaries, feel free to leave a comment.

27 Replies to “Keys: How Many Words Do We Need?”

  1. 鎖匙 is the standard Cantonese word for key. In Hong Kong some people use this word even when speaking in Mandarin, in which case they pronounce it suǒshí, not suǒchí (in my experience).

    • @Richard Warmington,

      Woah! That lexicalist site is awesome!… except for the Google “malware detected” message I got which stopped me from investigating beyond the link you sent. Do you know how they get their data?

  2. In 1998, when CEDICT had just started, the definition of was just “(door lock) key”. But there were lots of errors in those early editions of the dictionary, and many of them remain to this day. Clearly, someone has come along later and added “key (on piano or keyboard)” but left the original “(door lock) key” because they couldn’t prove it was wrong. In fact, other dictionaries give “bolt (of a door)” or as one sense of , but I don’t see (door lock) key” elsewhere.

  3. I got the malware message too, but I tried it again a few minutes later, and got straight through.

    Lexicalist China uses the same artificial intelligence techniques used by Lexicalist for English in the United States to learn who’s talking about what on social networking sites in mainland China. The result is a demographic picture of language in actual use today.

    • See the current trends at the right to explore what gender and geographic populations are behind today’s rising topics in Chinese.
    • Explore language to see the regional variations in written Chinese, and how different populations use certain words more characteristically than others.

    … the translations for individual Chinese words and phrases come from the open source CC-CEDICT word dictionary and, for more recent phrases and translations of names, from Wikipedia (i.e., automatically identifying Chinese and English versions of the same article).

    Lexicalist is developed by David Bamman, a PhD student in the School of Computer Science (Language Technologies Institute) at Carnegie Mellon University. Feel free to contact me at

  4. Yes, I agree with Jens Ørding Hansen. I think at some point in history Cantonese was the dominant language and there are still remnants of that in Mandarin.

  5. FWIW, the ABC dictionary (electronic version) defines 锁匙 as “key” and identifies it as “topolect”, a term to indicate “regional/dialect”. It also shows suǒshi as an alternate spelling meaning “lock and key”.

  6. I encounter this problem all the time: I look up a word and then proceed to use it in my homework. My teacher comes back tome and tells me that there’s a better way to use it. I don’t think this is necessarily a call for better dictionaries (though that would help) but more an artifact of language learning. I can think of a number of times I’ve read an English translation from Chinese that is technically correct, but it lacks an authenticity that only a native English speaker or a more serious student of English could provide.

    While it is frustrating at times, I think this is a great way to challenge Chinese language learners to try out things in a real linguistic environment rather than only use a dictionary as their sole source of learning. (I’m not saying that dictionaries are useless…just that they are limited.)

  7. Hanping on Android (which uses CC-CEDICT), automatically gives the search results in order of word frequency.

    If you search “key” the first results are:

    1. 重点 zhòngdiǎn – (key point)
    2. 关键 guānjiàn – (key, as in something crucial)
    3. diào – (key, as in music)
    4. 钥匙 yàoshi – (key, as in door)

    锁匙 suǒchí comes in at number 11

  8. I’d say the best way to approach learning Chinese is not to focus on the word (two characters) but as each character by itself.

    Suo3 by itself means “to lock”, it’s a verb.

    chi2 by itself means “spoon” but it also can be pronounced “shi4” like in Yaoshi (key).

    so it short, yaoshi is key while suochi is keylock 🙂

    As for jian4, it’s mainly used in keypad or keyboard. In a way, “key” is unlocking lots of wisdom.

    All of the above characters has the metal radical which makes sense since keys are made out of metal. One day they may be made out of plastic or ceramic of which the word will change again.

  9. I might speak from a native’s point of view. I really don’t get it why has anything to do with 锁匙 or 钥匙 ?

    钥匙 has the only and unique meaning of “the key used to open a lock”. When a native thinks about word 钥匙 in his/her mind, is the most related word that lift to “standby” state. Although 锁匙 is not widely used through out China, a native would have no problem to bring up the closest related commonly used words of 钥匙 and . Then do a simple “mix & match”, bingo!

    Actually lots of new Chinese words that were generated from the web were the result of a “mix & match”.

    As for 钥匙 and , the only connection between them that I can see is that they are both translated as “key” in English.

  10. The connection between 锁匙 / 钥匙 and is this:

    has, in addition to the more modern senses of “keyboard key” and “piano key”, the older sense of “bolt (of a door)”, as described in this dictionary entry for :
    1) 門閂。淮南子˙主術:「五寸之鍵,制開闔之門。」

    It seems likely that it’s for this reason that the Japanese use (pronounced “kagi” in Japanese) to mean “(door) key” — like a bolt, a key is something that can lock and unlock a door.

  11. I also first came across 鎖匙 when arriving in HK, as the Cantonese word which I tried to use as a Mandarin word.

    Sometimes I have used a search engine to choose between two words which both matched the meaning I wanted. Of course, sorting by frequency helps, but even when looking for a site on a search engine, it’s often not the one at the top of the results.

    But these days I find myself using the built-in Jukuu sentence function, to read sentences and thus decide which is the word I’m actually looking for.

    And of course

    • @Greg,

      Seems we’re missing the end (and supposedly most obvious) part of your comment. I too have resorted to Google hits from time to time. Strange that that’s the best we can do sometimes.

  12. Good research, Richard. May I say you guys get confused because you know too much about Chinese language, even more than most natives. 🙂

  13. Pingback: Super Notes for a Super Chinese Dictionary? « 3000Hanzi Blog

  14. You’re right yàoshi is definitely the more common and formatl way.

    I think that’s quite impossible to know the exact number of Chinese words that one should know before he/she speaks.

    It’s important to learn some basic words for conversation, but by listening constantly and pile up those “new words” on your foundation, you’ll improve your conversational Chinese constantly.

    Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, ask people what they mean and try to integrate them into your database!

  15. We say 锁匙 in Cantonese (just suǒchí is Mandarin pronunciation, not Cantonese), and the name makes perfect sense.

    = lock
    = “the thing to open the lock” (definition in Xinhua Dictionary 新华字典)

    These are how ancient Chinese lock and the key look like:
    You can see the key looks like a spoon. This might explain why “key” and “spoon” is sharing the same character (but do notice they have different pronunciations).

    钥匙 is standard Mandarin, there’s no doubt about it.

    But i want to point out that Cantonese (language) preserves a lot of ancient Chinese (it didn’t changed much since Ming dynasty). I don’t know how the people in other provinces call KEY in ancient time, but 锁匙 existed very early for sure.

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