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Does anyone else find it weird that "rubber" and "oak" are written with the same character? 橡

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I know it happens from time to time that a single character can have very different meanings, distinguishable only from context. But on the other hand, rubber and oak are both forms of tree and so the potential for confusion seems at least slightly higher than usual. Not only are they both types of tree, but they are both used as raw materials for making other things. Are there some products that could use either rubber or oak in production? I'm guessing there must be products where the word oak or rubber gets reduced to a single character in the name.


Does anyone know the origins of the character 橡 and how it got to be used for two very different trees?

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What is a 橡?


No seriously, what in English is called an "oak" is a common tree to British and Americans alike, and widely lauded and familiarised in folklore and culture, even if you are urbanite (like myself, where the closest oak was probably the name of a pub). "Rubber" on the other hand displaced the Quechua-through-French derived caoutchouc, and was in common currency from the later decades of the 18th century (the OED gives citations from the 1770-80s for Indian rubber / India rubber etc.), from its ability to rub out pencil marks.  


In Chinese, 橡 is almost never used on its own as a character. Its use in classical Chinese refers mainly to the acorns (橡子 in modern Mandarin), a rather widely consumed food across East Asia. The character 栎 is more commonly used in common names of Quercus species, but again in combination with 树. The "rubber" definition is of course much more familiar, 橡皮 for "eraser" and "橡胶" for the substance. For the tree then, 橡胶树 would refer to whichever Hevea species.


But yes, it is confusing, and judging from Baidu Zhidao, Chinese-speaking people do get confused by the two.

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It's almost never used on its own, that is totally true. Recently I was looking at a receipt from muji in Taiwan and there was something that i read as 'rubber container' that was actually 'oak container'. i can't find the receipt and maybe the second part of the product name was something other than 'container', but this is basically where i thought of the question.


to reiterate, it was shortened to '橡' in a product name, hence why i used the character in isolation. 

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  • 1 month later...

It's quite simple actually......To know the answer you just need to know how rubber was made initially (before modern industries). Then you'll understand it's quite reasonable that they share the same character. 


btw this is a perfect example of a difference between Chinese and Latin languages (or rather ideographic languages and phonetic languages), that is, words that are linked in meanings are also linked literally, like  “橡树”(oak tree), “橡皮”(rubber/eraser) and “橡胶/乳胶”(rubber). There will always be a reason why certain words share a same character. That "a single character can have very different meanings, distinguishable only from context" is mostly because some of their meanings were lost or abandoned in the history.

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  • 4 weeks later...
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As a native speaker, I use both meanings so spontaneously that I never notice the different meanings in this character. Thus I think it's just a word shares two different meanings due to certain simplifications of Chinese characters.Moreover, I think some Chinese without much preciseness in phraseology may not be able to tell the difference between 橡树(oak) and 橡胶树(rubber tree).


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On 8/6/2018 at 11:17 AM, FrankSe said:

quite simple actually......To know the answer you just need to know how rubber was made initially


@FrankSe that’s wonderful! I will get around to googling that. I hope you’re correct, often I wonder if there’s an interesting connection in how something is written and it turns out to be a coincidence or borrowing based on sound etc.


how did you learn about this?

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