Is organic really organic?

There’s always a few characters that form combinations seemingly different from their individual meanings that always cause me to double take. One of particular menace has been the word for “organic” in Chinese.

有機
“have” + “machine” = “organic”?

WHAT.

So, suffice it to say I’ve always been curious as to how this seemingly contradictory nugget came about in Chinese. So, to the internet we go!

Breaking it Apart

Now, 有 (have) I don’t think really needs any explanation. Here it simply means just that. But what do organic foods have that requires this word in the Chinese translation?

It was 機 (machine) that posed the real trouble for me. So I ran off to my favorite online Chinese dictionaries (sorry you won’t be finding this definition in your basic English<–>Chinese dictionary! Okay, yes, some put in “organic” in the definition but it misses out on some of the true beauty behind Chinese characters that can only be found in the original definitions. Or I’m just crazy).

Anyway, the definition listed for 機 is: 「有生命的生物體器官的作用」which shows that it can be used for describing the parts of living things. That is, things that are alive. So, in a sense, 有機 could be read as meaning “have life”. Which can further be taken to be used in the Chinese name for “organic chemistry”–有機化學, which has carbon–a basic fundamental building block of living things–as its basis.

So what this all breaks down to is something which has life is something that is natural. This means that when something is organic, it doesn’t have any of those nasty man made chemically mucking things up.

Of course I could just be really over analyzing this and ought to just say 有機=organic and leave it at that.

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5 thoughts on “Is organic really organic?

  1. I wrote a short post last year about this very word. Then in the comments someone asked the question why it means ‘organic’. After doing some dictionary searching it seems that 有機 is short for 有機體 which means “organism”.
    Post link: http://chinesehacks.com/vocabulary/how-to-say-organic-in-chinese/
    Dictionary entry for 有機體: http://tw.dictionary.search.yahoo.com/search?p=%E6%9C%89%E6%A9%9F%E9%AB%94&fr2=dict

    • Glad to see I’m not the only one with that question! Thanks for sharing the link to the entry as well as the dictionary. Very interesting that one and I learned a new word (有機體). Woo!

  2. Nice to see another post on this word. Glad you dug a bit deeper to figure it out.

    It’s always a dangerous thing to try and understand a word based off of it’s characters. That’s how we end up hearing crap like the Chinese word for crisis (危机) = danger + opportunity.

  3. Bonjour, 你好 !
    Thanks for your very interesting blog. Here I wish to post about 有机 for “organic” meaning. I first was surprised since for me 机( 機 )means “machine” in the way of “mechanics”, so that this character doesn’t interfere with whether whe speak about things or human beings. Human beings are made of mechanics (skeleton, muscles… with there co-working abilities). In dance field, we commonly speak about organic gesture… Besides, in CMT there is the word 病机,for pathomechanism… and also 气机,for ” qì ” dynamic. I also want to point that the character 机( 機 )has 木 semantic component which recall us that most machines were actually wood build mechanics.
    So, nowadays, the character 机( 機 )is translated by machine only for his mechanic generic meaning.
    Hope to get your comments about that… Thanks.

    • Hello there! Thank you for you comment 🙂

      I think that is a really interesting way to think about it, “Human beings are made of mechanics (skeleton, muscles… with there co-working abilities)” and may actually be an even better exaplanation than what I described above. It would be more than it has the organic “mechanics”–the “machines” even–of life. I never thought of it that way before, but it makes a lot of sense!

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