Pictogram () - pictographic representation of an elephant. ? represents the trunk, ? represents the head, and ? represents the body.
This character is used to represent two semantic fields 'elephant; tusk' and 'to outline; to depict; to delineate; to represent; to resemble; to map'. Both fields are found from the earliest layers of the edited literature onwards, whereas only the first meaning is amply attested in oracle bone inscriptions.
Traditionally, the two senses are treated as related, with the sense of 'to depict; to resemble' considered a derivative of the sense of 'elephant'. The derivation from the 'elephant' meaning to the 'likeness' meaning is explained in Han Feizi[ca. 221 BCE]: "Men rarely see living elephants. As they come by the skeleton of a dead elephant, they imagine its living form according to its features. Therefore it comes to pass that whatever people use for imagining the real is called ?."
Modern etymology studies on Old Chinese have challenged this opinion.
As for the 'elephant; tusk' sense, this is a widely used area word in East and Southeast Asia. Literature opinions differ on the origin and immediate relationship of this Chinese word; some (e.g. Schuessler, 2007) believe the Chinese form is a loanword from a Southern language, since "it is hard to believe that people all over SE Asia and as far away as the Himalayan foothills would borrow a word for an indigenous animal from Northern China". Others believe the direction of borrowing is reversed (i.e. Tai-Kadai borrowing from Chinese), and that Chinese ? should be compared with Tibetan(glang), ?(glang chen, "elephant") arising from a common Proto-Sino-Tibetan*gla?("ox, bull; elephant"), which may ultimately have an Austroasiatic origin. The second viewpoint is supported by the early attestation of this character and the archaeological findings of the historical ranges of elephants. However, Schuessler disputes that second viewpoint and links ST *gla? to Mandarin? (g?ng) "ox, bull".
See below for a tentative borrowing history of the various forms of this general area word.