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.