Jade on sale at a shop in Hong Kong.

Where did the word ‘jade’ come from?

Jul 29, 2019

For the Chinese, jade is more precious than gold.

Also known as the “stone of eternity” for its hardness and durability, it remains a popular baby shower gift because of its association with immortality, wisdom, and protection.

Jade has become coveted the world over, but unlike other Chinese exports like tofu and tea, which derive their English names from the Chinese pronunciation, jade sounds nothing like its Chinese counterparts (yu in Mandarin and yuk in Cantonese).

The Jadeite Cabbage, carved from a single piece of jade, is the most famous work of jade out of China.
The Jadeite Cabbage, carved from a single piece of jade, is the most famous work of jade out of China. / Photo: Shutterstock

So where did the word “jade” come from?

Although known in Europe since the Neolithic era, and used in weapons and worship, jade was sidelined for centuries as a result of metal production and a Roman belief that it was unlucky.

It wasn’t until the 1500s that Western interest in jade was revived.

One account of the English word’s origins involves the Portuguese, the first European explorers in Asia, who encountered jade objects in southern China.

(Read more: The last descendants of Macau’s Portuguese colonizers)

They named it pedra de la mijada, or “stone to urinate,” after learning that it could help expel kidney stones when held to the belly. Mijada then became jada and then jade.

Yet another theory holds that the superstition didn’t come from China, but the Americas.

When the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs of present-day Mexico in the early 1500s, they found that they would hang jade amulets to treat abdominal pain.

Nicolò Monardes, a Spanish doctor at the time, used the phrase piedra de la yjada, or “stone of the loin,” to describe the practice.

An Aztec skull covered with jade pieces.
An Aztec skull covered with jade pieces. / Photo: Shutterstock

The name stuck and was subsequently translated to other languages. The Spanish l’(h)ijada became l’ejade in French, then erroneously le jade, before entering the English lexicon in 1721.

But whatever you call it, jade as a source of beauty and well-being across space and time continues to be unrivaled.

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

Chinese traditionsExplainers