Over two millenia ago, ancient Chinese civilizations began to create artistic miniature landscapes. About seven hundred years ago, that practice was adopted by Japanese Zen Buddhists, who turned it into a spiritual activity. Eventually, they stopped doing whole landscapes and made the activity centered around miniature trees, which they called bonsai, a noun roughly meaning "tray plant" (these trees were often grown in trays). The roots of that hopefully-familiar term are bon, meaning "pot", "bowl", or "tray", and sai, a verb meaning "to plant". Similar to the practice's evolution, those words came from China, apparently from characters meaning "tub" and "cultivation"; not much is known after that. Google NGrams shows high usage of the word in the 1960s and 1990s but large dips of unpopularity in the '40s and '70s.
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Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic. This year, I graduated from Harvard University with a degree in Government and Linguistics. There, I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society and wrote a thesis on Serbo-Croatian language policy, magna cum laude. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy trivia, politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, art history, and law.