In case any interested parties don’t already know about Richard Sears’s Chinese Etymology site, there it is; as Victor Mair says in the Log post where I learned about it, “his website is without equal for its convenience and comprehensiveness in providing early forms of the sinographs” (his database has over 96,000 ancient and archaic Chinese characters and provides Taiwanese, Cantonese, and Shanghainese transcriptions in addition to Mandarin). After praising the site, Mair adds:
The only major problem I myself have with the site is its title, “Chinese Etymology,” I don’t consider what Sears does to be “etymology” per se. Written symbols (characters, letters, graphs, etc.) do not have etymologies. Rather, they undergo evolution and development. Thus, Sears’ work has to do with Chinese character structure, analysis, and evolution, not etymology. True Chinese etymology has to take into account the development of sounds and meanings through time (roots, derivatives, cognates, etc.). For that, the most convenient, reliable, and authoritative source for the early period is Axel Schuessler’s ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese.
I should point out, however, that it is very common, both among specialists in the field of Chinese Studies and among the lay public, to refer to the analysis of character structure as “etymology,” so Sears is certainly not alone in doing so. Still, I consider this a serious issue in Sinology and in Chinese linguistics, just as serious an issue as calling Sinitic languages like Cantonese “dialects.” Chinese linguistics has long been bedeviled by deep confusion between the writing system and language, and it is this confusion that leads people to mistakenly speak of characters as having etymology.
He is, of course, quite correct, but I don’t think the situation is going to change any time soon.