In the oracle bone script and early bronze inscriptions, it was originally 秂, an ideogrammic compound (會意) and phono-semantic compound (形聲, OC *niːŋ): semantic 禾(“wheat; grain”) + phonetic 人(OC *njin, “person”) – a person carrying wheat on his back – harvest.
In bronze inscriptions after the Western Zhou period, a stroke was often added to 人 to give 千 (OC *sn̥ʰiːn), which still acted as a phonetic component, and this form (秊) was inherited by later scripts. The current form is inherited from the clerical script, where libian (隸變) has occurred.
Although 年 is the generic term for year, years of age are typically expressed in 歲／岁 (suì), a separate system based on the duodecennial orbital period of Jupiter. Ages in 歲／岁 (suì) are traditionally reckoned using the Chinese lunar calendar, beginning with 1 at the moment of birth and increasing not during birthdays but at the Chinese New Year.