本; different etymologies for different meanings?

So I’ve learned that 本 can mean “book” or “origin”. Does each meaning have a different etymology? Like, did the words for “book” and “origin” happen to be homophones, so they decided to use one Kanji for the both of them? Or did one meaning grow out of the other-- like, is the idea of “book” somehow related to the idea of “origin”? And if they are etymologically unrelated, do other etymologically unrelated words share Kanji?


According to this stackexchange answer that references the 語源 page for 本, the Kanji depicts the roots of a tree and that’s where the origin meaning comes from. The book meaning came about later as the same word was used for the plate they used in making paper copies.


I’m no expert but a little bit of googling seemed to provide a good answer. If you look at the kanji, it’s basically one additional stroke compared to 木 (tree) which is supposed to accentuate the stuff under the tree - the roots. And the connection between roots and origin are apparent not only in Chinese / Japanese but in English as well.

本 later developed to mean book as well, but I’m afraid my Japanese isn’t good enough to understand this website well enough: 本/ほん - 語源由来辞典
Also some information in English: 本 - Wiktionary

(I guess I was a little too slow compared to alo, but I’m still gonna post this answer, who cares :stuck_out_tongue:)


There is the concept of ateji, where certain kanji get used for a word, only because they sound alike. You could write すし as 鮨 or 寿司 where the second one is ateji.


thanks! that’s really interesting

It never crossed my mind that the horizontal line is meant to emphasis the roots. thanks!

I thought there was something like “ateji”, but I didn’t know for sure or what it was called. thanks

Perhaps I just lack knowledge of Japanese history, technology and copying techniques, but I’m fairly sure that before the movable type system was invented in China (it used carved wooden blocks for individual characters), all copying of books in territories using Chinese characters was done by hand, so it’s unlikely that there was any sort of ‘plate’.

Historical digression about traditional kanji copying techniques in China, which probably would have been used in Japan as well

Printing is known as one of the ‘four great inventions of Ancient China’ after all, which would be a grossly inaccurate description if Japan or another country had started doing it first. Before printing was invented, the only other form of copying for texts written in kanji was a technique known as ‘rubbing’, which was used to copy texts engraved in stone. If I remember correctly, rubbing was done by using a cloth pad to force rice paper to conform to contours of the stone. The rice paper would then be tapped using a similar cloth pad that had been dipped in ink. The end result would be a black piece of rice paper covered with white writing, since the recessed sections of the paper would be left unstained.

More importantly though, I have a feeling the StackExchange answer mistranslated/misinterpreted the Gogen Allguide explanation, unless it happens that the answerer knows something about Japanese kanji copying techniques that I don’t: the Gogen Allguide page just says that 本 came to be used to refer to ‘the pieces of writing that were used as originals for copying/transcription’ (emphasis mine), and thenceforth were used to refer to ‘all pieces of writing’ (i.e. 書物: I don’t know if I should translate this as ‘written documents’ instead). The explanation is simply saying that 本 used to refer to master copies.

The only other case I can think of besides ateji, which @Saida mentioned, is when two kanji merge into simplified form, possibly because the original kanji lost their original meaning or because they became very similar to one another. I can’t think of an example in Japanese, so I’ll instead give you an example where two kanji that are still used in both Japanese and Chinese branched out from one (or so I believe). That way, you’ll see what I mean by ‘los[ing] their original meaning’.
曽(そう)currently only means ‘in the past’, and can be used like the word ‘great’ in ‘great-grandfather/grandson’. However, it used to also mean ‘to increase’. That meaning has been lost, however, which is why we now use…
増(ぞう) which means ‘to increase’. It appears in the verb 増える, which means exactly that. The new kanji had to be invented because the other kanji either lost the meaning ‘to increase’ or because it was too confusing.


Every bit counts. :smiley:

This is another one of those instances where translation is imperfect.

原語 has it as 印をつけ

I didn’t want to go over the whole process of traditional printing and figured it was an acceptable compromise. I guess I could have called it the thing that makes the marks on the paper like a big 印鑑 but it’s not exactly like that.

Books isn’t the right word either since it was probably sheafs of scrolls. I don’t even know if “sheafs” conveys it properly since that’s more of a stack of paper rather than rolled together and tied. But then there actually were instances where sheets of paper were bound together with string.

I didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole.

Plus I’m just too lazy to type all that on my phone. :wink:


Yeah, I understand. Hahaha. And to be honest, I have a feeling I forgot about the stage in Chinese printing when carved wooden plates were used, so my bad. (I mean, it’s logical and more convenient to only make plates for certain books when you’re starting out since you don’t know if the technology will take off.) My point, though, was just that the Gogen article didn’t mention printing (or so I believe), but uh…

…did I miss something on the page? All I saw was 書写の元となるような書物. In any case, both Gogen and the Chinese etymology site I checked suggested that the use of 本 to mean ‘book’ came from the use of 本 to refer to a reference book/document.

You’re right about that. At least, if Chinese period dramas are historically accurate. Traditional books in both Japan and China seem to have been bound along their spines using string, but shorter documents might have simply been written on a single sheet of rice paper before being stowed away into a container or stuck onto a piece of cloth for extra protection and support. And of course, before paper, words were often written on bamboo strips.


I know of

Actually there was an original 芸 【ウン】, which is a sort of plant (“rue”); used in 芸香 【ウンコウ】 common rue (Ruta graveolens)

and there is the modern 芸【ゲイ】meaning art, which is a simplification of 藝.


Ah yes. Thank you! I didn’t think of that one because I don’t use the plant name, even in Chinese, but yes, the first time I saw the kanji, I told myself it had to be a plant name. (In any case, the simplification in Chinese is 艺, with 乙 just acting as a phonetic symbol, so 芸 looked pretty weird the first time.) That’s a perfect example. Thank you again!

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