Reasons behind Kanji combinations?

I think this might have been asked several time before but I can’t find any threat realated to it. (Probably because I don’t know the right keyword)

Is there any site or book that explain the reasons behind the combination of Kanji in vocabulary? I know it might be vague and not really helpful. I’m just curious and interested in their historical context. My big bet is a lot of them are written that way just because the combination of those kanji make that sounds so they use it for those words. Back in past when they just adopted Chinese writing system.

I might impress a girl in a party by explaining why 経済 = economy when 経 = passage of time and 済 = come to an end. Right guys!!? Am I right???


I got nothing general at the moment, but I can tell you 経済(けいざい) is of Chinese origin and is not an example of rendaku.

I was able to impress my ex to a degree by knowing about rendaku


I don’t know about a specific book, but one tip / motivator for getting comfortable reading native material, is you can google X 語源 to get articles about the etymology of words.
For example, here’s a relatively trustworthy looking source about 経済:

It goes into a bunch of interesting detail that I’ve only skimmed so far… but it sounds like originally it arose as a contraction of 経世済民, an ancient phrase meaning:


(~~(extremely roughly) govern the world, help the people)
and then came to mean what it does now in a roundabout way through the meiji era via 経済学 → political economy → “economy” → 経済 = “economy”


Type “word 語源” in google (btw 語源=etymology), check the first few results, and translate it by pasting the content into deepl. Usually you can get a fairly good idea.
For example with 経済, copy and paste the 語源 part of the wikipedia article into deepl and you will get a nice summary of the (fairly complicated) history of the term.


Is there a reason you say it’s not rendaku? ざい isn’t one of the base readings, it’s さい. That implies it becomes ざい by rendaku, no?

It’s basically the same thing with why 国 in 中国 is ごく and not こく.

Edit: after looking at the Tofugu article you linked, I see it has a guideline that Chinese origin words don’t rendaku. I think this is meant as a rule of thumb when making longer compounds from existing kango words. Even then, there are common examples of rendaku’d Chinese origin words in longer compounds.

顔写真 is かおじゃしん, for instance.
夫婦喧嘩 is ふうふげんか

It’s a guideline, not a statement that Chinese origin words can’t have rendaku.


This is certainly true for a lot of stuff. See the “words that borrow the reading of the characters” section from this tofugu article for a little bit of detail (and the rest of the article for some other interesting cases in this subject area).
Over time as you get used to seeing more kanji, I’d say ateji like that get relatively easy to spot – the characters used for phonology and not meaning are (often) ones with a (relatively) unambiguous reading. Which makes sense when you think about it!

1 Like

I thought the same and submitted it as an example of rendaku for a linguistics assignment. My professor explained that it wasn’t in no uncertain terms.

I remember well because it was the first homework assignment. I checked out a Japanese textbook and looked up words that looked like they had rendaku for it. She didn’t assign any homework that required prior Japanese knowledge after that. :sweat_smile:


I like when they just make up new kanji for animals in the laziest way possible, like 麒麟 or 鮟鱇 or even 鵞鳥
“It looks like a 鹿 and we call it a 其粦, look what do you want from me I have 500 more animals to get through just today”

yeah I know nobody uses those anymore


Did they say what they say it is?

1 Like

She just said it was another reading of 済.

I see on Wiktionary it’s listed as kan’youon reading. In other words, non-standard or corrupted readings. In other words, さい was imported and then at some point it was corrupted to ざい after the fact in some words.

If only we had a word for the phenomenon of voiceless readings becoming voiced in the second position of a compound…

I guess maybe there is some linguistic distinction to be made, but it seems like a distinction without a difference in the end.


Given that she’s a professor of Japanese Linguistics who’s (co)written at least five books, most definitely. It wasn’t something she was going to explain to only undergrad in the class who didn’t know any Japanese the first week of classes though lol


Yeah, it’s kinda like the origin of the word “economy” is two Greek words meaning “house” and “allocate”. No English speaker, even native ones, knows this any more. They just learned the word “economy” with the current meaning and don’t investigate the etymology in great detail.


It means “reflected sound as of underground spirits”.

1 Like


This is a lie, clearly you know this.


Is it? I mean, I see a literary usage in my Chinese dictionary, meaning that the word is almost definitely quite old, but from what I’ve heard (I can’t remember when or where because it’s been quite a while), the use of 経済 to mean ‘economy’ was invented in Japan, and was then reimported into China. Quite a few technical words in modern Chinese are from Japan, even if some refuse to admit it, and that makes sense because Japan started importing and translating Western concepts first.

Hahaha. Maybe. I mean, I think that many native speakers simply use words without thinking about how they came to mean what they do now, so it would probably be impressive.

However, in this case, I think that it’s just a result of multiple and meanings of kanji. I think that in 経済,

  • 経 means ‘to manage’ (like in 経営)
  • 済 means ‘to provide material assistance (i.e. with money and objects)’

In fact, that’s exactly what’s in the literary definition of 経済 in Chinese: ‘to administer the world and provide material aid to the people; to manage a country’. I think that the Japanese translators responsible for translating ‘economy’ must have decided to extend that notion, because a country’s ability to provide material aid very much depends on the state of its economy, and it’s also something the government needs to manage and upkeep.

EDIT: ah, I see that @rodan’s link has a very similar explanation. Well, I was just taking a stab in the dark using my Chinese dictionary for assistance. Hope the kanji breakdown was helpful, at the least.

Well, there are exceptions. I had some vague idea that it was linked to ‘households’, and I’m a native speaker of English. (Oxford says the second half means ‘manage’ though – I was expecting something about ‘law’, to be honest, like how ‘autonomy’ actually means ‘own/self law’.) However, the reason I know this is because I had to study some translated Greek texts in France, and since our literature teachers are Greek/Latin buffs, we ended up learning some etymology too.


This topic was automatically closed 365 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.