Why do Japanese recipes sometimes say 玉子 instead of 卵?

I mean, etymologically, it makes sense. It’s a little ball. A child ball. A baby inside a ball. But why the different spellings?

This recipe on Cookpad even uses 玉子 in the title and 卵 in the recipe itself. Is there a historical reason or something?


玉子 is cooked eggs.
卵 is eggs in general, especially unbroken raw eggs


Well, that explains 味付け玉子. Still weird to have a different spelling even though they’re pronounced the same, although being an English speaker, it’s rather the pot calling the kettle black…

Wonder how they ended up with the two different kanji?

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This happens all the time with kanji. You have different kanji to express different nuances of the same word.

The たま + こ meaning is the Japanese origin of the word for egg generally. Remember, たま and こ are Japanese-origin words that come from before they used kanji.

But then they adopted kanji and there is a single kanji that means egg, which is 卵, so they applied the Japanese word to that.

That kanji is the most neutral and scientific one for talking about eggs, but when you’re going to use one for food, it feels a little different I guess. So just using the kanji that directly relate to the original meaning feels right maybe.


That is actually a super interesting explanation that I hadn’t considered. I actually thought たまご wasn’t derived from 玉 and 子 because of the single kanji. I wonder if there are any other words that are morphologically simple/inseparable in Chinese (ie, written with only 1 character) but are compound words in Japanese. Historical linguistics is so interesting!

Where do you learn something like that?

edit: I suppose 熱い and 暑い are a result of the same.


You may be interested in this thread.


Thanks for sharing! I know what I’m going to be reading tonight…

I got the picture that there are other examples of Japanese words differentiating between various states of the same “ingredient”/noun. I didn’t know this about eggs, but it follows the same principle.

One example is salmon 鮭 (WK teaches this difference) as being pronounced as either さけ or しゃけ.

Some explanation about when to use さけ versus しゃけ.
They’re both technically right. But, typically when you refer to the living animal, you use さけ, and when you refer to salmon as a food, it’s more likely to be しゃけ (but it can go either way). There might be some generational and regional differences, though.

*I interpret this as しゃけ suggesting salted, grilled salmon, which might be served as part of traditional Japanese breakfast for example

I’m not sure where I encountered this, but I got the impression that other fish also have multiple names like this. A good example is tuna 鮪 まぐろ. Here I wasn’t thinking about the various cuts of the fish (which go under several technical terms depending on quality/fatcontent), or varieties of tuna fish, rather I was thinking about the different things the fish is called i) while living in the sea, ii) when being fished, and iii) when it’s dead and sold in stores.

I sense a difference in how we express this in our respective languages. In Swedish and English we just use noun + adjectives, while in Japanese there is a way to express the various states through the use of noun or pronunciation of the noun.

I’m not sure I got everything right here, but, that’s the general impression I got thus far studying Japanese on my own.


さけ/しゃけ is also used to differentiate between alcohol and fish. When cooking, さけalways points to alkohol, while しゃけ always refers to salmon.

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酒 (sake) and 鮭 (salmon) have different kanji though. There are lots of overlapping words in Japanese where different kanji is read the same way, like 弾 (bullet) and 玉 (ball) both being read たま.

That’s true in writing, but while speaking you see no Kanji. Working in a japanese kitchen drilled that into my head. If you find those two words used together in any way, 鮭 will be pronounced しゃけ.
I know there are many others, I just pointed さけ/しゃけ out since you used it in your example.
Of course there are tons of other words reading the same but having different Kanji.
同音異義語 are always fun (/‘u’)/~


Especially in English you usually have different names for the animal while it’s alive vs. when it’s on the plate. This is for historical reasons, because in England back in the day the names for the living animals were in the farmers’ language (which was English) whereas the food names were derived from the nobles’ language (which usually was French at the English court). So you have a lot of these French-derived food names, e.g.

pork (from French porc) vs. pig
beef (from French bœuf) vs. cow/ox
veal (from French veau) vs. calf

and so on. This is very different in German where we call it the same no matter its state.


Whisk two ball-children into a bowl…


I guess, I was too focused on fish there for a second since WK mentions it. But, as you say pork/pig etc are ways of differentiating the status of the same thing, living / cooking ingredient. I’m trying to come up with something fish related, but I’m drawing a blank. Fish and fish fillet isn’t the same difference as the one between cow and beef. :thinking:

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Don’t whisk Pikachuu! >:


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Ooo, rice is a fun one:

稲 = rice on the plant
米 = harvested and threshed, but uncooked rice
ご飯 = cooked rice
飯 = cooked rice as a side dish to a Japanese meal (is also a bit more formal)
ライス = cooked rice as a side dish to a foreign-inspired dish

Ooo. It’s not exactly what you were talking about, but the drama version of 日本人の知らない日本語 (but sadly not the manga version) brings up a fun bit of weirness to do with tuna: counter words.

Live tuna = 一匹
Tuna caught = 一本
Tuna skinned, deboned and such = 一丁
Tuna fillet = 一塊
Tuna presented in restaurant = 一冊
Tuna sashimi = 一切れ


My idea is that sometimes different names make it easier to consume the animal. I would rather eat beef than a poor cow :cow:. Maybe for fish there’s no need to hide where the food comes from because people don’t care as much about fish as they do about mammals.

@NicoleRauch I think in German there are differences too. If i see a cow on a meadow I would probably call: ne Kuh! and not: Ein Rind! :smile::v: But I get what you mean, the distinction is not so clear in German as in some other languages, stimmt schon.


Aaah! This was probably what I was vaguely remembering? But, yeah, all those counters! O_O Why Japanese people? :joy:

And yeah, rice is a good example of the many ways it’s expressed. I sense a general lack of vocabs in my own language in comparison. Rice is rice. >_>

Off-topic remark about German cows

I had to check Wikipedia for this as well, but technically the type of animals is called “Rind”, whereas “Kuh” is the special case of “a female that has given birth”. :woman_shrugging: But yeah, I agree that most people would probably just call them “Kuh” if they see them on a meadow.


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Even in English people say “cow” to refer to any type of cattle, even when it’s a heifer/bull/steer etc. I don’t think there’s really a good singular noun in English for referring to cows that doesn’t include the sex of the animal.

In German though, don’t you still say “fleisch” for talking about the food form of the animal? I mean if someone asked you what you were having for dinner, you wouldn’t say Rind or Kuh… you’d say Rindfleisch?

Or maybe I just think it’s weird to my ears because my native language is English and we don’t say we’re having a cow for dinner.