Wow, 的 was based on -tic (as in systematic, romantic, etc) in English?!

So I was randomly browsing Japanese Wikipedia and found this:

日本では近代になり、形容詞を生成する語尾である英語の -ic の音訳に「的」が使われるようになった。本来は (teki) を、Romantic 浪漫的のように、 -t で終わる語根に -ic が付いて語尾が -tic となった語の音訳に使われた。後に、 -ic 全般の音訳に使われるようになった。この音訳は西洋文献の翻訳において多用された。


It said that 的 was based on -tic in English (as used in words like systematic and romantic) because it sounded like it, and was commonly used in translations of Western literature.

It had no sources for this, so I checked Kotobank just to be sure and, yep:

[補説] 1 は、中国語の「の」の意味に当たる助辞の使い方にならって、明治時代の翻訳文のなかで、英語の‐ticなどの形容詞的な語の訳語に「的」を当てはめたことに始まる。

So the kanji means the equivalent of “の” in Chinese, but Meiji Period translators started translating the “-tic” in English words as “的” and it stuck.

It’s so cool and weird that I never noticed that before… Does anyone happen to know any other examples of kanji-fyed English? I knew about 亜米利加(アメリカ) and such, but 的 was something I never expected.


The word you are looking for is 当て字, and there are loads of them, both in Japanese and Chinese. Pretty much every country has 当て字, but some are more common than others, especially in a shorthand form. For instance, you might have seen the shorthand for フランス・仏蘭西→仏 or オランダ・阿蘭陀→蘭. 当て字 have largely fallen out of favor, probably since they bring all of the difficulties that 漢字 have, but discard most of the benefits, since the meaning of the characters are usually discarded.

Another example of 当て字 using 的 is 的士, but it’s not Japanese, but Cantonese, an is pronounced “dik si”, meaning taxi.

I also want to note that 的’s meaning of の in Chinese is a fairly recent development, and is not connected to the original meaning of the character.

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Also from European languages, some reference books have katakana readings 釦 ボタン for push buttons and 哩 マイル for miles. RTK readers will be familiar with such cases.

The pound symbol ℔ was handwritten in cursive to look like a “u” with a stroke through the top. There is a corresponding 和製 kanji from the 19th century that was recently proposed for inclusion in Unicode. L2/20-145 shows evidence from old documents.

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@fkb9g Woah, that’s awesome! Thanks for posting that! For some reason I find kanji like this really fascinating. It’s interesting to see how they incorporated English loanwords into Japanese before katakana…

I came across 硝子 (ガラス) recently, and the kanji choice struck me as kind of odd, until I did a little research and found that it’s because saltpeter is used to make glass, and then it made sense.

@Taishi Thanks! 当て字, that was the word I was looking for. It’s interesting that Chinese also has it too.

Also, so 的 wouldn’t mean the equivalent of “の” in Chinese in the Meiji Period? Hmm, I wonder if Japanese Meiji Period translators just looked at a book in Chinese and picked out 的 at random to have something to use when translating adjectives in English books…

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The character must have had that meaning in the Meiji era (in kanbun, I imagine), or the people translating English to Japanese wouldn’t have made the coinage. The Wikipedia article says it’s hardly used (あまり用いられず) in Classical Chinese, not that it’s never used. (It also says the common current use of 的 as a particle in Chinese is from the 1930s, which is definitely too late to have been an influence. But there’s probably a reason that 1930s development in the Chinese language hit on that character to represent it and not some other…)

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Yeah, I realise that “fairly recent” was a bit ambigous in this case. Maybe it was older than i thought, but I’m fairly certain this usage did not exist in old Chinese. I found citations from the 宋 dynasty (1000 years ago), but it i don’t know if this is the earliest usage.

Also regarding 当て字 in Chinese, you won’t find examples like 硝子 where the pronunciation doesn’t match with the characters. And they call it 音訳.