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For the two words, watermelon and melon:

  • watermelon --> 西瓜(すいか)
  • melon --> メロン

Watermelon uses hiragana, whereas melon uses katakana.

Why is this set up this way? Is there a special rule that dictates the use of katakana in the original word or something?

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Can you really not think of a reason? In Japanese watermelon is just not water+melon. In German potatoes can be called "Erdapfel", lit. earth apple. Your question is like asking "Why does potato not contain the word apple?" – Earthliŋ Jan 16 '13 at 6:03
The confusing bit of this question is the last sentence. What is the general rule that you believe this is an exception to? – jkerian Jan 16 '13 at 14:43
@Retrosaur no, the Japanese word for melon is not メロン. You were right to begin with: the Japanese word for melon can be found in the Japanese word for watermelon. You can read this in my answer below, but here are the key translations. Melon=瓜(うり). Watermelon=西瓜(すいか). Muskmelon=メロン. Hope that helps. – David Jan 17 '13 at 0:20
Retrosaur @snailplane if you're on a machine on which you can't or don't want to install an IME, you can use an online one. google.co.jp/search?q=online+japanese+ime – David Jan 17 '13 at 0:40
A colleague once related to me that one of her first year Japanese students, junior or high school students I think, tried to look up the word asshole. It was not in the dictionary, so they looked up ass (ロバ, hence donkey) and hole (穴 ana). Then the class started teasing each other by saying 「あなたはロバ穴です」. Needless to say, language does not work like this... – Dono Jan 17 '13 at 1:28
up vote 13 down vote accepted

西瓜(すいか)is a Japanese word, borrowed from the Chinese. It is not known exactly when watermelons arrived in Japan, though it was most likely after the Muromachi period (1333-1573 CE). Words which are native to Japan, borrowed from China, or borrowed a long time ago tend to be written in Kanji and Hiragana. Incidentally, 「西」means west and 「瓜」means melon or gourd.

メロン on the other hand is an imported word from the English melon. This word refers to Muskmelons which were imported in the late Meiji (1868-1912 CE) or early Taisho (1912-1926 CE) periods. Words which are not Japanese or Chinese in origin are often written in Katakana.

Normally, melons which were passed to the east of the Middle East contain the kanji 瓜(うり)and melons passed to west of the Middle East contain the word メロン.

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More details on 西瓜: gogen-allguide.com/su/suika.html – snailplane Jan 16 '13 at 12:27
Note that 西瓜{すいか} does not contain the word 瓜{うり}, though it contains the kanji 瓜. Did you mean to say the latter? – snailplane Jan 17 '13 at 0:31
Yes, sorry it was a loose use of the word "word". I'll make it more clear. – David Jan 17 '13 at 5:03

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