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口実 noun: excuse;  pretext

Literally translated it seems to mean mouth-truth. Most excuses seem to avoid the truth, so what is the logic here?

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Perhaps the kanji stands as opposed to 事実 (with the kanji pointing to a meaning of something like = truth of the matter). Compared with 口実 (with the kanji pointing to something like = stated/spoken truth). Also the kanji 口 often pops up in words suggesting negative/deceptive speak even when the negative aspect is not obvious. E.g. 口先 lip service、口出し butting in、口答え back talk. –  atheistwithrum May 19 '13 at 4:59
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up vote 6 down vote accepted

The kanji 実 means other things besides just "truth". Take a look at the old form 實, or the older forms on chineseetymology.org. You can see three distinct components:

  • A roof 宀, symbolizing a building
  • A crop field 田 (sometimes written with extra dots to show that it is full of crops)
  • A shell 貝 symbolizing money, value (of the crops)

Here's how Henshall explains these elements in A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters:

[This character] originally referred to a house made prosperous through bumper crops. The idea of house has now disappeared, leaving such meanings as crop, fullness, substance, ripen, and by extension bear fruit and reality. Unusually, the semi-abstract idea of bumper crop was also extended to the physical crop, giving fruit, nut, etc.

So as you can see, you can't simply assume 実 means "truth". In this case, the relevant meaning is "fullness", and the literal meaning of 口実 is "full mouth". As explained by gogen-online, there are two things a mouth could be full of--either food or drink, or words--and 口実 came to refer to words directly, and specifically to excuses.

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Nice question! From the entry in the 語源由来辞典{ごげんゆらいじてん} for 口実{こうじつ}, it appears that 口実{こうじつ} used to mean something like "to have one's mouth full of food or words" (but since Heian times, this word is typically referring more to "words" rather than food.)

And ever since the Heian period, 口実{こうじつ} has come to mean something more like: "to unreasonably try to put truth into empty words".

It would then make sense how an excuse could be nothing but many empty words in one's mouth.

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