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The word 小説{しょうせつ} seems to be used as a translation of "novel", but it is composed of the characters for "small" and "opinion/rumour/theory". I have seen it used to describe works such as 芥川龍之介{あくたがわりゅうのすけ}'s "羅生門{らしょうもん}", which in English would probably be considered a short story, to 中里介山{なかざとかいざん}'s "大菩薩峠{だいぼさつとうげ}", which I believe was at one point the longest novel ever written. From what I can tell, any work of prose fiction can be called a 小説 regardless of its length. If that is the case, what is the origin of the word?

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

A simple search reveals the answer. I will offer a brief translation.

http://gogen-allguide.com/si/syousetsu.html

Basically in China there were regular reports of the goings on and ramblings of the general public that were compiled and presented to leaders. These were referred to as 小説. Through common use the meaning evolved to refer to "worthless" or "meaningless" stories. Eventually this meaning was taken and adapted as a translation for the English word 'novel.' Therefore the term 小説 does not refer to the length of a work. Rather it is a word applied to the English word 'novel,' referring to the 'value' of the work instead.

There are some more details about how it came about, but the short version is that its modern use is based on the Chinese equivalent of the term 'novel' in English.

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I think your answer is accurate except for the last part. Did you not explain that it is not a literal translation of the English word "novel"? –  yadokari Aug 2 '13 at 14:37
    
Yeah, you're right, it's not a literal translation. I wrote that without thinking too much about it as an alternative for 当てる. –  ssb Aug 2 '13 at 14:45
    
I can confirm that in Chinese, 小説 is for novels. Short stories and huge volumes are not 小説 in Chinese. –  user54609 Oct 25 '13 at 23:52
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