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I came across 当て字 in my N1 vocabulary list, and while I think I understand what it is from the definition "kanji used as a phonetic symbol, rather than for its meaning", I'm not sure what the point of that is--there's already hiragana and katagana to do that.

What is the purpose or purposes of 当て字?

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Makes what you're saying seem more classical? Gives you a cooler looking sign? すし vs 寿司 –  virmaior Jan 9 at 3:05
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Technically a lot more stuff is ateji than you might realize, but stuff like 亜米利加 instead of アメリカ isn't as important.. just good to know. –  ssb Jan 9 at 3:19
    
From my impression of it, new uses of 当て字 are few and far between, but they used to be a lot more common, and what we see are hold-overs from that. –  silvermaple Jan 9 at 4:37
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Like ssb implies, you probably use 当て字 fairly often without realizing it. After all, how many people write とけい/トケイ instead of 時計 to avoid using 当て字? (Not many, I don't think.) –  snailboat Jan 9 at 8:49
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I think some part of this answer may apply to this question. It helps to delineate sentence elements (i.e. text in all kana is harder to read), and it can disambiguate words that may share the same kana spelling. –  Flaw Jan 10 at 12:00

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According to wikipedia,

日本語においては、漢字とかなの混用によって語の切れ目を表示するため、かつては借用語を含め自立語は全て漢字表記する傾向があった

I.e. if they are written in hira-kana/kata-kana, it would be difficult to discern where the word starts/ends. Nowadays however, kata-kana has taken over this function. 当て字 are still useful though as they are more compact than the kata-kana counterpart. Newspapers tend to prefer 当て字 for this reason; e.g. USA is referred to as 米 instead of the more lengthy form アメリカ

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Shortening of アメリカ to 米 in newspapers has nothing to do with 当て字 --- none. –  非回答者 Feb 25 at 15:21
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Well it obviously comes from the 当て字 亜米利加. You couldn't do the abbreviation with kata-kana, in which case it would be ア @TokyoNagoya –  Enno Shioji Feb 25 at 15:45
    
... or メ, presuming that ア would already be used for Asia, of course. –  Earthliŋ Feb 25 at 16:07
    
@Earthliŋ I remember reading in Henshall's book that メ is an old reading for 米, which is why it got used in the ateji 「亜米利加」. Of course, 日本国語大辞典 backs up when Enno Shioji says: 「米」は「アメリカ」のあて字「亜米利加」の略 –  snailboat Feb 26 at 2:13

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