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One of the cards in a Hanafuda deck looks like this:

enter image description here

The character that looks like の is actually hentaigana ka, a hentaigana for ka derived from the kanji 可. The card says あかよろし, not あのよろし.

According to Wikipedia, the meaning of the inscription (which is also on one other card in the deck) is unknown, despite the fact that the writing on another "poetry ribbon" card in the deck are known to be the name of a town.

Is this accurate? Can anyone with more knowledge of Japanese culture and language venture a guess as to what it might have meant? Can anyone provide a more reliable, possibly Japanese-language source to back up the Wiki page?

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I found this: では、意味はというと『実に素晴らしい』という意味だそうで、『実に素晴らしい』→『明らかに宜しい』→『明か宜し』→『あ可よろし』→『あかよろし』と昔の言葉で書かれ‌​ていたのですね。, here and similar explanations on other pages. –  Earthliŋ Mar 27 at 0:11
    
    
What Earthliŋ and dainichi said. I also see that Shogakukan's entry for 可 gives 「(形動)よろしいこと。」 as the first sense, suggesting further that this card is rife with punniness (given also the red color of the banner playing off the あか, even though this derives from 明らか instead of 赤い). –  Eiríkr Útlendi May 12 at 22:00

1 Answer 1

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Is it true that the meaning of あ可よろし is unknown?

Short Answer

No, it's not true.

Longer Explanation

According to the JA Wikipedia article, particularly the 絵柄【かん】に関【かん】する注釈【ちゅうしゃく】 section, the etymology might not be fully pinned down:

  • 「あかよろし」と書かれている。「の」のように見える2文字目は「可」の草書体に由来する変体仮名の「か」(hentaigana ka) である。「あかよろし」とは「明らかに良い」という意味かという説もあるが定かではない。
    Written as akayoroshi. The second character that looks like の (no) is actually the hentaigana hentaigana ka for か (ka), derived from the cursive form of the character 可. One theory is that "akayoroshi" has the meaning of "akiraka ni yoi (clearly good)", but this is not certain.

So let's break this down.

Part 1: あか

Etymologically, we know that 明らか【あきらか】 comes from a root form ak- that underwent various inflectionary changes, of which aka is one. The Shogakukan Kokugo Dai Jiten Dictionary entry for あか【赤・紅・朱・緋】 notes:

  • 「あか(明)」と同語源という。 ...
    Apparently cognate with "aka (明)"...
     

Part 2: よろし

This is the root of modern adjective 宜しい【よろしい】. Shogakukan's etymology for this states:

  • 「よらし」の変化、または、それと同じ経過で「よる(寄)」から派生した語。古代では「よし」が積極的な判定を下すのに対して、「よろし」は消極的で、「よし」よりも低い評価を表し、積極的な「あし」に対する消極的な「わろし(わるし)」の反対
    A change from yorashi, or a derivative by similar means from yoru (寄る). In ancient times, yoshi indicated an affirmative judgment, whereas yoroshi was more reserved, implying a lesser valuation than yoshi, contrasting with the affirmative ashi and more reserved waroshi (warushi)

Drilling down, yorashi was an adjective with an original meaning indicating "something inviting approach, something you want to get closer to" (c.f. 寄る【よる】, "come near, draw near"), extending then to "good". The bit about affirmative versus reserved can be further explained as yoshi == "good", yoroshi == "not bad", waroshi == "not good", ashi == "bad".

(Note that this four-way breakdown is for ancient Japanese -- in modern Japanese, yoi == "good", yoroshii == "good [in polite speech]", warui == "bad", and ashi has almost disappeared, persisting only in certain set phrases like 善し【よし】悪し【あし】 "the good and the bad".)

Conclusion

Without further research to document this as a phrase used in older forms of Japanese, this remains only a theory, as noted in the JA Wikipedia article notes. I did search the online Man'yōshū at the University of Virginia's site, but I found zero hits where aka was immediately followed by yoroshi. But then the Man'yōshū is only one ancient text, leaving open the possibilities that any aka yoroshi phrase appeared later in the development of the language, or might have been dialectal, or might simply not have been used by the authors of the Man'yōshū.

All that said, given the etymologies of the parts, there appears to be ample room for this phrase to have been in existence originally as 明か宜し (aka yoroshi), without it necessarily being a corrupted or broken-down version of akiraka ni yoroshii.

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It seems so odd that there could be such uncertainty over a phrase only about 200 years old. So the basic idea is that it must have been an archaic way of writing a phrase meaning "very good", which has not only gone into disuse but isn't even referenced in any other source from the period? –  Jack M May 15 at 1:32
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Only about 200 years old -- the hanafuda only date to the late 1800s, but past there, it's hard to know if the snippet あかよろし were dug up from some earlier time, and if so, when. Gone into disuse -- it might also be slang or dialect, two areas of language that occasionally come into vogue, yet are often underrepresented in publication. From the period -- it's unclear what period to look in. Again, the hanafuda date to the Meiji, and poetic text like this would often also be archaic or otherwise non-everyday. I've only searched the Man'yōshū; perhaps it's in something else? –  Eiríkr Útlendi May 15 at 5:13

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