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The English word "centipede" refers to basically the same type of disgusting creepy-crawly arthropod as the Japanese ムカデ. Sometimes, ムカデ is written in kanji as 百足. This is an obvious case of ateji (you would never read 百 in isolation as ム or ムカ, nor 足 as カデ or デ).

It so happens that "centipede" comes from the Latin centi- "hundred" + pedis "foot". This suggests that it is certainly possible that the use of 百足 ("hundred" + "foot") stems from a direct calque of "centipede", or a cognate of "centipede" in some other language like Dutch or Portuguese. Is this in fact the case?


Note: it is entirely possible that the answer to this question is well-known and readily available in standard online sources. I wouldn't know, since I have not actually done any research on this topic, because that entails a risk of coming across pictures of centipedes. I do hope you will forgive me this.

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You can read gogen-allguide.com/mu/mukade.html and geocities.jp/holmyow/mukade.html without the risk of coming across pictures of centipedes. –  Earthliŋ Jun 5 at 23:12
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The 百{もも} derivation is somewhat compelling. I wonder also if it might just be むか, as in むかむか or むかつく, in some sense of "disgusting", + 手. That said, the oldest citation I've found so far for this むか element is a quote from the 史記抄{しきしょう} of the mid-Muromachi period. –  Eiríkr Útlendi Jun 6 at 1:24
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FWIW, Dutch and Portuguese call centipedes "Duizendpoten" ("Duizend" = thousand) and "Quilópode" ("quilo" = thousand) or "Centípede / Centopéia" ("centi / cento" = hundred). For that I did come across several pictures of centipedes. –  Earthliŋ Jun 6 at 14:55

2 Answers 2

百足 is an ancient Chinese colloquial name for a sort of arthropod. It can be traced to the 6th century document Book of Wei, which includes the passage 百足之蟲,至死不僵,以扶之者眾也 -> "A worm with a hundred feet does not go stiff upon death, since it has many support". The phrase has since found its way into common Chinese idiom in a slightly altered form.

The term 百足 was explained in some ancient texts as an alternate name for millipedes (馬陸/馬蚿), although it probably referred to any arthropods in the Myriapoda subphylum. That meaning passed into Japanese knowledge when Chinese medicinal texts were adopted (for some reason centipedes and millipedes were ingredients for Chinese medicine).

So the term definitely predates Japanese contact with the word centipede.

As for the reading, apart from the ももがて explanation, another theory is that ムカデ was originally 六十手 (c.f. the pronunciation of 10 as "ga" in the surname 五十嵐), and that this reading was applied to 百足 later.

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I find it hard to understand the translation you give for 百足之蟲,至死不僵,以扶之者眾也. Maybe something like "A worm with a hundred legs doesn't fall over even when it's dead, because it has a large foothold", but I'm just guessing. Can you explain the meaning? –  Earthliŋ Jun 6 at 14:36
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Sorry, I was being too literal. It basically means "A centipede can still move even when dead (cut up), because it has a lot of legs supporting it". The author was advising a ruler to gather many supporters. –  Semaphore Jun 6 at 14:46

http://www.geocities.jp/holmyow/mukade.html This document seems saying the use of 百足 is at least as old as in the 10th century. So if this research is correct, it shouldn't be considered as a calque from the western languages. (But I'm not sure about the reliability of this document.)

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