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I noticed that the 前 is a handy kanji character in Japanese language. It is used in many words including but not limited to:

名前 {なまえ} : Given name

手前, お前 : You

当たり前 {あたりまえ} : Natural, obvious matter

出前 : Meal delivery

建て前 {たてまえ} : Public facade

男前 {おとこまえ} : Handsome, manly, masculine

不足前 {たらずまえ} : Deficit, shortage

持ち前 {もちまえ} : Characteristic, nature

分け前 {わけまえ} : Share, quota

板前 {いたまえ} : Chef, cook

朝飯前 {あさめしまえ} : Very easy, a piece of cake

To my knowledge, a kanji character is used in a word because of how the kanji's meaning relate to the word's meaning, except for the case of 当て字 {ateji}, so I imagine that there must be a reason why each of the words above (and many others) uses 前 as the ending kanji character. Does Japanese language and culture have any concept that centers around 前?

EDIT:

It seems like people are misunderstanding my question here. I am not asking how to relate the meaning of the 前 characters to the meaning of the words I listed above. I am asking why are those words built up using the 前 character? While we can easily see the relevance of 前 in some of them like 名前 and 建て前, the relevance is not obvious in some others like 出前 and 板前. Does 前 have any significance in the language or culture, that somehow influenced how those words are coined?

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Don't forget that many Japanese words came directly from Chinese, including compound words made of multiple characters. The essential meanings of each character also came from Chinese though they may well have diverged in the time since and most characters were borrowed long long ago. –  hippietrail Jul 26 '11 at 7:25
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@hippietrail That's why I only chose examples that pronounce 前 as "mae", which is one of kun-yomi for the character, with hope that those are words that are naturally Japanese rather than imported from Chinese .. –  Lukman Jul 26 '11 at 7:29
    
Nice. I checked the English, Japanese, and Chinese Wiktionaries and none of those terms in your list currently have non-Japanese entries. –  hippietrail Jul 26 '11 at 7:33
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You seem to be assuming that all of these examples derive from a single usage of , but their meanings seem to vary. –  user458 Jul 26 '11 at 19:16

4 Answers 4

up vote 1 down vote accepted

I think the meaning is pretty similar across all the words. It kind of means 'forefront' or 'spitting image of', and it's from Kabuki. I just told someone else this in another question.... If you consider that the minds of the people who created the language were more interested in the interactions between major structures than they were interested in major structures: you'll understand that what was most important when '前' was chosen to describe things that you would interact with in a play.

It's kind of an extension of the idea of 'concrete' and 'abstract', in English, where 'table' is a concrete thing and 'love' is an abstract thing. It's very easy to point to a table and call it what it is, but you can't point to love and say "that's it". It requires a lot of description. In that same way, when words like '名前' come to play, there's the first kanji, which means name, and the second kanji, which means 'it is most like it, so everyone can pretend'. In the other unusual case you mentioned, we have '建て前' which you have said means 'public facade'. '建て' alone means 'build', right? So, separating the two kanji: a) something that we build, and b) everyone plays along with because it seems so real.... This is undeniably a facade, I think. It's difficult to get used to, but it's also good to know. Kanji, and indeed kanji combination, is to do with interactions (as in operators), not just mundane items (as in operands).

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I noticed you gave some feedback, so please let me know if that helped to explain what you felt you were missing. –  千里ちゃん Jul 26 '11 at 16:33

The meaning of in your examples do not seem to converge to one. If there are a lot of words made with , it is just a coincidence. But since it is an abstract word, it is likely to be used in many words.

This website provides the origin of many words, for example: 名前, 出前, 当たり前, 板前, 男前

You can see that the origin is not as straight forward as some other answers speculate.

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Random suggestions regarding meanings:

名前: how about forename?
手前, お前 : You, who stand in front of me
当たり前: an explication is a reading from misspelled "当然"
出前: Goes out, up to your front door
建て前: Really a facade, like that of a building, isn't it?
板前: in front of the cooking plan/shelf
朝飯前: makes me think of a French expression you may use in a fight, and that goes like "guys like you, I have some everyday for breakfast". Here, it's so easy it's even before breakfast :)

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We have that expression in English, too. "I eat _s like you for breakfast." Just add a negative-meaning noun. –  moai-kun Jul 26 '11 at 9:12
    
The nice thing about English and French is that metaphors and expressions map quite transparently and can be understood mutually. I find that it's a lot harder to say such imaged things in Japanese and be understood. –  Axioplase Jul 26 '11 at 9:53
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@Axioplase Thanks for suggesting how 前 meaning might be extracted from the words, but again I invite you to wonder why Japanese specifically put up such constructions that use the kanji. Words like 出前 could have been, just for example, 伝飯 that better denotes the notion of "meal delivery" than "to go out to the front door" .. isn't it intriguing why such a combination of those kanji bring out those meanings? –  Lukman Jul 26 '11 at 14:42

前 simply means something like 'before' or 'in front of'

名前 {なまえ} : Before name

手前, お前 : The person in front of me

建て前 {たてまえ} : In front of the public

板前 {いたまえ} : Person in front of a cooking board

朝飯前 {あさめしまえ} : Before breakfast (as in, So easy I can do it before breakfast)

The others on your list probably also work like the last one in that there was some phrase that made them make sense, but they've been shortened to just a word.

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What is “Before name” supposed to mean? –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jul 26 '11 at 11:44
    
@Ito First name and last name is probably what he was referring to. –  Gerard Sexton Jul 26 '11 at 15:40
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If @Gerard is correct, I do not see the point of explaining 名前 as either first name or last name. 名前 in Japanese just means “name” and can mean family name, given name, full name, or even a name of a thing (how a thing is called). –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jul 26 '11 at 17:24
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"forename" is a term in English for "given name", "Christian name", "first name". It's quite a literal translation but it's not used as much as its synonyms. –  hippietrail Jul 27 '11 at 9:09
    
It would be interesting to learn the history and development of "名前". In most languages/countries people only had one name until the population grew to a point where too many people shared names. Then laws were enacted requiring "surnames", where "sur-" means "extra", "additional", "over", "above". Semantic twist for Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Hungarian is that the family name comes before the given name. I don't know the history/origin of Japanese family names specifically however. –  hippietrail Jul 27 '11 at 9:16

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