Take the 2-minute tour ×
Japanese Language Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for students, teachers, and linguists wanting to discuss the finer points of the Japanese language. It's 100% free, no registration required.

An entry of Tae Kim's blog suggested that 出来る came from Chinese word 出来 that does have the nuance of potentiality, but the most recent visitor's comment claimed that the usage of 出来 in Chinese to show potentiality is fairly recent, so the usage of 出来る in Japanese might be unrelated to the Chinese word after all.

If this Japanese verb really did not come from the Chinese, how do the kanji characters for "to go out" and "to come" end up giving the nuance of potentiality in Japanese?

Can anyone find out authoritative sources on the actual etymology of 出来る?

EDIT: Also, is the origin of 出来る somehow related to 出来 {しゅったい} (meaning: occurrence) or 出来 {でき} (meaning: workmanship, execution etc)?

share|improve this question
I strongly dispute the claim that it is Chinese in etymology. For a start, it's plainly obvious that it's a regularised compound of 出る and 来る, which are native verbs. (In other words, this is essentially not a gikun reading but rather just a slightly irregular kun-yomi reading.) But, I don't have any authoritative sources on this, so I'll just leave this as a comment. (Actually, I would not be surprised if the spelling turns out to be some kind of ateji.) –  Zhen Lin Aug 17 '11 at 14:20
@Zhen - I've always known it to just be 当て字. –  istrasci Aug 17 '11 at 14:30
Japanese language existed before Kanji was introduced and when it was introduced, Japanese people began adding Kanji with the closest meaning to native Japanese words, like 出 for でる and 来 for くる, which is how 訓読み came about in the first place. If できる was really a compound of でる and くる like @Zhen is saying then it has no Chinese origin and 出来る just coincidentally have the same kanji as the corresponding Chinese word. Though I'm no expert on the Chinese language to say that 出来(しゅったい) is related to Chinese. –  Ken Li Aug 17 '11 at 15:22
add comment

1 Answer

up vote 5 down vote accepted

First, a general comment: one must always remember that there are two major categories of ‘native’ Japanese words, namely the true native vocabulary inherited from the prehistoric Japanese language, and the nativised vocabulary imported from Chinese. Although there are some words whose classification is unclear (うめ(梅)、うま(馬) etc.), by and large it is obvious from the ‘sound’ which class a word falls into. 出来る is of the first category. The strongest evidence for this is that the reading is not what we would expect from an imported Chinese word spelled with those kanji: indeed, the word しゅったい is much closer to the expected reading しゅつらい.

I admit this isn't conclusive: it could well be a calque (i.e. a direct translation) from Chinese, or even a direct borrowing of some Chinese word (but not 出来) which was turned into a native verb. But I personally believe the latter is unlikely, and I am not in a position to say one way or another about the former. A solid answer would require knowledge of both languages and their histories.

However, after a little search, it seems that the theory that できる was really originally a compound of 出る and 来る does have some evidence. According to Daijisen, it's from the カ変 verb でく, and Daijirin says でく is a contraction of いでく, which is consistent with the theory that it's a compound of 出る (classical: いづ) and 来る (classical: く). Moreover, Daijirin gives the following definition for いでく:

「大君の命かしこみ―・来れば/万葉 4358」


「国高安の郡に、いきかよふ所―・きにけり/伊勢 23」



Sense (5) is precisely the ‘potentiality’ we're interested in, and sense (1) is exactly what you would expect from the kanji: ‘to leave and come here’.

But, I'm still a little suspicious: the example Daijirin gives for sense (5) comes from a 15th century text, whereas the example for sense (1) comes from the Man'yōshū—a 7th/8th century text. And Daijisen doesn't even give ‘potentiality’ as a possible meaning in its definition of いでく.

As for your additional question: The word でき is clearly obtained from the stem of できる, and the meaning is more or less what you would expect from such a derivation.

share|improve this answer
Can that be interpreted that the usage of 出来る to mean potentiality might be as recent as the 15th century? –  Lukman Aug 18 '11 at 5:23
add comment

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.