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I was in Bikku Camera earlier today, and I wanted to buy a small kitchen scale for measuring small amounts of food.

I looked up the word "scale" in the dictionary, and it said 衡器{こうき}. So I found a shop assistant and asked her for a 食{た}べ物{もの}を量{はか}る用{よう}の衡器{こうき}. (I'm not totally confident about my grammar there, so correct me if I'm off. However, I don't think it changes the main point of this question.)

She looked at me quizzically, so I asked again, and this time I said 食{た}べ物{もの}を量{はか}る用{よう}のスケール. This time she understood perfectly, and took me directly to where the scales were.

I walked away from that interaction a little baffled. I can see how some words are more commonly understood in katakana 外来語{がいらいご}. For example, how 写真機{しゃしんき} got replaced by カメラ, being that it was a concept imported from the west and the English word came with it.

But surely Japan had scales since forever, and there would be a native word. Is it not 衡器{こうき}? I didn't find any viable alternatives in the dictionary.

In any case, I'm always a little confused when I have to resort to katakana English to be understood. I feel like I'm cheating somehow. And I'm always surprised when it works.

How, and why, is it that the shop assistant understood スケール better than 衡器{こうき}?

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Sorry for the unrelated digression, but is there any particular reason you include べ in the furigana for 食べ above? At first I thought it was a typo, but I see you did it multiple times, so I'm assuming that's on purpose... – Dave Oct 24 '11 at 13:43
@sawa: how could 食べ物 (as it is written above) ever be read しょくもつ? Especially when the furigana would include た? I think you are misunderstanding my comment. I vaguely know there is some ongoing flamewars around here regarding "proper use of furigana" and I don't care to be part of it... All I am pointing out here, is that I don't think べ should be part of the furigana for 食べ (only た should). If anything, a complete novice would read the above as 'たべべ'... – Dave Oct 24 '11 at 15:21
@Dave: It was just a typo that was reproduced twice by copying and pasting. It's been corrected. – Questioner Oct 25 '11 at 0:40
up vote 11 down vote accepted

I have never heard of the word 衡器, although if written in kanji, I can imagine what it is. It is a rare word if it ever exist. Maybe you are using some strange/old/too formal dictionary. The most normal word for this situation is はかり, whose kanji writings is usually , 量り, or 計り. スケール is not as usual, but at least it is much more recognizable than 衡器.

One general suggestion to you is that, occasionally, but not always, a word made of a few kanjis and is pronounced solely by their on-yomi is somewhat artificially created on the spot, and is used in writing, but not in spoken language. When kanjis are read in on-yomi, there are often so many homonyms, and is hard to identify which kanji is meant. So they are not practical for spoken language.

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When written in kanji, it is 衡 in the word 度量衡 (length, volume, and weight) and therefore it would be reasonable to imagine that it refers to a tool to measure weight. But I had never heard of the word 衡器, either. – Tsuyoshi Ito Oct 24 '11 at 10:58
If you used EDICT (which is what jisho and WWWJDIC use) then I'm not surprised you ended up choosing a weird word that nobody uses. EDICT is a very poor English->Japanese dictionary. – Kef Schecter Oct 27 '11 at 7:47
I don't know of a free dictionary that does a great job of it, I'm afraid. If you're good with Japanese, you can use dic.yahoo.co.jp, but all of the entries in its 英和 dictionary are completely in Japanese -- no helpful usage notes in English or anything. – Kef Schecter Oct 29 '11 at 12:43
@Flaw I tried to delete it, but the system does not allow deleting accepted answers. – user458 Dec 28 '11 at 11:25
@Sawa Goo dictionary.goo.ne.jp/srch/jn/%E3%81%AF%E3%81%8B%E3%82%8A/m1u seems to agree with me that 秤 is the only correct kanji for the tool. – dainichi Feb 8 '12 at 6:22

It would require serious philological investigation to figure out the exact situation w/r/t to 衡器, スケール and はかり, but there are a few suggestive pieces of data easily available.

日本国語大辞典 has one example sentence for 衡器. It is from 1909, from a weights-and-measures law ([度量]{どりょう}衡法{こうほう}施行令{しこうれい}):

度量衡器の製作の免許を受けたる者は ... 度器{どき}、量器{りょうき}又{また}は衡器の[修覆]{しゅうふく}[及]{および}販売の[業]{ぎょう}を営{いとな}むことを[得]{う}

"An individual who has received a license to create measuring devices (度量衡器) [...] is permitted to run a business making and selling length-measuring devices (度器), volume-measuring devices (量器) and weight-measuring devices (衡器)."

I'm not a legal pro so this may not be a good translation from that standpoint, but what is of interest to us here is that 衡器 is used in opposition to 度器 and 量器, which are of the same form except for the first character. As far as I can tell, a 度器 is basically a ruler and a 量器 is basically a cup (as in "2 cups of flour"), although of course scaling up to industrial sizes and adjusting for cultural norms (the "cup" might be square). And note that all three are joined together at the start in the word (or is it a phrase?) 度量衡器.

Aozora Bunko has two hits for 衡器, both from the first half of the 20th century, and both giving it the furigana はかり.

So here is my theory. Everything beyond this is speculation.

The word はかり is a native Japanese word, obviously related to the verb はかる, to measure. This word suffices for the concept of "scale" which, as you note, have been known in Japan for a long time. 

However, when you are writing in kanbun (Chinese, basically, although often "with Japanese characteristics") or heavily kanbun-influenced Japanese -- which you are, if you are writing official documents like the Meiji laws -- you can't use the word はかり because it is Japanese. You could just assign the word はかり to a single kanji like 衡, and this may have been done in some cases. But there is no guarantee that people will know to read it はかり; they may confuse it with one of 衡's many other meanings.

So you use 衡器 instead: "device for 衡ing." This is much less ambiguous. (I don't know whether the word 衡器 was invented in China or Japan, but either way, the principles are the same.) You now have a word 衡器 that means the same thing as はかり, and many people will actually pronounce it はかり. But you can also force a Chinese pronunciation from the on-yomi of the individual kanji, and that would be こうき. This would make it one of those words "artificially created on the spot" as sawa explains.

And so the word こうき is introduced into Japanese, but it never really gets beyond the formal contexts it was created for. (It probably doesn't help that こう is one of the most common on-yomi in the language; there must be dozens of other こうきs out there.) はかり remains the "default" word for the concept of a scale. Even when popular writers use the spelling 衡器, they still indicate the pronunciation はかり. As the formal contexts where こうき is required grow rarer and rarer, the word fades into further obscurity, although it does live on in dictionaries.

(The fact that the word スケール is borrowed from English at some later point is a side issue. It might have come along for the ride with some new technology -- a new type of scale, somehow distinguishable from the old はかり mechanism. Maybe the electronic scale, as Chris suggests. The point is that スケール does become fairly common -- enough for a shop assistant to recognize it when you used it -- although according to sawa it never displaces はかり.)

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As far as I know, 衡器{こうき} is equivalent in meaning to 天秤{てんびん} and refers to a balance scale rather than an electronic scale. This would intuitively make sense because the balance scale is the older concept and is expressed in kanji, whereas the electronic scale is the newer concept and is expressed in katakana.

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What about "she had no idea whether you meant 光輝, 好機, 後期, 校旗, 綱紀, 香気, 光機, 公器, 口器, 口気, 好奇, 好期, 好気, 工期, 広軌, 後記, 校紀, 校規, 洪基, 皇紀, 紅旗, 興起, 衡器, 高貴 or 鴻基"?

Also, I suggest you use "ため" instead of "よう" (without kanji, anyway). よう is quite different (and unrelated to this question).

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Well, it was of course not meant to be serious, and there's no point in listing that many! However, number of them are quite common, and this should orient you by default towards choosing another word. – Axioplase Oct 24 '11 at 9:25
The shop assistant probably tried to come up with a word with reading こうき (or something similar) which would make sense in the context, but I doubt that the correct one (衡器) was among the list of the words she imagined. – Tsuyoshi Ito Oct 25 '11 at 3:17

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