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I know that "わさび" 'wasabi' can also be written using kanji as "山葵" and that these two characters mean respectively "mountain" and "hollyhock", but hollyhock doesn't seem at first glance to be related.

So are the hollyhock and wasabi plants related or are the kanji some kind of ateji which would explain why the hiragana spelling is more common. Or is the origin of the word something more subtle or mysterious?

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"flora" tag? I think "food" tag would be more useful to have. –  Lukman Jun 3 '11 at 13:29
    
I did check whether "food" or "plant" tags existed. –  hippietrail Jun 3 '11 at 13:33
    
"flora" did not exist either. I don't mind having this tag but IMO it's better to create tags that have better chance of seeing them used in other questions, which I think "food" tag would have. –  Lukman Jun 3 '11 at 13:39
    
I believe there should be some category for discussing plant (and maybe animal) names, since they have their own issues, especially when comparing common usage in Japanese with scientific usage and usage in other languages. In this case, the the dictionary was quite misleading, and in my experience in various languages, most flora (and some fauna) dictionary entries should always be viewed with a lot of suspicion. For instance, in my native tongue, leopards and tigers, are confounded, as well as eagles and vultures, but we have three different (and confusing) words for owl in common use. –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 3 '11 at 18:00
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up vote 11 down vote accepted

I don't have a full answer here (at least not yet), but I do want to note that the kanji here are definitely not any kind of ateji - they are actually the exact opposite, a gikun (義訓 - 'meaning reading'), since 山 has no reading わさ, and 葵 has no reading び.

That means the etymology of the word わさび itself is unrelated to the etymology of the kanji わさび, and both should be treated separately.

The kanji chosen for this word means means 'Mountain Aoi (葵)'. Now, I'm not expert in Japanese botany (or in botany at all) - the best you can get out of me is probably recognizing a rose, and even that is only when I get pricked by one of it's thorns. :) But what I do know is that the word 葵 is used for several kinds of flowers that are not all of the same family. Some of them belong to the Malvaceae family, which also includes Genus Alcea (the flowers called Hollyhock in English), but some of them belong to an entirely different family. Wasabi is apparently similar enough to some of them, like カンアオイ, so the kanji chosen to represent it in meaning was mountain Aoi.

As for the origin of the word itself (disregarding the kanji its written in), there is no clear answer. It appears as early as the 10th century in a medicinal herbs manual as 和佐比, which is just an ateji rendering of the word, so it doesn't tell us anything about its origin. Some unproven theories can be found at Gogenjiten:

  1. It's an abbreviation of the expression 悪障疼(**る **わり ひ**く), which probably means something along the lines of 'causing horribly irritating pain'.
  2. The わさ in わさび comes from わしる, which is an old pronunciation of the verb 走る(はしる), to run, and it describes the pungent taste that "runs" all the way to your nose, while the び is the denasalized form of 実(み), fruit or nut.
  3. The last theory is that the name comes from 早葵 , which was pronunced wasaapupi in Old Japanese and written わさあふひ in historical kana usage (today it would be just わさあおい). This transformed (with a little elision and voicing of the ending syllable pi) to wasabi.
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if you include the original name from which wasabi comes, where it appears first and when it was changed to 山葵, then I believe we have a complete answer. –  repecmps Jun 3 '11 at 13:59
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additionally, mountain Aoi (with a small 'm') as in Aoi you find on mountains. (latin name being asarum if I'm not mistaken) –  repecmps Jun 3 '11 at 14:04
    
@repecmps: How it appeared first is not a problem. It's enough to check Wikipedia to get the answer for that: 和佐比, which is a real ateji this time. The question is what is the origin of this word (ignoring the kanji), and I couldn't find any plausible explanation for that. Maybe it's just an obscure word. –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 3 '11 at 16:13
    
Ok, scratch that. The Gogenjiten link given by YOU has a theory that is semi-plausible (but still not entirely convincing): わさび is the truncated form of 悪障疼(わるさわりひびく), which probably means something like 'causing horribly irritating pain'. There are some other explanations there, so I'll try to translate everything and let the reader decide for themselves which one they prefer. –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 3 '11 at 16:22
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Wasabi 「山葵」 is jukujikun -(熟字訓 - word reading), which is kind of 当て字、but based on word 「熟語」 level

Regarding origin, 語源辞典 says that 山葵's leaf is looks like Hollyhock 葵, so used it such way from Heian-Era 「794年-1185年」

Following are "Three Hollyhocks inside Circle" logo from Tokugawa clan and Wasabi leaf.

enter image description here enter image description here

Note: Images taken from Wikipedia 1, 2

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