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The word きりん appears to mean either a giraffe, or the Qilin.

I've noticed that it is written 麒麟{きりん} when it means Qilin, and キリン when it means giraffe. Is it a mistake to write 麒麟 if I mean giraffe? What about キリン if I mean Qilin?

My guess is that キリン giraffe should not be written with kanji, because it differs from their original meaning, while 麒麟 Qilin could be written either way. I also guess this because animal names tend to be written in katakana. Is this guess correct?

(What about the beer, Kirin?)

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「(What about the beer, Kirin?)」 It says right there on the Wikipedia page 「略称: キリン、麒麟」 –  istrasci Oct 10 '12 at 14:54
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up vote 6 down vote accepted

[麒麟]{きりん} (Daijisen, Daijirin) means both giraffe and Qilin in Japanese. According to Wikipedia, the word originally meant Qilin in Chinese (the 5th century BC), and when giraffes were brought to China in the 15th century, the same word was used to describe giraffes because of some common characteristics between giraffes and Qilin. (Aside: in the modern Chinese, 麒麟 does not mean giraffe. Giraffe is 长颈鹿 in the simplified Chinese and 長頸鹿 in the traditional Chinese.)

Giraffe is commonly written as キリン whereas Qilin is rarely written as キリン. Although I do not have any authoritative answer as for why this is the case, I imagine that the following two factors contribute to this tendency.

  1. A giraffe is a common thing to talk about; 5-year-old children probably know what a giraffe is. Kanji letters 麒 and 麟 are probably too complicated for this common word. Therefore we need an easier way to write the word for giraffe, hence the notation キリン. Because Qilin is not so common thing to talk about, we do not need an easy way to write it.

  2. In biology, the Japanese names of animals and plants are written in katakana. This practice is often adopted even outside academia. This is why it is logical to write giraffe as キリン. Because Qilin is an imaginary animal and not an animal in the biological sense, it is not usually written as キリン.

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See also japanese.stackexchange.com/q/1930/78. –  istrasci Oct 10 '12 at 14:46
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