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When talking about the body part (not, for example, entrances/exits), what is the difference between these two words. Based on looking at these two pages (for and 口元) I'm guessing that the difference is that 口元 deals with the outside part of your mouth, i.e. the lips, the shape of the mouth etc, while 口 deals with the "whole package" so to speak (the inside of the mouth, the tongue, the words/language one uses).

Am I right on this? Can these two ever be used interchangeably? Are there other parts of the body that work (grammatically) the same way? (I tried 鼻元, but I got "root of the nose", which doesn't make sense to me...)

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up vote 9 down vote accepted

~元 in such cases generally refers to the area around ~, mostly the external area as you have mentioned.

I would say that 口 refers to the mouth as a whole, an 'object' in some cases (口で食べる = using the mouth to eat), while 口元 refers to the area around the mouth (口元にお米がついてる = rice stuck around the mouth). Similarly, 鼻 refers to the nose, while 鼻元 refers to the area around the nose. This is corroborated by the first goo dictionary entry in Japanese: 1 鼻のつけね。鼻のあたり。 although I personally don't think it's a commonly used phrase to begin with.

As far as I know, this rule applies more commonly to body parts like the ears (耳 and 耳元), eyes (目 and 目元), hands (手 and 手元) and feet (足 and 足元). As to why this is the case, I wasn't very sure but a yahoo chiebukuro entry I found using Google explained that these body parts are used to interact with the world outside the body. It was also explained that 鼻先 (= tip of the nose) tends to be used rather than 鼻元, possibly because only a very specific area of the nose is used to interact with smells.

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I have often wondered about why people refer to 足元 as opposed to just 足. Now I know! –  Tim Oct 12 '12 at 13:04
    
@Tim, I hadn't even thought of the connection to 足元! –  silvermaple Oct 12 '12 at 14:25

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