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かわいい is sometimes spelled in kanji as 可愛い. This seems to be an 音読み reading which points to a Chinese loan, and Chinese does have this word.

However, the meaning of 可愛 as "cute" in Chinese seems to have been a borrowing from Japanese. Originally it meant what its individual kanji meant, "able/deserved to be loved". For example, the Chinese Union Version of the Bible, translated in 1919, often uses 可愛 to mean "deserving of love", which is incongruent with its modern meaning borrowed from Japanese.

Also, かわいい seems to have been かはいい in 歴史的仮名遣い. はい would have come from "pai" which would be a stretch from on'yomi.

So 可愛い seems to be 和語. Why then did it get assigned a pseudo-音読み reading?

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related: the question “Seemingly cute” - かわいい + 〜そう. There's also further info at the gogen-allguide and Japanese Wikipedia pages on かわいい. – cypher Dec 11 '12 at 12:50
up vote 15 down vote accepted

It is native Japanese (和語). It is a compound of kao (顔) and hayui (映ゆい). A simplified view of the phonological development is kapopayu-ki > kaɸoɸayu-ki > kawowayu-ki > kaowayu-ki > kawayu-ki > kawayu-i > kawai-i. Other than the normal p > ɸ > w > Ø, the two major changes are 1) merge of owa > wa and yu > i. 可愛 is ateji (当て字).

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Is it just a coincidence that those ateji match the meaning so closely or were they chosen specifically for that? – ssb Dec 11 '12 at 6:01
Yeah, this seems to be simultaneously 当て字 and 義訓. – user54609 Dec 11 '12 at 6:13
@ssb kawaii has several meanings. Do you really think that "loveable" covers them all so closely? – Dono Dec 11 '12 at 6:24
@Dono at least in the meanings I'm familiar with and that seem to be used most often 可愛 doesn't seem like too much of a stretch. But at the same time I have no idea how complete my understanding is. – ssb Dec 11 '12 at 6:43
@ssb: Kanji 可愛い is a surprisingly nice pun, but it does not mean that it is not ateji. I think that it is logical to assume that 可愛い was chosen over other random kanji such as 川良い which also matches the reading かわいい because 可愛い has a much better alignment in terms of the meaning. – Tsuyoshi Ito Dec 11 '12 at 20:27

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