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What I've found is that 埃{ほこり} means "dust", 塵{ごみ} means "rubbish", "trash", "garbage", and 塵{ちり} means both of them.

I wonder what the difference between 埃 and 塵{ちり} is and what the difference between 塵{ごみ} and 塵{ちり} is.

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First, the kanji word 塵 is almost always read ちり. ごみ is usually written in hiragana or katakana.

  • ごみ: As you say, "rubbish", "trash". It can be big like a broken PC.

  • ほこり: This refers to fine particles that can float in the air. It's a type of dust that accumulates on surfaces like desks over time. It's what becomes airborne when clothes covered in dirt are shaken. It is uncommonly used metaphorically. A dusty room is called a ほこりっぽい部屋.

  • ちり: While it can also refer to the same thing as ほこり, it also refers to larger particles that don't float in the air. For example, it can describe scraps of paper or thread left behind after crafting. If you feel the need to use a vacuum cleaner instead of a cloth for cleaning, it's probably ちり (or 小さなごみ) but not ほこり. Additionally, it is widely used metaphorically to refer to trivial or bothersome things. (For historical reasons, ちり紙 refers to tissue paper or old paper suitable for recycling.)

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    What about [芥]{あくた}?
    – istrasci
    Nov 13, 2023 at 17:06
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    @istrasci It's never used in daily life. It only occasionally appears in literary works as part of 塵芥 (ちりあくた). In other words, it's a rare fossil word.
    – naruto
    Nov 13, 2023 at 18:41
  • @naruto Can I call ごみ what I call ちり (scraps and so on)? Nov 14, 2023 at 2:45
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    @Haragurodanshi Yes (小さな)ごみ and ちり are basically the same, but in the context of cleaning a room, ごみ is more common. ちり is chosen (often metaphorically) when you need to emphasize the smallness of each fragment.
    – naruto
    Nov 14, 2023 at 3:06
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    FWIW, 塵【ちり】 is from verb 散【ち】る "to scatter". Nov 14, 2023 at 17:45

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