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Why is 嘘 used to represent the word うそ? To my knowledge, 嘘 in Chinese doesn't have the meaning to lie; most of the definitions in the Kangxi Dictionary for instance are related to something like to breath out slowly. I came across two possible leads:

  1. Derived from 虚 (empty > lie, e.g. 虚言). Japanese Wiktionary notes 虚言 being equivalent to 嘘言, but it seems to me 嘘言 is a Japanese-only spelling.
  2. Used as a variant form of 譃 (also written as 𧪮 or 謣). Wiktionary even glosses 譃 with a kun'yomi of うそ, but I haven't found any dictionaries that establishes this variant relation.

Wondering if anyone is able to provide a more concrete answer.

3 Answers 3

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It looks like it was a common misuse, rather than a (more officially accepted) variant, and the misuse became the dominant way to write the word eventually.

誤用便覧, a Meiji-period reference book, says it's a misuse, precisely because of the Chinese origin you described. It also suggests that the misuse comes from folk etymology (of understanding 口 as "language", if I may speculate).

この字に「うそ」という義はなく、正しくは「譃」(音はク若しくはコにしてキョに非ず)とすべきであるが、併し口扁に虛の字形から意味をとつて、これを「うそ」と訓ずるやうになつたのである。

It looks like Akutagawa Ryunosuke and Mori Ogai, both Meiji-period authors, used 譃 for uso (although they used 嘘, too). 温故知新書, a 1484 dictionary (originally), included 譃 for uso without mentioning 嘘. This is not to say 嘘 for uso was a later invention, but these authors might have preferred 譃 because the other character was considered misuse.

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    It also suggests that the misuse comes from folk etymology (of understanding 口 as "language", if I may speculate). Just something to note: there are some variant characters where the semantic components 口 (often relating actions done with the mouth) and 言 (often relating to speech) are interchanged. For example, consider that 喧 (orig. to be in an uproar) and 嘩 (orig. loud and unpleasant noise) have variant forms 諠 and 譁 respectively. Jan 7 at 13:41
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    Yes, this one seems like a reasonable one as far as folk etymology goes, although it doesn't explain the difference in the on'yomi pronunciation. Jan 10 at 12:20
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This is speculation, as I have not yet found a source that states this.

I suspect the key semantic connection between the Chinese and Japanese uses of this kanji might lie in the Chinese sense of "to praise, to flatter", as we see in sense #3 in this Chinese dictionary entry. This seems to be an outgrowth of the "to blow, to puff" sense -- consider also English "to puff someone up", another way of saying "to flatter someone". Consider also the English "to blow smoke", another way of saying "to lie", or even just "to blow", a now-dated way of saying "to brag".

  • "to blow, to puff"
      ↓
  • "to puff someone up: to praise or flatter someone"
      ↓
    then, presumably from ideas of specifically false praise:
      ↓
  • "to lie, to tell an untruth"

I do see in various Japanese kanji dictionaries that 嘘 is also used to spell 嘘【ふ】く (such as the ふく entry at Weblio; if the anchor doesn't take you to the right section, search that page for the 嘘 kanji), cognate with 吹【ふ】く "to blow", suggesting that the Japanese senses are not entirely disconnected from the original Chinese. The semantic overlaps in English between "puff; blow" and "brag; lie" also suggest that the basic idea of "blowing, puffing" might not be too far removed from the idea of "telling an untruth", even across cultures.

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The meaning you cite accords well with what my 角川漢和辞典, presents:

①ふく(吹く)。うそぶく。はく。息を長く吐く。

②ああ。ため息のことば

<国訓>うそ。いつわり。

Note how the dictionary is indicating that this meaning of "lie" is specifically a Japanese use of the kanji.

In the first definition うそぶく can mean to "roar", "howl", "boast" and several of meanings of a similar nature.

It would seem that うそぶく is semantically similar to lying along with perhaps a etymological tie also (though my dictionary doesn't go into that). Thus, the kanji acquires a secondary meaning of "to lie" in Japanese.

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