The word 蹄 (ひづめ) means hoof in Japanese. Since the meaning is similar to つめ (claw), and since it's spelled specifically with づ, it seems like this word is made up of two parts:

ひ + つめ

I can't figure out what the ひ part might mean, though. It would make sense if it meant a large four-legged animal, or if it meant horse or something else along those lines. But I can't find any information about it in dictionaries or by searching on Google. (Has the origin of ひ in this word been lost?)

I also looked through lists of kanji by on and kun readings looking for reasonable candidates for ひ, but I wasn't able to find anything that seemed appropriate.

Is it possible it comes from a shortening of 扁爪 (ひらづめ)?

  • 1
    At least most dictionaries (明鏡・広辞苑・国語大辞典・大辞泉) separate it as ひ・づめ as well, but they won't tell us anything about ひ.
    – blutorange
    Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 23:21

3 Answers 3


According to Yamaguchi Masumi (2007) (I'm using a hard-copy), the ひ( = 脚・四肢・足) originally referred to the limbs/feet/legs of horses and sheep. It was then combined with つめ to form ひづめ, and then extended to mean the hooves of any mammalian quadruped.

It should be noted, however, that all this was original research done by Yamaguchi, who apparently is not a historical linguist (so far as I can tell). So although I'm happy to accept Yamaguchi's explanation, he doesn't cite any sources, which makes me a little skeptical.

But going through UVirginia's online library, I've found evidence of 爪(つま・つめ) being used to mean "hoof" as late as ~1360AD. Phrases like 「馬の爪」、「鹿の爪」、「駒の爪」、and 「爪音」 are also attested prior to 1360, suggesting that the word ひつめ/ひづめ must have appeared around or after this time as a combination originating from つめ(爪).

In conclusion, [蹄]{ひづめ} is (almost) definitely a concatenation of ひ-, which may mean "ungulate limb", and -つめ 'claw/hoof'; and probably emerged in the 13th or 14th centuries.

Some other facts you might find interesting:

  • Yamaguchi claims that the ひ in [膝]{ひざ} and [肘]{ひじ} also share this root with ひづめ, making them reflexes of the same cognate.
  • The word ひづめ(蹄) was conspicuously absent in all the other Japanese etymology dictionaries/books I looked through in my university's East Asian library.
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    @TokyoNagoya Is the entire second paragraph not enough? Or are you insinuating that we're too dull to understand that this is conjecture?
    – ssb
    Commented Feb 22, 2014 at 15:09

This is a stretch; but, could it just be due to the fact that the part touching the ground looks like "ひ"?

By the way, horses are sometimes called ひんこ in child-speak, and they say "ひひ~ん" :)

  • The earliest occurrence I can find (etext.virginia.edu/japanese and dictionaries) is in the 米沢本沙石集(1283)九「山野の蹄、江河の鱗」(ひづめ: 蹄の有る動物。). The character 蹄 gets used in the 萬葉集, but only for its phonetic value. So at least, I cannot find ひづめ being used before ひ existed.
    – blutorange
    Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 1:33

Here's what 「漢字源」 has to say about it (selected parts):


The last part unfortunately only explains the テイ reading. So I can only suggest that comes from 一つ (see bold text).

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    Well, the etymology of a Chinese character and of a native Japanese word are usually completely unrelated. The part about 一つ is to explain the phonetic and semantic component of the kanji. Considering the ひ in ひづめ an abbreviation of 一つ is as good as the speculation by execjosh.
    – blutorange
    Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 1:42
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    Of course, it is not impossible people coined the word afterwards in analogy to the structure of this kanji, but that involves just as much speculation. Hmm, I can't find anything on Gogen-allguide either.
    – blutorange
    Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 1:50
  • It's also used for animals with more than one hoof, too, though... Like deer and cows.
    – execjosh
    Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 2:10
  • 1
    Potentially via a form *ひとつめ, lining up better with other native Japanese counters?
    – Sjiveru
    Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 23:07

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