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I read once somewhere that the word 'sake' (酒, Japanese rice wine) comes from sha-ke (鮭, salmon). Can someone explain what this connection is?

Any thoughts on why most Japanese people * don't know the origin of the word sake are also appreciated.

*Most Japanese people who I know ... @Tsuyoshi Ito may know more.

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    It is an honor to be mentioned, but unfortunately I do not know the origin of the words 酒 and 鮭, and I do not know whether there is any etymological connection between them either. Jun 20, 2011 at 1:54
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    I'd ask for a [citation needed] on this. There are a ton of homophones or near-homophones in Japanese which are not necessarily related. Not saying they aren't, but it seems awfully obscure. :)
    – deceze
    Jun 20, 2011 at 3:38
  • @Ito: grin @deceze: citation on the answer or question?
    – crunchyt
    Jun 21, 2011 at 6:41
  • Stranger pairs of homonyms share an etymology. "Eel" and "pimple" in Russian is my favourite such unlikely pair. Jun 23, 2011 at 19:25
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    I'd be impressed if the majority of the speakers of any language knew the etymology of random words in that language. Do you know the etymology of the word for alcohol in your language?
    – dainichi
    Jan 25, 2012 at 6:19

4 Answers 4

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What is the connection? None, apparently.

According to 語源由来辞典 (always a good place to check on that sort of question), none of the likely etymologies have anything to do with "sha-ke" or fish in general.

The above site mentions a couple of theories for the etymology of the word "さけ", including:

  • 汁【しる】 + 食【け】
    'soup'  'eat/food'
  • 栄【さか】え水【みず】
    'water that makes you prosper'

but goes on to state that the most plausible etymology is the following: さ is a prefix (of unspecified meaning) attached to き, an older word for sake. The final vowel assumedly changed somewhere along the way.

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  • Well, the link I gave from the same site, but to the other sake entry has theories relating them… P!
    – Axioplase
    Jun 20, 2011 at 6:30
  • Indeed (we posted simultaneously and I only saw your answer after posting mine). As you point out, though, any connection would be in the opposite direction...
    – Dave
    Jun 20, 2011 at 6:48
  • +1 for happy water for sure! @dave's answer from Gogenyuraijiten seems to gel with the story I heard about sake originally being eaten (sake/shake or taberu) not drunken, because it was still unrefined and mostly watery rice (that made you happy).
    – crunchyt
    Jun 21, 2011 at 6:45
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Let me say a word about the secondary part of the question:

Any thoughts on why most Japanese people * don't know the origin of the word sake are also appreciated.

A simple answer is because understanding the etymology requires study and research and most Japanese people are not linguists. Ask an average English speaker what the etymological connection is between, say, meal and meat, and I would not expect that you will get any answer beyond a guess. Being fluent in a language does not mean that one knows the etymology.

But there is something more on this. I heard that even when you ask linguists, it is often more difficult to trace the origin of a word in Japanese than in English. This is because the origin of the Japanese language itself is unclear (see Japonic languages and the classification of Japonic). If you think about the etymological study as a kind of detective work, there is often not much clue on which a theory about the origin of a word can be built. On the other hand, there are many languages which have common origins with English, and it is often possible to get some clue by comparing them.

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  • Nice answer. True and well explained! A sushi chef I worked with once seemed to know about a connection between the fish and the drink, and that's what got me interested in this point all those years ago.
    – crunchyt
    Jun 21, 2011 at 6:48
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One of several explanations for the origin of the word 鮭 is that the colour of the salmon's flesh is that of a "drunk red", and that subsequently the word "sake" derived from either "sakake" (酒気, tipsiness) or "ake" (朱 scarlet, red).

The fact that this is in no way verified must help explain why most Japanese you encountered had no idea about it… (and also, the derivation of the name is in the opposite direction of that which you implied.)

(source: http://gogen-allguide.com/sa/sake_sakana.html)

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  • +1 for an alternative answer and useful answer.
    – crunchyt
    Jun 21, 2011 at 6:45
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The word 鮭 (sake or shake) is most likely a borrowing from Ainu. More about that in this other post.

Regarding 酒 (sake), I did a lot to pull together the etymology in the Wiktionary entry here. The proposed connection with Old Japanese 酒 (ki₁) would appear to be ruled out on phonological grounds, since (as far as I understand it) Old Japanese i₁ never alternates with either the e₂ seen in standalone reading sake₂, nor the a seen in compounding reading saka-. Personally, I think a connection with 栄【さか】える is more probable.

What your sushi chef friend might have been thinking of (mentioned in your comment) is that the modern Japanese word for "fish", 魚【さかな】, is derived from 酒【さか】 + 肴【な】, originally referring to a small side-dish eaten while drinking, a bit like how modern Spanish tapas dishes are often served as small portions to accompany alcoholic drinks. See also the Wiktionary entry for 魚【さかな】.

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    – jarmanso7
    Sep 22, 2023 at 0:11
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    @jarmanso7 -- Heh! 😄 There's the "Necromancer" badge, that's probably the closest to what you're thinking of. Sep 22, 2023 at 16:52

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