How did the character for "leather" - [革]{かわ / カク} - come to also convey the meaning for "newness"? 広辞苑 lists one of the definitions (under かく) as あらたまること, あらためること, and we can see this in some of its associated 熟語: 変革, 改革, 革新. Anyone know how this came to be?


1 Answer 1


The source for this dual meaning already exists in Chinese. 革 is originally a pictograph of a stretched hide that is turned into leather. As a noun it meant just "leather", but as a verb it also meant "stretching something flabby and making it taut", which then was extended figuratively into "making something old new" and from there "renewal". Thus came all the meanings in compounds such as 革新, 改革 and 革命.

See e.g. 広辞苑:

解字kaku象形。 動物の全身の皮をはぎ、さらしてぴんと広げた形。たるんだものをぴんと張る意から、あらためる意に用いる。

You can also find a similar explanation online in Gogen-Allguide:

  • Is this "figurative extension" your hypothesis, or can you quote a source for it??? If so, I'll give you the answer.
    – istrasci
    Commented Jun 22, 2011 at 22:31
  • No hypothesis, it can be found in just about any Kanji dictionary. I'll link some. And I think I've actually first heard it in one of my classes, from a professor who's a Classical Chinese expert.
    – Boaz Yaniv
    Commented Jun 22, 2011 at 22:32
  • I don't know which revision of 広辞苑 I have, but it doesn't have that definition. But if I look up あらためる just by the kana, it shows the entry as 改める・革める, which I've never seen (since I've never looked up あらためる in 広辞苑 before). Cool!
    – istrasci
    Commented Jun 22, 2011 at 22:46
  • Mine is the 6th edition, which is the newest I as far as I know. It's also the electronic edition (I'm totally useless with paper dictionaries, especially in Japanese :(), so maybe that counts. This definition is taken from the kanji definitions section and not from the word definitions section, if that helps.
    – Boaz Yaniv
    Commented Jun 22, 2011 at 22:50

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