Perhaps a dumb question, but something that I was wondering and couldn't find a clear answer via search. Since 校 is the kanji for school, why do we also need the kanji for learning 学 to say "school" (学校)? As a westerner, it seems as though schools always involve learning.

Is there some difference in nuance I'm missing? Is there perhaps a historical meaning for 校 that is more like place of training or practice, which evolved into school?

  • 2
    Isn't 学校 a Chinese loanword?
    – user1016
    Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 14:37
  • @Chocolate, 和製漢語じゃないかな、と思うけど
    – Yang Muye
    Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 15:02
  • 2
    @Chocolate, 断定できないですが、これによると、「学校」が現代的な「school」という意味で使われるようになったのは、明治以来のことだそうです。その後、多くの和製漢語が中国語へ逆輸入されたのです。(詳しくはこちらへ
    – Yang Muye
    Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 15:55
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    >「身体」はshentiですよね? >>> はい、そうです。
    – Yang Muye
    Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 15:56
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    I think you'll find this is more common then you might think. Two kanji mean very similar things, but one is used in X-type situations and the other is in Y-type situations. I'd go so far as to say they're often not even interchangeable, but there are rules when to use X and Y. As far as I can figure out you just have to learn them, and get the feeling for it. Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 0:52

3 Answers 3


Thousands of Japanese 熟語 were created in this way.

  • 岩石 (がんせき) ≒ 岩 (いわ) (rock)
  • 河川 (かせん) ≒ 川 (かわ) (river)
  • 絵画 (かいが) ≒ 絵 (え) (picture)
  • 自己 (じこ) ≒ 己 (おのれ) (oneself)
  • 身体 (しんたい) ≒ 体 (からだ) (body)

Japanese Wikipedia describes a simple reason for this. One kanji character was not long enough to be distinguishable with each other when pronounced with on-yomi. There are only a few hundred different on-yomi in use. Naturally, people needed to stack two similar characters to construct one 熟語 usable in everyday speech.



  • 2
    This is a fairly normal process in languages - if a word gets too short to be distinguishable, compound it with a synonym. Chinese has vast numbers of these compounds; I don't know how many Japanese has borrowed versus created.
    – Sjiveru
    Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 15:56
  • Same in Chinese. However, in the 5 examples above, 河川 is formal in Chinese and will be usually only used in lyrics and poems (河 is more common). For the rest four, they are more common than its one-character synonym. Chinese also changed from mainly one-char words to two(or more)-char words. For names, if you read old Chinese novels and history books, you'll find that most people have only one character for the first name; however, it is more common for Chinese to have a two-character first name - and most duplicated names are mostly one-char first name. It's a simple combinatorics question :)
    – zhxq
    Commented May 9, 2018 at 21:17
  • But the single-character words are usually read as Japanese words in their kun-yomi, so there is no ambiguity in the first place. 🤔
    – Glutexo
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 8:08

isn't the character for "school", it's a character for "school". Here are some of the others: , , , , , , , , , ...

Characters are not a neat logical mapping of one picture to one concept.

In fact characters are not even Japanese, as I'm sure you know.

Characters evolved over thousands of years in China. This means meanings changed, characters changed, new concepts were invented or discovered, characters were adapted, simplified, devised, etc. Probably over and over again..

The result was characters with multiple meanings and concepts with multiple characters, sometimes with subtle differences in nuance, other times just used in different regions or in different eras, etc.

Many compound words also evolved, made of two or more characters.

Then Japan borrowed the Chinese characters both as concepts and as pre-formed Chinese compound words, adapted to Japanese pronunciation, which is utterly different to Chinese pronunciation, of which there are many utterly different kinds.

Characters were adapted to Japanese words, new characters were invented in Japan, characters changed slightly in how they were written in Japan, new compounds were created of Japanese parts written in characters, and also of Chinese parts written in characters.

Meanings and pronunciations and concepts also shifted in the time since Japan acquired characters.

Then Japanese writing was standardized and simplified, with a smaller number of characters remaining common compared to the larger set used formerly.

One of the results of this long slow natural process was the two characters you've noticed which have among their several meanings at least one meaning that is vaguely similar, with one being used in some rather arbitrary but now standard ways, and the other used in some other rather arbitrary but now standard ways.

You can expect this with the majority of the words in all languages of the world. And you can also expect it for the majority of characters or hieroglyphs, in languages that use such symbols as part of their writing systems.

  • 1
    Excellent point on the "the" vs. "a" distinction in your opening sentence. It's far too easy to think of things in a foreign language as having a 1-to-1 correspondence with our own sometimes.
    – Kaji
    Commented Mar 30, 2014 at 7:58
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    Thanks @Kaji. I react the same when I see/hear/read people use "the dictionary says ...". Commented Mar 30, 2014 at 8:01

Well, for starters, 校 also has the meaning of "proof" (as in a proof print of something; not "proof" as in evidence) which is associated with its additional 音読み "きょう".

That aside, 漢語 very strongly favors multi-character compounds. With simpler concepts it therefore makes sense to choose two characters with similar meanings to convey it, after which one of them can be substituted out for something more specific (c.f. 学校、高校) or further prefixes and suffixes can be added (小学校、中学校, etc.).

  • While definitely correct re 小中高 as shortenings with more precise meaning, can you provide a reference supporting the substitution regarding 大学? You might be misunderstanding the history of education where 中学校 and 小学校 were late additions.
    – virmaior
    Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 15:15
  • Rather than shortening, I was using it as an example of substitution (dropping 校 and adding 学 so that it could be kept as a 2-character compound), but giving it more thought that doesn't quite do justice to it etymologically speaking, as the printing-related meanings for 校 date further back, I grant.
    – Kaji
    Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 15:28
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    I guess what I'm asking if you have some sort of support for putting 大学 in the group which would mean substituting out a 校 to put in the 大.
    – virmaior
    Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 15:37
  • 1
    It's becoming a distraction, so I just took that example out. As I noted in my previous comment, it's an easy conclusion to draw to demonstrate a pattern, however the etymology doesn't flow exactly in that way in this case.
    – Kaji
    Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 16:02

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