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What is the difference between 美しき and 麗しき and what is the difference between 美しい and 美しき?

I know that both 美しい女性 and 美しき女性 are correct. But what is the difference between these two?

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Adjective Endings い and き

All the modern い adjectives used to have the following endings (more at the JA Wikipedia article, for those who can read Japanese):

  • 未然形{みぜんけい} (imperfective): く
  • 連用形{れんようけい} (adverbial): く
  • 終止形{しゅうしけい} (terminal): し
  • 連体形{れんようけい} (adnominal): き
  • 已然形{いぜんけい} (perfective): けれ
  • 命令形{めいれいけい} (imperative): -

The 未然形 and 連用形 are the same in modern Japanese, still ending in く. The 連体形 ending in classical Japanese was き instead of い, and folks still use that to sound old-fashioned and/or literary. So too for the 終止形 ending of し, still seen in literary use or in set phrases like よし (classical terminal form of modern 良{よ}い).

As for where the き > い shift came from, there was a time around the Muromachi period when the interstitial -k- fell out entirely for some speakers, producing forms like はやい for the 連体形 and はやう for the 連用形. This う adverbial form produced modern terms like おはよう (from 早{はや}い: はやく > はやう > はよう) or おめでとう (from 愛{め}でる: めでたく > めでたう > めでとう).

For reasons left unclear, the general population ultimately accepted the き > い shift for the 連体形, but rejected the く > う shift for the 連用形. The 連体形 and the 終止形 then merged, much as they did for verbs, leading to the disappearance of the し ending.

TL;DR: き is old-fashioned and fancified.

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    Kansai still uses う rather than く for everything...like はよう for 早く in all contexts etc. Preserving く was a Kantō thing.
    – ithisa
    May 31, 2014 at 1:45
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    Yeah, I would very much bet that the mismatch between -i and -ku has to do with the move of the government to Edo and the subsequent shift of the prestige dialect from Kyouto to Edo.
    – Sjiveru
    May 31, 2014 at 2:25

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