I know that the kanji 英 now really has the exclusive meaning of "English", such as in 英語, but I'm wondering what the original meaning was. It's used in words like 英雄, which obviously don't have anything to do with being English. Is it just phonetic when used in words like that, or did it actually have an older meaning?

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    If I recall correctly, it means the flower, the best part of the plant. There is a tendency that good characters are used to name western countries and bad characters are used to name eastern peoples.
    – Yang Muye
    Jun 9, 2014 at 13:38
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    Many countries have abbreviated ateji kanji ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – ssb
    Jun 9, 2014 at 13:49
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    I think the answer is largely in paragraph 3 of the answer to this question: japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/8220/when-is-
    – Tim
    Jun 9, 2014 at 13:57
  • In Chinese, does not only mean "flower, blossom", as some answers pointed out, but also "hero", which is the meaning I was taught when learning the meaning of 英语 (English language). The hanzi is also used in 英雄, which was also the title of a film by Zhang Yimou.
    – user18139
    Dec 17, 2017 at 18:46

2 Answers 2


Henshall writes on p.130 of A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters:

艹 is plant 9. 央 is center 429 q.v., here acting phonetically to express bloom and possibly lending an idea of blocked off at the head from its assumed original meaning of person yoked at the neck. 426 originally meant a flower that blossomed but lacked seed, such a flower being exceptionally beautiful. It can still mean beautiful flower in Chinese. Exceptionally beautiful came to mean superior, with extended meanings such as talented or brave. It is also used for the first syllable of England, largely under the influence of Chinese in which [it] is pronounced YING and is a closer approximation to ENG.

It's not true that 英 "now really has the exclusive meaning of English", but it's acquired that meaning as well. It's still used in its usual senses of "superior, talented, brave" in compounds like 英雄, 英明, or 英知.

In reference to England, it seems that 英 is an abbreviation for the ateji 英吉利.

The dictionary 精選版 日本国語大辞典 says:


And the character dictionary 新漢語林 says:


Wikipedia backs this up:

「イギリス」の語源については、ポルトガル語の Inglez に由来すると言われる[3]。江戸時代には「エゲレス」とも呼ばれていた(前掲ポルトガル語 Inglez、またはオランダ語 Engelsch が訛ったもの[4])。当て字である「英吉利」という表記は、もともと先行する中国語に由来する[5]。

So I think that, in reference to England, it was used for its sound in Chinese rather than for its meaning, and that's why we find two unrelated sets of meaning ("English" and "superior").

I think the literal meaning of "flower" is uncommon in Japanese, although you'll find it used to write certain flower names such as 蒲公英(たんぽぽ).

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    Yeah, I know about the Kanji that represent countries as part of archaic ateji. I was just wondering what this particular one meant. Good to know that my culture is beautiful and skilled. Jun 10, 2014 at 22:23
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    Unfortunately your last sentence implies that you didn't understand the post.
    – Earthliŋ
    Jun 10, 2014 at 23:06

My dictionary 漢字源 lists as meanings

  1. {名} はな。はなぶさ。中央がくぼみ、芯を含んだような形をしたはな。→ 華
  2. {形・名} うるわしい。すぐれている。ひいでた者。「英雄」「英明」。
  3. & 4. [omitted]

The literal meaning being related to a flower, the extended meaning being "lovely" or "outstanding" or "someone skillful". The words 英雄 "hero" and 英明 "intelligent" are listed under this extended meaning.

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    Yeah, 英語 is a "lovely" and "outstanding" language.</sarcasm>
    – istrasci
    Jun 9, 2014 at 14:30

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