結ぶ means to connect, tie, or bind things together, either physically or metaphorically. And then it has the seemingly random phrase [実]{み}を結ぶ meaning "to bear fruit". How does this meaning derive from the "tie/bind" meaning of 結ぶ and the 結 character in general?

  • 1
    See the ties?
    – Yang Muye
    Jun 24 '14 at 2:32
  • @YangMuye: Sure, if you use grapes. What about apples, oranges, etc.?
    – istrasci
    Jun 24 '14 at 2:52

I checked an Old Chinese corpus.

The Kanji 結 was used in the sense of to form an abstract relationship about 2500 years ago, as in 結怨, 結親, 結好, etc.

It could also be used intransitively, like 怨結, 恩結, 気結, 冤結, etc., which sound like to clump/condense/congeal, but it only applied to abstract emotions.

It acquired the meaning to bear no later than 400 AD. It not only applied to fruits (結果, 結実, 結子), but also buds (結葩), roots (結根), and plants (結篠). Meanwhile, I also found 結 was widely used for all kinds of things, such as 結霜 (frost) , 結氷 (ice), 結营 (building), 結党 (organization), 結謀 (plan), 結縁, etc.

In addition, Buddhist was largely introduced in China during that period. Coincidentally, 結果 and 結縁 were used a lot in Buddhist scriptures. Also, Chinese changed dramatically during 200-600 AD.

In conclusion, I do not see a direct relation between ties and stems. The derivation seems to be:

to tie/braid -> to form/to be formed -> to make/to complete.

You may want to ask experts in the Chinese Language Stack Exchange for an authoritative answer.

As for the Japanese word むすぶ, I do not know what its original meaning is and how it finally became the current meaning.

According to 学研全訳古語辞典, it means 結ぶ can mean 形作る or 形を成す.


出典方丈記 「淀(よど)みに浮かぶうたかたは、かつ消えかつむすびて、久しくとどまりたる例(ためし)なし」


出典方丈記 「六十(むそぢ)の露消えがたに及びて、更に末葉(すゑば)の宿りをむすべることあり」

出典徒然草 一三〇 「始め興宴(きようえん)よりおこりて、長き恨みをむすぶ類(たぐひ)多し」

方丈記 and 徒然草 were written in about 1200 AD and 1300 AD. Since 訓読 had already existed before those books were written, literate people must have used むすぶ to translate 結 for quite a long time. I did not see this meaning used in 古事記 and 万葉集.

  • 精選版 日本国語大辞典 ties these meanings together. Under 一 離れているものをからみ合わせてつなげる they have 一② 手の指をからませたりして形を作る。, and in this section they have 一②イ (掬)両手のひらを一つに組み合わせる。特に、その手で水をすくうのをいう。 万葉集 1142 「命を幸くよけむと石走る垂水の水を結(むすび)て飲みつ and 一②ロ 仏教で、手指でさまざまな形をつくる。「印を結ぶ」の形で用いられる。 and 一②ハ 両手で飯をおさえて、握り飯をつくる。 Then for 二 they have the generalized meaning まとめて形にする。また、完成させたり、結束をつけたりする。, earliest cite from 源氏物語 (around 1000 AD), 明石「旅衣うらかなしさにあかしかね草の枕は夢もむすばず」
    – user1478
    Jun 24 '14 at 16:34

I think the meaning is derived from the tie between stems and fruit, also in the case of apples or oranges. Fruit is born from stems, so there are necessarily some ties between them, regardless of whether the ties are apparent or not.

You can use 実を結ぶ ( or more formally 結実する ) not only in a physical sense but also in a metaphorical sense "to have a successful result", as is the case in English phrase "to bear fruit."

I think this expression is also derived from the "ties" between cause and effect.


Regarding the Japanese word musubu (as opposed to the kanji 結, which Yang Muye does an excellent job of explaining), I must side with naruto on this one. The underlying idea does not appear to be the tying, so much as the knot: something that comes together as a result of some process -- be it tying string, or growing a nodule, or coalescing from the void. One can musubu a dream, or a flower, or a fruit or nut, or a conclusion or result.

After poking around over a several days in search of information on the etymology of this term, I cannot find as much as I'd like. むすぶ does appear in at least these five places in the Man'yōshū dating from roughly 347 - 759 CE, suggesting that this word has been around for pretty much the entirety of the history of the Japanese language (where "history" == "written record"). Here's a summary of my findings.

  • These two pages state that 結{むす}ぶ is related to 産{むす}霊{ひ}, the Shinto life force as described on the Japanese Wikipedia. According to Shogakukan, this むすひ also manifested as むすび and even as むすぶ.

  • This page on the Kyoto Sangyo University website makes a similar case that 結{むす}ぶ is related to 産{む}す to produce.

  • This author makes the case that the initial む in terms like 結{むす}ぶ and 睦{むつ}む has to do with coming together, and argues that this む is also found in 棟{むね} roof, peak of a roof from the idea of support beams coming together at the peak of a roof.

  • This page discusses the etymology of むすぶ, but the author's arguments seem a bit far-fetched (particularly his digression on ゆ), and his background and proclivities appear to lie in philosophy and idle musing rather than in researching and building a position from established facts. Despite this, he does touch upon the theory that むすぶ might be related to むす to produce, variously spelled 生す or 産す and the root of everyday terms like 娘{むすめ} (from 生{む}す + 女{め}) and 息子{むすこ} (from 生{む}す + 子{こ}).

  • Exploring the possibility of 結{むす}ぶ as a compound of 生す + some element ぶ, ぶ appears as an auxiliary verb meaning to be like; to become like, more commonly encountered in modern Japanese as the suffix びる in terms like 大人{おとな}びる to be mature, to be grown up. However, Shogakukan does not mention ぶ attaching to verbs, and in general, auxiliary verbs that suffix verbs only attach to the 連用形{れんようけい}, suggesting むしぶ instead. I did find some suggestions that ぶ might have attached to the 連体形{れんたいけい} ending in -u, possibly as in classical 欠{あく}ぶ to yawn (perhaps 開{あ}く to open + ぶ), 煤{すす}ぶ to become smoky, sooty, dirty (from 煤{す}す of same meaning + ぶ), 連{つる}ぶ to line up (from 連{つ}る + ぶ, though this is 下二段{しもにだん}), or 睦{むつ}ぶ to be or become friendly (though 睦{むつ} is not very verb-like; then again, it does appear to be related to terms like 共{むた} together or 貴{むち} [honorific]).

Although the etymological evidence that I can find is only circumstantial, semantically speaking, 結{むす}ぶ does appear to have more of an emphasis on coming together, coalescing, producing than is suggested by the common English gloss of to tie. From that perspective, the meaning in 実を結ぶ is less of a strange outlier and more of a natural semantic fit.


類語例解辞典 says 結ぶ in 実を結ぶ is "まとめて形にする、完成させる".



この意味の英語だと integrate という単語が tie/bond とも似た意味があるように思います。


I do not believe this "結ぶ" is "binding a fruit with a branch or a stem". When I say "実を結ぶ", I imagine a fruit which grows by itself to be mature, but I don't imagine the tree attached to the fruit.

Here are some (Japanese) examples where 「結ぶ」 is apparently not related to "binding".

  • おむすび riceball
  • 結【むす】びの一番【いちばん】 the last match of the day, the concluding match of the day (in Sumo)
  • 結びの言葉【ことば】 closing address (in ceremony)
  • 結果【けっか】 result
  • 結末【けつまつ】 ending (of a story)
  • 結論【けつろん】 conclusion

Seeing those examples, I think and 結ぶ also mean "to integrate into its final form," or "to wrap up something."

I think 「焦点を結ぶ」 and 「夢を結ぶ」 can be understood in this way, too.

  • All of those examples are metaphorically binding, or tying something together. おむすび: the rice is tied up by the seaweed; 結びの一番・言葉: concluding ("wrapping up") the match/address. 結果・結末・結論: wrapping up the efforts/story/logic (resp.).
    – istrasci
    Jun 24 '14 at 14:49
  • You're right, all these examples stand somewhere in "bind - gather - wrap - integrate" spectrum of "結ぶ". And if you can grasp the sense of "binding" in all my examples, let's think of 実を結ぶ in the same way; it's indeed "wrap up the effort/energy/nutrient and integrate it into a fruit."
    – naruto
    Jun 24 '14 at 19:04

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