An entry of Tae Kim's blog suggested that 出来る came from Chinese word 出来 that does have the nuance of potentiality, but the most recent visitor's comment claimed that the usage of 出来 in Chinese to show potentiality is fairly recent, so the usage of 出来る in Japanese might be unrelated to the Chinese word after all.

If this Japanese verb really did not come from the Chinese, how do the kanji characters for "to go out" and "to come" end up giving the nuance of potentiality in Japanese?

Can anyone find out authoritative sources on the actual etymology of 出来る?

EDIT: Also, is the origin of 出来る somehow related to 出来 {しゅったい} (meaning: occurrence) or 出来 {でき} (meaning: workmanship, execution etc)?

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    I strongly dispute the claim that it is Chinese in etymology. For a start, it's plainly obvious that it's a regularised compound of 出る and 来る, which are native verbs. (In other words, this is essentially not a gikun reading but rather just a slightly irregular kun-yomi reading.) But, I don't have any authoritative sources on this, so I'll just leave this as a comment. (Actually, I would not be surprised if the spelling turns out to be some kind of ateji.)
    – Zhen Lin
    Aug 17 '11 at 14:20
  • @Zhen - I've always known it to just be 当て字.
    – istrasci
    Aug 17 '11 at 14:30
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    Japanese language existed before Kanji was introduced and when it was introduced, Japanese people began adding Kanji with the closest meaning to native Japanese words, like 出 for でる and 来 for くる, which is how 訓読み came about in the first place. If できる was really a compound of でる and くる like @Zhen is saying then it has no Chinese origin and 出来る just coincidentally have the same kanji as the corresponding Chinese word. Though I'm no expert on the Chinese language to say that 出来(しゅったい) is related to Chinese.
    – Ken Li
    Aug 17 '11 at 15:22

First, a general comment: one must always remember that there are two major categories of ‘native’ Japanese words, namely the true native vocabulary inherited from the prehistoric Japanese language, and the nativised vocabulary imported from Chinese. Although there are some words whose classification is unclear (うめ(梅)、うま(馬) etc.), by and large it is obvious from the ‘sound’ which class a word falls into. 出来る is of the first category. The strongest evidence for this is that the reading is not what we would expect from an imported Chinese word spelled with those kanji: indeed, the word しゅったい is much closer to the expected reading しゅつらい.

I admit this isn't conclusive: it could well be a calque (i.e. a direct translation) from Chinese, or even a direct borrowing of some Chinese word (but not 出来) which was turned into a native verb. But I personally believe the latter is unlikely, and I am not in a position to say one way or another about the former. A solid answer would require knowledge of both languages and their histories.

However, after a little search, it seems that the theory that できる was really originally a compound of 出る and 来る does have some evidence. According to Daijisen, it's from the カ変 verb でく, and Daijirin says でく is a contraction of いでく, which is consistent with the theory that it's a compound of 出る (classical: いづ) and 来る (classical: く). Moreover, Daijirin gives the following definition for いでく:

「大君の命かしこみ―・来れば/万葉 4358」


「国高安の郡に、いきかよふ所―・きにけり/伊勢 23」



Sense (5) is precisely the ‘potentiality’ we're interested in, and sense (1) is exactly what you would expect from the kanji: ‘to leave and come here’.

But, I'm still a little suspicious: the example Daijirin gives for sense (5) comes from a 15th century text, whereas the example for sense (1) comes from the Man'yōshū—a 7th/8th century text. And Daijisen doesn't even give ‘potentiality’ as a possible meaning in its definition of いでく.

As for your additional question: The word でき is clearly obtained from the stem of できる, and the meaning is more or less what you would expect from such a derivation.

  • 1
    Can that be interpreted that the usage of 出来る to mean potentiality might be as recent as the 15th century?
    – Lukman
    Aug 18 '11 at 5:23
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    I’m not sure I really follow why you’re suspicious – the facts fit quite well. Sense (1) is the earliest, most literal sense, while sense (5) is the most recently derived one, so it’s logical that (1) appears much earlier than (5). Since (5) didn’t evolve until much later, when いでく had already been ‘regularised’ (i.e., followed the development of the two verbs themselves) to でくる or できる, it makes sense that Daijisen does not list (5) under the earlier form いでく, because there was no point in time when いでく (as opposed to できる) mean ‘can’. Apr 23 '19 at 9:27

I'd like to add some more detail onto Zhen Lin's answer. My source is primarily Shogakukan's 1988 version of their Kokugo Dai Jiten Dictionary, Shinsou-ban (Revised edition).

Morphology and Phonology

Modern 出{で}来{き}る comes from older 出{で}来{く}る, comes from older 出{で}来{く}, comes from older 出{い}で来{く}. The oldest form is clearly a compound of 出{い}づ + 来{く}.

  • 出{い}づ idzu (usually reconstructed as idu for Old Japanese) was the original form of modern 出{で}る deru. This belonged to a class of verbs that conjugated a certain way, called a 下{しも}二段{にだん}活用{かつよう}動詞{どうし}, literally lower two-step conjugation verb.

    • The lower part referred to the vowel that the stem ended in. Upper verbs ended in -i, and lower verbs ended in -e.
    • The two-step portion is more officially translated as bigrade in many English-language references. This means that the stem vowel only has two forms. For a lower verb, those vowels are -u and -e.

    So when idu is conjugated into the 連体形{れんたいけい} or "attributive form", it becomes ideru -- stem of ide- + attributive ending -ru. The ide- part is what we see in the historical development of 出{で}来{き}る. Over time, the low-pitched initial i- sound was lost (vaguely similar to how unstressed syllables sometimes fall out in English), producing modern stem form de-.

  • 来{く} ku was the original form of modern 来{く}る kuru. Much as happened with nidan verbs, the attributive form replaced the previous 終止形{しゅうしけい} or "terminal form", adding that extra る that disappears in other conjugated forms. This same kind of development happened in verbs like 食{た}べる and 起{お}きる, which similarly have disappearing final る.


The original meaning was just what we would expect from this compound: 出{い}づ "go out" + 来{く} "come" == "to come out". This was used literally, as well as figuratively in the senses of "to appear, to become manifest".

The figurative sense then extended to express the general sense "to come into existence anew", with more specific senses of "to occur, to happen, to be born; to be created, to be made, to be set up; to be produced, to come to fruition", and then "to be completed, to be finished (generally with positive overtones)".

This idea of latent existence was further extended to mean one has the ability to make or do something.

In slang contexts, it was even used to mean "to have sex", perhaps similar to the development of the English phrases "to get it on, to get some".


As to when the various senses developed, I have less information than I'd like. The earliest citation in Shogakukan for the "able" sense is a quote from the 鹿{しか}の巻筆{まきふで} published in 1686. The earliest citation for the "appear" sense is from around the mid-1400s. However, these are all using the dekiru form.

Looking at the older dekuru form, Shogakukan provides a quote from around the 1420s, using the "appear, happen" sense.

For the oldest ideku form, we get quotes from the Man'yōshū, all the way from the very beginning of Japanese literature in any form, dating from roughly the 300s through 700s. At the earliest stages of the term, the meaning was apparently limited to "come out; appear". The "newly arise, happen, occur" senses are cited to quotes from the early 900s (Tales of Ise) and early 1000s (Tale of Genji).

Digging through what I have here, it looks like the "able" sense is relatively recent, appearing only from the early Edo period. The extension of meanings over time, though, seems to be reasonably clear, and is consistently native to Japanese -- 出来る did not derive from Chinese.


  • If this Japanese verb really did not come from the Chinese, how do the kanji characters for "to go out" and "to come" end up giving the nuance of potentiality in Japanese?
    I hope the above answers this. Please comment with questions if things aren't clear, and I can edit as needed.

  • Can anyone find out authoritative sources on the actual etymology of 出来る?
    Shogakukan is reasonably authoritative, similar in ways to the reputation of the Oxford English Dictionary as a resource for English.

  • Also, is the origin of 出来る somehow related to 出来{しゅったい} (meaning: occurrence) or 出来{でき} (meaning: workmanship, execution etc)?
    出来{しゅったい} originated as a phonetic shift from the expected on'yomi of しゅつらい. Both しゅったい and しゅつらい, as on'yomi, are borrowings from Chinese. (Note that not all on'yomi terms are borrowings from Chinese, but most are.) Both terms express meanings of "appear, occur", and "creation, completion" similar to native-Japanese できる.
    The meanings for 出来{でき} derived in a similar fashion to the native Japanese verb. Dekiru == "to appear" > "to be created, to be finished", and from this, noun deki == "creation, finish" > "workmanship".

  • 1
    You might use the phonemic spelling idu rather than idzu. In any case, I don't think づ had assibilated yet.
    – user1478
    Jul 31 '14 at 22:09
  • Good point. Will do momentarily. Jul 31 '14 at 22:41

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