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I saw the phrase 烏有{うゆう}に帰{き}す, which means to "become nothing" as if turning to ashes. The word "烏有" means nothing, but its parts are 烏 (crow) and 有 (to be). How did 烏有 come to mean nothing?

When I consulted a dictionary (kotobank.jp), it said it means: 「烏(いずく)んぞ有らんや」. What does that mean? I'm not sure how to translate that. Also, is there a place where the word is first used?

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    I think you might actually ask about the origin of 烏有 on Chinese.SE. All I can suggest is that 烏 was probably borrowed for its sound. – snailcar Oct 24 '15 at 18:29
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    Here's more on this yuraika.com/uyunikisu – macraf Oct 24 '15 at 22:11
  • @snailboat Seems rather to be an original Japanese simplification of 焉 – macraf Oct 24 '15 at 23:39
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    @macraf Hmm, no, I don't think that's the case. I think 烏 was used in Middle Chinese for its sound to write one of a class of ʔ-initial interrogatives (cf. 焉・安 and especially 惡, which was used to write the same word). See Pulleyblank's Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar (1995) pages 91 and 96-97. – snailcar Oct 25 '15 at 1:20
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    Chinese sources seem to pass it as some interrogative or negative indefinite pronoun. tw.18dao.net/%E6%88%90%E8%AA%9E%E8%A9%9E%E5%85%B8/… – Derpius Oct 25 '15 at 1:35
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烏有 as on'yomi: uyū

As others have noted in the question comments, 烏有 read as uyū derives from Classical Chinese. Its origins there appear to be based on 烏 (not "crow" here, instead used phonetically in Middle Chinese as an interrogative and negative indefinite pronoun, as noted by snailboat and Derpius in the comments above) + 有 ("to have, to be") → "none-have, none-be" → "nothing".

烏有 as kun'yomi: izukunzo aran'ya

Addressing the latter portion of your question, いずくんぞあらんや is provided as the kun'yomi or native Japanese reading of the Classical Chinese term 烏有. いずくんぞ again has no relation to the "crow" meaning of 烏, and あらんや implies the opposite of the "to have, to exist" meaning of 有, but the full kun'yomi is related to the Classical Chinese meaning of the full phrase.

The pieces: izukunzo

いずくんぞ is a contraction. Walking it back:

  • いずくんぞ
  • いづく + に + ぞ
  • いづこ (何【いづ】 "which" + 処【こ】 "place" → modern どこ) + に (locative particle) + ぞ (used in Classical Japanese after interrogatives to indicate non-specificity, apparently similar to the modern use of も as in どこにも)

いずくんぞ literally appears to mean "wheresoever". In practice, its meaning was closer to "why" (perhaps similar to archaic English "wherefore"). The term mainly appears in Classical Japanese, in the kundoku (native Japanese recitation) of kanbun (works written in [broadly speaking] Classical Chinese). いずくんぞ was used to introduce a supposition as part of a rhetorical question with an implied negative answer: "why would [you think X, it be X, etc.] (because actually that's not the case)." One usage example given in Shogakukan's Kokugo Dai Jiten is いずくんぞ知【し】らん: "why would [someone] know it (when they probably don't)."

The pieces: aran'ya

あらんや is similarly a contraction.

  • あらんや
  • あらむ (有る "to be" + supposition auxiliary む → modern あろう "is it?, would it be?") + や (question particle)

In Classical Japanese, the -む + や construction was used in rhetorical questions where the answer is assumed to be "no", somewhat like the English construction "would it be X" with intonation used to indicate a meaning of "it isn't X".

The full kun'yomi phrase

Putting it back together then, いずくんぞあらんや ultimately parses out to "why would there be anything?", intending "there isn't anything" → "nothing".

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