So, I started learning Kanji recently, and was learning the character 大. Given as an example usage was 大丈夫, or daijoubu. I found this as odd since the idea of big doesn't seem to fit into the idea of "Everything is ok" or "Safe". Then I realized that the character 大 in chinese is pronounced "Da", and that gave me a hunch that possible the choice of characters was phonetic. I looked up the whole phrase in chinese and found "Dàzhàngfū" to be the listed pronunciation. So it looks like daijoubu may have been spelled based on the chinese pronunciation of the characters 大丈夫. Has anyone noticed this or have any sources that would support this theory?

  • Are you asking about the etymology of 大丈夫 (leoboiko's answer) or about general parallels between Japanese on'yomi words and Chinese words (istrasci's answer)? If it's the latter, then we might make this clearer and reopen it. (If it's the former, this question seems to be an exact duplicate of the linked question.) – Earthliŋ Aug 30 '16 at 5:23

The word 大丈夫 is not a phonetic transcription; its characters were chosen by meaning, not by sound. However, it's a Chinese loanword; and, in Japanese, its meaning has drifted from the original, so that the characters don't make much sense anymore (just like, in English, the meaning of Latin roots may not reflect a word's current sense; for example, "transpire" is Latin for "to breathe across", not "to take place").

In Chinese, 丈夫 zhàngfu meant "man", and 大丈夫 dàzhàngfu, literally "big man", was a word for "real man, true man; splendid man". The word was imported into Japanese, where its meaning gradually shifted to "strong", "vigorous", "healthy", and from that to the current usage. (The original meanings are still listed in dictionaries, though they're now rare.)

In general, it's best to treat the kanji components of Japanese words (both on-yomi, Chinese loans, and kun-yomi, native words) as you would the Latin or Greek components of English words. They're generally useful to guess the meaning of a word; but, often enough, the meaning of a word is more than the sum of its parts, and sometimes the components can be downright misleading.

Sources: Gogen, Pleco PLC.

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Hmm, I'll assume you're a beginner in Japanese/kanji. Yes, your theory is correct. As you may know, kanji have multiple ways of being read. The [訓読]{くん・よ}み are the readings based on Japanese. For example, the 訓読み for 大 is 「おお」.

You've stumbled across the [音読]{おん・よ}み readings; those that specifically developed from Chinese pronunciation. The 音読み for 大 can be 「たい」 or 「だい」. See more at this Wiktionary article.

A big part of learning to read Japanese is learning which reading(s) a word has. Sometimes pure 訓読み, sometimes pure 音読み, sometimes mixed, sometimes neither (see examples of [熟字訓]{じゅく・じ・くん}).

For example

  • 悪口 → 訓読み:わる・くち、 音読み:あっ・こう
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