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A famous Napoleon quote is sometimes written like this:

余の辞書に不可能の文字はない。

The word impossible is not in my dictionary.

Does 文字 actually mean "word" in this sentence? I thought it always means "character". Or is it used as a plural that refers to all three symbols? Would the "feel" of this quote change if I put 言葉 (or maybe even 単語) there instead? Are there other situations where I can replace these words with 文字?

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The word 「文字」 is still for "character(s)" and it makes us feel that it is referring to each character printed on a dictionary. Thus it is still natural (though often in fictions) to say 「余の辞書に不可能の三文字はない」.

If we are to use 「言葉」, then it would be 「余の辞書に不可能という言葉はない。」, which is slightly closer to the English sentence.

These two practically have the same meaning, though the nuance has such a slight difference.

To clarify the difference of the nuance:

余の辞書に不可能の文字はない。
One cannot find the characters 「不可能」 printed on my dictionary.
余の辞書に不可能という言葉はない。
One cannot find the word 「不可能」 listed on my dictionary.

  • Also you can use 言葉 and 言語 in a similar way depending on the circumstance (dictionary.goo.ne.jp/jn/80642/meaning/m0u , entry 2) – virgil9306 Feb 21 '17 at 6:38
  • @virgil9306 Yes, in situations where they mean "language."   In this question, however, 「文字」 and 「言葉」 mean "character" and "word" respectively, and 「言語」 can mean neither, so it can't be used. – Faily Feely Feb 21 '17 at 7:53
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    Sure. If it's not a useful / pertinent information that OP might be interested in regarding 言葉, I'll delete it, but I thought at their level they might benefit from seeing yet another common usage. – virgil9306 Feb 21 '17 at 12:04
  • @virgil9306 True, you don't have to delete it.   I just added not to confuse OP and future readers. – Faily Feely Feb 22 '17 at 1:56
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文字, as you said, means 'character'. It's not interchangeable with 'word', however the direct translation of 'The characters for impossible are not in my dictionary' sounds unnatural. The translation above covers the meaning, while keeping the translation sounding like natural English.

  • My dictionary (大辞林) lists 言葉。用語。 as a possible meaning of 文字. – Earthliŋ Feb 19 '17 at 12:56
  • Yeah, but the nuance is different. It's pretty much equivalent to letters:words in English. – user19929 Feb 19 '17 at 12:57

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