I was talking to someone about the etymology of the word "emoji" recently, and how it comes from 絵文字 in Japanese.

I knew that means "picture", and that 文字 means "character", but I was unable to explain why the kanji is necessary when also means "character" by itself.

Are 字 and 文字 interchangeable, or do they have different connotations/usage patterns?

1 Answer 1


It appears that this question has already been answered on Quora, so - as per this meta question - I'll provide an overview of what I've learned here:

  • 字 and 文字 are, on their own, generally interchangeable.
    • Compare "phone" and "telephone" in English.
  • However, this may not be the case with compounds.
    • For example, 漢字 is fine, but 漢文字 sounds strange.

Trivia: According to Wikipedia, these kanji were (and maybe still are?) used to make a distinction between characters with a single radical and those with multiple radicals in Chinese:

The title of the work draws a basic distinction between two types of characters, wén 文 and zì 字, the former being those composed of a single graphic element (such as shān 山 "mountain"), and the latter being those containing more than one such element (such as hǎo 好 "good" with 女 "woman" and 子 "child") which can be deconstructed into and analyzed in terms of their component elements.

However, I do not believe that this applies to modern Japanese (if it ever applied to Japanese at all).

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