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I'm wondering what the difference in usage between へび, じゃ, and くちなわ is to reference snakes/serpents. Is one more common than the other? Is one more casual or more literary? For example, "snake" comes up in casual conversation more often than the word "serpent"; can the same be said for へび, じゃ, or くちなわ?

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If you just see the kanji 蛇, you would normally read it as へび. That's the basic word for 'snake'. You can forget about the word くちなわ for the most part; it's an old word for snake (said to come from their resemblance to a rotten rope), but へび is the usual word today. Likewise, if you want to talk about snakes in conversation, just say へび.

There are other readings, but they're not usually used as independent words. The on readings じゃ and だ appear when this character is used as part of compound words:

  • 蛇口{じゃぐち} 'faucet'
  • 蛇足{だそく} 'superfluous/unnecessary [thing]'
  • 蛇行{だこう} 'meandering; wandering'
  • 長蛇{ちょうだ}の列{れつ} 'long line' (or 'long queue' in BrE)

But if you just see 蛇 by itself, you wouldn't normally read it じゃ or だ. You may run into these as independent words from time to time, as in 夏目漱石's 虞美人草, but this is an unusual stylistic choice, and I would usually expect there to be furigana in cases like these.

One exception might be in set phrases or proverbs:

But I don't think these exceptions will be especially common.

You should also be aware of 大蛇, which can be read two ways. It can be read だいじゃ 'great serpent' as a regular word, but especially in fiction or mythology, it often represents おろち; please see ヤマタノオロチ on Wikipedia for more information.

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  • Thanks for the wikipedia link. I always knew the reading 「おろち」 but didn't know of the mythos surrounding it. – istrasci May 8 '18 at 20:49

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