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Why is a baby called 赤ちゃん? The term means red. Is the term "red" specific? Can the term refer to baby animals as well?

  • 3
    Highly related: japanese.stackexchange.com/q/5822/22352 – ajsmart Aug 1 '18 at 15:10
  • Is this question looking for the etymology of 赤ん坊? My guess is that the color red invokes blushing, but that's just a guess. – Janusz ヤヌシュ Aug 1 '18 at 15:27
  • The term 'akachan' ("red child") is generally used only for newborns. In the first few hours after a Japanese baby's birth, his/her skin is still so thin that the skin looks red, since that's the color of blood in the blood vessels immediately below the skin. Once a baby is about 48 hours old, the skin has usually thickened/hardened sufficiently that the red color of the blood vessels no longer shines through. – Mico Aug 2 '18 at 13:09
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For the etymology of 赤ちゃん "baby" gogen-allguide.com says the following:

赤ちゃんの語源・由来

新生児の皮膚の色が赤く見えることによる語で、「赤ん坊」や「赤子・赤児」も、皮膚の色に由来する。 民間語源には、赤ちゃんを意味する韓国語「アガ」を語源とする説もある。 しかし、「赤ちゃん」や「赤ん坊」の語が成立する以前に「あが」の例は見られず、成立後に見られる「あがちゃん」や「あがんぼう」は訛りであるため、この説は考え難い。 また、子供を叱る時の「メッ」という言葉も、韓国語で「鞭(ムチ)」を意味する「メ」に由来するものとし、それを根拠に赤ちゃんの語源も「アガ」とするものがある。 「メッ」の語源と「赤ちゃん」の語源に関連性がないばかりか、「メッ」と言うのは「ダメッ」の「メッ」と考えるのが妥当なため、特に根拠となるものではない。

The passage says that 赤ちゃん akachan (as well as 赤ん坊 akanbō or 赤子・赤児 akago) has its origin in the fact that the skin of newborn babies is red.

(The passage also discusses the unlikelihood of a competing theory that 赤ちゃん comes from Korean アガ, but this is not relevant for your question.)

You can use the word 赤ちゃん for describing the young of animals as well, but of course this has nothing to do with them being red or not.

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The story that I heard is that babies' faces turn red when they are crying or distressed, which happens often in the case of newborns. For this reason 赤ん坊 and 赤ちゃん became used colloquially as a word for "baby".

While I have never heard of 赤ん坊 being used for any babies other than human ones, I have heard people refer to baby animals as "X の 赤ちゃん". This is not the "standard" way of referring to baby animals of course, but aside from being used for "cuteness", it is also a common phrasing to help children learn the appropriate names of baby animals:

ねこの赤ちゃんは子猫{こねこ}ってよばれてる。

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