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Recently I came across the word 助っ人, surprised to find out its reading was "すけっと".

Does its etymology have something to do with 助ける【たすける】 and 人【ひと】? If so, why the disappearance of た, ひ, and the addition of 促音?

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Yes, it is 助【すけ】 + 人【ひと】.

助【すけ】 is an obsolete word that means "help; assistance". The currently used verb 助ける is composed of た "hand" + すく "assist".

Noun + 人 was a very productive way to coin a word that roughly means "-er" or "who is —" throughout older times in Japanese. Many of those words are still surviving in contracted form today, mostly ending in -うと or -うど, but very few of them have -っと rendering.

  • 助っ人 < 助 + 人
  • 夫【おっと】 "husband" < 男【を】 + 人 "who is (my) man"
  • 盗人【ぬすっと】 (pre-modern) "thief" < 盗【ぬす】み "steal" + 人

Compare:

  • 弟【おとうと】 "younger brother" < 乙【おと】 "junior" + 人
  • 妹【いもうと】 "younger sister" < 妹【いも】 "intimate woman" + 人
  • 素人【しろうと】 "amateur" < 白【しろ】 "white" + 人
  • 仲人【なこうど】 "matchmaker" < 中【なか】 "middle" + 人
  • 狩人【かりうど】 "hunter" < 狩【か】り "hunt" + 人
  • 若人【わこうど】 (poetic) "the youth" < 若【わか】 "young" + 人

  • 商人【あきんど】 (old-fashioned) "trader" < 商【あき】 "trade" + 人

PS
Further reading: 人:difference between ひと and -うと

  • 3
    knew about some of these, but learned some new things! I had never made the mental connection between the うと of 弟 or 妹 and the kanji 人 before. Cool. – ericfromabeno Nov 15 '18 at 17:07
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    It's worth noting that, while 助「すけ」 seems to be obsolete in modern vocabulary, it is still present in some names. For example, my name ends in 之助「のすけ」. – あらまあ Nov 16 '18 at 9:06
  • So am I correct in thinking that the たす reading of 助 is somehow formed by adding た to the front of the verb すける? Is た a productive morpheme I do not yet know? – Wilson Nov 16 '18 at 9:36
  • @ericfromabeno Incidentally, おとうと originally meant younger siblings regardless of gender and いもうと your lover. – user4092 Nov 16 '18 at 13:35
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    @Wilson It's actually the same word with 手 in very old compounds. Look into Old Japanese phonology if you're interested japanese.stackexchange.com/q/9331/7810 – broccoli forest Nov 16 '18 at 15:58

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