When I look at the words for professions, there are usually kanji such as 員、者、長、師、屋 and such, that end the name. These appear to make sense to me; however, what about ones such as 家、手、and 士?

For example, why does 歌手 mean "singer"? Does this have anything to do with 手 or "hands"? The same could be said for 作家 similarly.

How did these kanji as suffixes come about to represent any given profession? Why not any others?

  • 士 means samurai or man (紳士=a gentleman, 好学の士= a lover of learning) I have never thought it too strange to adopt the character for professions such as 会計士. 手 can mean helper as in 人手 or "あと3人ほど手が欲しい|We need [want] three more [pairs of] hands"; This too also seemed to correspond with English expressions like "old China hand" for someone experienced in doing business in China. 家 is a bit harder though...
    – Tim
    Aug 27 '12 at 3:01
  • This is why I used specific examples like 歌手. I cannot understand the role 手 plays or why it was chosen for this profession.
    – Chris
    Aug 27 '12 at 3:04
  • 1
    The word 歌手 maybe came from Chinese. I don't think there is a consistent rule about it. Just memorize them.
    – Gradius
    Aug 27 '12 at 6:53
  • 1
    @Tim, So do you have to be elite to be an 愛煙家? :P
    – dainichi
    Aug 27 '12 at 7:22
  • 2
    @Gradius: How will I learn anything if I only memorize something? If you don't think there is a consistent rule then why not make that an answer?
    – Chris
    Aug 27 '12 at 14:48

There's an interesting article about it here, starting with a discussion of the words 投手 (pitcher) and 打者 (batter).

From the writers perspective, 手 indicates someone employed for some concrete ability, whereas 者 can refer to a particular role or standpoint, often temporary (although in some cases it means 求道者).

So because the 'batter' isn't a fixed role (you have the same pitcher but a series of batters), 打手 wouldn't make sense.

Similarly, 運転手 is a person who makes their living from driving, 運転者 is the driver at a certain time.

For the other suffixes: 家 often means 専門家 (a specialist in something). It does seem to often be used for artistic occupations, as Chocolate said. 作家 is someone who writes books for a living. 著者 is the author of a particular book.

士, when it isn't used for military occupations (戦士) usually indicates some sort of official certification. By comparison, 師 is a master of something without relation to qualifications. However, some jobs where official certification is usually held use 師 instead of 士, e.g. 看護師. This comes from replacing two terms (using 婦/士 for female/male) with a single gender-neutral form.

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