Why is 'no smoking' [禁煙]{きんえん} (lit. 'smoke is prohibited'), whereas 'to smoke' is [吸]{す}う (lit. 'to inhale (smoke)')? In English (and some other languages), the verb 'to smoke' is related to the noun 'smoke', but since it's not the case in Japanese, it is strange to see 煙 pop up. Is it a calque?


The Sino-Japanese word (kango) that directly corresponds to 禁煙 is 喫煙【きつえん】 (喫 = "take and enjoy"), which is a suru-verb that can be found in stiff situations including statistical or medical contexts. (We say 禁煙 but not 禁喫煙 for this reason.) On the other hand, (たばこを)吸う is a wago which is commonly used in casual day-to-day situations. English speakers happen to use the same word ("to smoke") in almost all contexts, but in Japanese, 喫煙 and (たばこを)吸う are very different in register. (English speakers distinguish sweat and perspire, for example.)

When someone wants to prohibit smoking, it's possible to use some negative imperative expression of 吸う (e.g., ここでたばこを吸ってはいけません), but it would sound like as if you were saying this to a child. 禁煙 is almost always preferred because it's short, authoritative and serious.

  • 喫煙{きつえん} means smoking. 禁煙{きんえん} and 喫煙{きつえん} are used in opposite contexts. You should make it more clear in your answer. This part is misleading The Sino-Japanese word (kango) that directly corresponds to 禁煙 is 喫煙. – Daishi May 14 '19 at 11:33
  • I'm a bit puzzled over the parenthetical part about the reason why we don't say 禁喫煙. Is what you mean by that along the lines of: "The word for 'no smoking' would have been 禁喫煙, but since 喫煙 is a compound made up of two similar-meaning kanji, devised mainly in order to reduce homophony in a particular sound, it is truncated to 煙 when the homophony issue in that particular sound is solved by another means, as when it is combined with another kanji like 禁+喫煙(=禁煙)"? – goldbrick May 14 '19 at 17:44

I take it that you are inclined to think some verbal element denoting the act of smoking should be present in the Japanese word meaning "no smoking", in parallel with the English phrase, but things really doesn't have to be that way.

Observe, for instance, that in English "no tobacco" (or "no cigarette") can convey the same meaning as "no smoking", and it doesn't contain a verbal. (By this I do not mean that "tobacco", "cigarette" and "smoking" have the same extension in meaning. The point is to show that in the phrasal template "No XXX", XXX doesn't have to be a verb-derived word, and by the same token there's no necessity for XXX in「禁XXX」to be verb-derived. )

And neither is there any morphological rule stating the second component in two-kanji compounds beginning with 「禁」 should denote action rather than an object.

Sure, in some other possible world, 「禁吸」(in which 「吸」 stands for the act of "煙草を吸う") might be a word meaning "no smoking" but in this world (one where "no drinking (alcohol)" is indeed 「禁酒」, not 「禁飲」 though 「禁飲」 seems to be something of a word all its own), we have 「禁煙」, and it's not strange at all.

To answer the last question -- no, I don't think the presence of 「煙」 is due to the translation of "smoking" but rather to whatever rules govern the process of compound formation, like those involved in the formation of words centered around tobacco/smoking such as「喫煙」「断煙」「卒煙」「嫌煙」.

  • Oh, come on JLSE! I come back for the first time like in ages and you hit with an unexplained downvote within an hour after posting answer ? :) – goldbrick May 14 '19 at 16:55
  • Well, I’m happy to see a recent answer from you! You’re one of the highest quality posters here IMHO. – Darius Jahandarie May 14 '19 at 17:52
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    I'm not the downvoter, but I'm curious about your contention that "in English 'no tobacco' (or 'no cigarette') can convey the same meaning as 'no smoking.'" Would you be willing to elaborate or provide some usage examples? – Nanigashi May 14 '19 at 17:57
  • @Nanigashi I googled up some examples. I don't suppose swapping "tobacco" and "cigarettes" for "smoking" in these sentences would lead to any significant change in what is meant? "'This is the week we reinforce the Tazewell County policy on no tobacco,' said Wendy Barringer"; "'No women, no alcohol, no tobacco,' said one of the men who runs the training camp"; "Boot camp is a no-tobacco, no-drinking environment."; "'No cigarettes, Agatha. The smell of smoke will linger.'"; "'Mr Houston (...), was telling us the rules: no short skirts, no cigarettes or chewing tobacco anywhere on the grounds" – goldbrick May 15 '19 at 12:09
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    @Ringil, both chewing tobacco and snuff have been used widely in the U.S. for well over a hundred years, and unfortunately both remain very common in some parts of the country (particularly the southeast). There are many places (like airports) where the use of such products is tolerated while smoking (including smoking pipes and cigars, of course) is strictly prohibited. And I believe that while boot camp actually is a "no-tobacco" environment now, for a long time smoking was prohibited in boot camp but the use of "smokeless" tobacco was allowed and even encouraged. – Nanigashi May 16 '19 at 17:26

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