I can't resist trying to find patterns in words. These three words, for example, seem to fit a similar pattern:

  • 頷{うなづ}く = [項]{うな} + 突{つ}く (source: community wiki)
  • 躓{つまづ}く = [爪]{つま} + 突{つ}く (source: community wiki)
  • 額{ぬか}づく = [額]{ぬか} + 突{つ}く (source: gogen-allguide)

However, I can't seem to find the etymology of 跪{ひざまづ}く anywhere. Since it appears to fit the pattern, I'd like to guess:

  • 跪{ひざまづ}く = [膝]{ひざ} + ま + 突{つ}く

But where does the ま come from? It doesn't seem to fit the pattern neatly like the others.

  • 1
    @snailplane: The questions is interesting but I'd be really grateful if you added the English for these words (it would save others from looking it up)
    – Tim
    Sep 24, 2012 at 11:39
  • @snailplane: Good observation on the pattern of these verbs!
    – istrasci
    Sep 24, 2012 at 14:30

2 Answers 2


It would be nice to have some more authoritative sources on this topic (if there are any), but I'm not convinced there is. A lot of the pages I could find said they don't know where it comes from, and I'm not sure anybody really does...

But one theory may be, in the Wikipedia article for 膝{ひざ}, it says:


A rough translation of that might be:

"...the way of sitting that is falling on your knees and toes and sitting down is called '跪く'..."

So I think it may be a combination of 膝{ひざ}, 爪{つま} and 突{つ}く.

I'm a bit sceptical of the "best answer" at this link (other pages say "つ" in "つまづく" comes from "爪" rather than "蹴" for example), but this seems to be more-or-less what one of the non-accepted answers at this Chiebukuro question says, saying that "〜まずく" is "つまづく" and that "つまづく" comes from "爪{つま}" and "つく".

  • Upvoting to counter the unexplained downvote. Sep 24, 2012 at 13:57

Curiosity prompted some further searching. My findings to date, after trawling through pages and pages of Google hits:

  • This post states that the interstitial /‑ma‑/ may be a fancifier (honorific?) of some sort (emphasis mine):

    • ですから、akimotoさんが考えていらっしゃるように、「ひざがつく」のが「ひざまづく(旧仮名遣い)」→「ひざまずく」(※貴い人に対して行う動作であるため、 「ま」が雅語 として挿入されたという説もありますが、 未詳 )となったと言えます。
  • This page looks instead at the various terms for describing 正座{せいざ} in Zen practice in terms of geographical distribution. Interestingly, ひざまずき is only found in Okinawa.

  • This page seems to say that ひざまづく is 方言. 「沖縄の子供達の多くは、これを方言だという事に気がついていません。」 That said, Shogakukan gives a citation for this word from the 日本霊異記{にほんりょういき}, a Buddhist text written in 823.

  • This other Chiebukuro post quotes the Shin Meikai Kokugo Dictionary to similarly state that the /-ma-/ is of unknown derivation. 「〔「ま」の意は未詳〕」

  • As cypher notes, the "best answer" in the Chiebukuro post provided earlier, while interesting, proposes an unlikely derivation for the /‑ma‑/ portion, suggesting that it is a contraction of 曲{ま}げて, such that mazuku would ultimately be from 曲{ま}げて突{つ}く. That poster also goes on to try to force this same etymology for 躓{つまづ}く, claiming it to be short for けつまづく with the けつ purportedly coming from 蹴{け}って and the まづく again coming from 曲{ま}げて突{つ}く. Given the contortions required, the unlikely phonological changes, and the fact that numerous other more-reputable sources derive 躓{つまづ}く from 爪{つま}突{つ}く, the proposed etymology for 躓{つまづ}く seems to be so flawed that it casts doubt on that poster's theories for ひざまづく.

  • The non-"best answer" post that cypher mentions suggests that the ひざま in ひざまづく is a contraction of 膝{ひざ}爪{つま}. However, this seems to be phonologically and semantically unlikely. The pitch accents of both words seem to preclude this, for one. If ひざ were odaka, forcing a low tone immediately afterwards as in ひざは【LHL】, such that ひざ【LH】 + つま【LH】 would yield ひざつま【LHLH】, I could perhaps see the つ in つま being influenced by the preceding odaka into being low tone and possibly elided that way. However, both ひざ and つま are heiban pitch accent patterns, suggesting that ひざ【LH】 + つま【LH】 would yield ひざつま【LHHH】 for pitch, with no clear phonetic reason for eliding the つ.

  • Shogakukan defines 跪く as:

    • 両手を前につき、両膝をつけて、臀(しり)をあげてかがまる。膝を地につけてかしこまる。主に屈服または拝礼の意を表す。

    In light of this word's meanings of supplication and the similarity to kowtowing, I wonder if this might have originally meant something closer to kowtowing in literal terms: 叩{kow} 頭{tow}, referring to the practice of touching (or even striking) one's head on the ground as an extreme form of bowing. With one's knees on the ground, touching one's head to the ground can be almost between one's knees, making me wonder if the /‑ma‑/ in question isn't simply 間 "between": 膝{ひざ} (knees) 間{ま} (between) 突{づ}く (touching / striking [the ground]).

  • Do you have any thoughts on /-ma-/ = 真?
    – Earthliŋ
    Jun 17, 2014 at 22:26
  • @Earthliŋ: Sorry, meant to reply sooner. 1) Generally, I think only subjects and objects can wind up in compounds like this. Indirect objects that would take に in a sentence can't be used to form [noun][verb] compounds. 2) I looked for any morpheme /-ma-/ meaning "both", on the theory that the verb just meant "to plant both knees", but closest is moro, but it's a prefix, and too far off phonetically. 3) Not sure how 真 would work. As ma, it's used as a noun or adj prefix, not a suffix, nor a verb prefix. It's also a bit odd here semantically. It doesn't strike me as a good candidate match. Jun 20, 2014 at 7:08
  • Huh, Shogakukan says 真 ma actually can prefix verbs -- but I sure can't find any examples. I find it in compounds like 真向き, but only ever with the 連用形 of a verb, and in cases where that verb form is being used as a noun. 真向く doesn't seem to exist, for instance, at least as far as the dictionary is concerned. Jun 20, 2014 at 7:13

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