So I'm quite new to Japanese, and I'm having a blast being able to understand some basic compound words based on individual kanji, and in some cases the process is quite straightforward. However, I don't want to get carried away because I understand that of course kanji can have, in some cases, many readings, so I could sometimes end up with complete nonsense.

That being said, in the particular case of my question, is it reasonable to assume that the 食 in 月食/日食 can be interpreted as the moon/sun being "eaten" during an eclipse or is there another reason to use this kanji? I have read that a different kanji was used before (at least for lunar eclipse, 月蝕), but I haven't been able to find an explanation about the etymology itself or to verify that it is indeed as simple as it looks.

Thanks in advance !!

  • 1
    I don't know if you've ever read it, but in the manga Toriko there's a fairy tale about a グルメ日食 which is supposedly an event where a colossal demon awakens and devours the sun.
    – Cat
    Jul 5, 2019 at 18:13
  • Didn't know of it, I looked it up now, that's an interesting observation, thanks !
    – JPB
    Jul 7, 2019 at 3:25

1 Answer 1


Rather than interpreting「食」as its original meaning eaten, it is probably more accurate to interpret it for its secondary meaning that developed in Old Chinese: wear away, corrode, damage [something]. This is the same kind of semantic extension as English (e.g. acid eats away at metal > corrosion). Thus, eclipses are a wearing away of the sun or moon.

Apart from eclipses,「食」was very early on used to describe similar phenomenon, such as the transition from a full moon to a new moon. From the Book of Changes:


When the sun reaches the meridian [i.e. noon], it thus travels west [i.e. sets]. When the moon becomes full, it thus fades away.

The wear away, corrode sense is now written as「蝕」, so「食」is the original and older form of the character used in the meaning eclipse.

In contrast to the later-formed character 「蝕」, eclipses were known as「食」since the Shang dynasty. Eclipses were often interpreted as omens of some sort, and whether or not they were auspicious were corroborated by oracle bone divinations. From 《甲骨文合集》33694, read from the bottom sentence then the top sentence:


Divination on 癸酉 day, it is asked: If the sun or moon is eclipsed, is this an auspicious sign?


Divination on 癸酉 day, it is asked: If the sun or moon is eclipsed, is this not an auspicious sign?

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  • I see, that is a great explanation, especially for the different kanji usage. Thank you very much !
    – JPB
    Jul 4, 2019 at 10:25

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