How did each term come to be represented by the same kanji 「象」?

I assume there's no connection between both meanings beyond sharing the same kanji because they look so different to me, but I'm not sure. Maybe their meanings are somehow connected in a way I can't figure out?


  • 1
    I'm guessing you're finding the "phenomenon" definition from Jisho or one of the other sites that uses the same database? When I search for monolingual definitions, I get stuff like かたち, すがた, ようす. Translating those as just "phenomenon" and nothing else seem like a stretch to me. Not sure what the disconnect is.
    – Leebo
    Sep 21, 2019 at 9:30
  • @Leebo the word referred to is 現象.
    – dROOOze
    Sep 21, 2019 at 10:17
  • @drooze I assumed he was talking about this. jisho.org/word/%E8%B1%A1 or he would have added 現, no?
    – Leebo
    Sep 21, 2019 at 10:29
  • @Leebo, yes, that's the case. However I still do not see how かたち, すがた, ようす are related to ぞう.
    – jarmanso7
    Sep 21, 2019 at 10:55
  • Yes, that's the issue the answer will have to cover, but first I wanted to nail down the meaning of 象 (しょう) that we were dealing with.
    – Leebo
    Sep 21, 2019 at 10:59

1 Answer 1


To start off, the kanji「象」is uncontroversially derived from a picture of an elephant, directly referring to the word「[象]{ぞう}」.

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In Ancient China, people would frequently run into a problem: there weren't enough unique characters to express all the different spoken words! When running into this problem, people did one of the following:

  1. Create a brand new character;
  2. Modify an existing character (which also creates a new character);
  3. Repurpose an existing character for some (but not all) of its aspects, ignoring its other aspects.

Employing method (3) and specifically utilising a character's sound aspect, while ignoring the character's meaning aspect, is known as rebus borrowing. This leads on to two groups of unrelated words represented by the character「象」(Baxter-Sagart OC: /*s-[d]aŋʔ/):

  1. Elephant「[象]{ぞう}」
  2. Image, appearance, phenomenon「[象]{しょう}」. Some (probable) cognates:
    • 「[像]{ぞう}」(/*s.[d]aŋʔ/; form, image)
    • 「[相]{そう‎}」(/*[s]aŋ/; to observe > appearance)

「[象]{ぞう}」and「[象]{しょう}」have different pronunciations in Japanese because the word for elephant was imported from Chinese at a different time than the word for image/appearance/phenomenon. Chinese itself largely did not make this distinction.

  • 2
    Thank you very much! The article on rebus borrowing is pretty interesting! parrticularly the fact that some rebus kanji still keep the original meaning in Chinese while others have been borrowed with the "rebus" meaning.
    – jarmanso7
    Sep 21, 2019 at 15:56

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