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There are understandably a lot of words in Japanese that are made of Kanji totally unrelated to the meaning of the actual word.

However, it's hard to ignore the ubiquitous 沢山.

How did a combination of swamp and mountain come to be used to express "many"?

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The 語源由来辞典 (http://gogen-allguide.com/) has the following entry for 沢山

沢山

【意味】 沢山とは、数量の多いこと。十分なこと。それ以上不要なこと。

【沢山の語源・由来】
たくさんは、多い意味の形容動詞語幹「さは(多)」と、数の多いことを表す「やま(山)」を重ねた「さはやま」に「沢山」の字を当て、音読したものといわれる。 ただし、「さはやま(さわやま)」の例が見られるのは近世に入ってからであるのに対し、「たくさん」の例は鎌倉時代の『平家物語』に見られるため、「さはやま」は「沢山(たくさん)」の訓読みと考えるのが妥当である。 その他、「たかい(高い)」「たける(長ける)」など、「tak」の音から「たく(沢)」が当てられ「沢山」になったとする説もあるが未詳。

Summarized the entry says that the word 沢山 is often said to be the on'yomi of さわやま (=さはやま), where

  • 沢【さわ】 is ateji for the word stem さは (多) meaning "many", and
  • 山【やま】 is also used for its meaning of "many, numerous".

However, さはやま only appears in the early modern period, whereas there are already examples of たくさん in the Heike Monogatari from the Kamakura period, so さはやま could rather be thought of a kun'yomi of たくさん.

The first part could also come from tak- in words like takai (高い) "tall" or takeru (長ける) "to rise high", but in the end, the origin is just not clear.

| improve this answer | |
  • IMO it’s literally 多 “having the meaning ‘many’(多い)” rather than “various meanings”. – Igor Skochinsky Feb 16 at 22:08
  • @Igor Yes, thank you, that was careless on my part. – Earthliŋ Feb 16 at 23:11
  • I have wondered often about the origin of this kanji, and just assumed it was ateji. Thank you @Earthliŋ for your erudite explanation. – Colin Stark Feb 17 at 1:43

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