I recently learned the word ムキムキ and what instantly struck me was how it appears to be some kind of a visual pun.

ム representing a flexed arm 💪

キ representing a classic barbell

Together they appear to be a set of arms exercising which seems appropriate considering the word means muscular/brawny. Is this just a coincidence?

I have found one blog post which seems to suggests it comes from the German word 'Muskel' but the phonetic translation seems to be quite different.

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    FWIW Mucki (pl. Muckis) is German slang for "muscle(s)", but I like your idea of it being a visual pun much better! – Earthliŋ May 6 '20 at 20:04
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    Interesting. "Muqui" (same pronunciation) is used in Brazilian Portuguese with the same meaning and context. – Felipe S. S. Schneider May 7 '20 at 13:36
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    @FelipeS.S.Schneider: A friend of mine from Brazil gave me a word-nerd nutshell of how Brazilian Portuguese (pt_BR) differs from European Portuguese (pt_PT), and one of the main things she described was an influx of vocabulary and other linguistic bits and bobs from all the locals and all the immigrants, including many from Germany. Presumably muqui in Brazilian Portuguese is a borrowing from German Mucki? – Eiríkr Útlendi May 7 '20 at 16:56
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    @EiríkrÚtlendi That's probably true! Wiktionary says nothing, except that the correct spelling is "muque". – Felipe S. S. Schneider May 7 '20 at 17:40
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    This is somewhat of a side note, but there are a number of borrowed German words in Japanese which relate to medicine. This is because of cultural exchange between the two countries from the Meiji period onwards, with a number of German physicians being employed in Japan in prestigious positions. Now there are German-origin words like アレルギー (Allergie), ギプス (Gips), ガーゼ (Gaze), ヘルペス (Herpes), ホルモン(Hormon), インポ (Impotenz), カプセル (Kapsel), カルテ (Karte), ノイローゼ (Neurose), レントゲン (Röntgen), ワクチン (Vakzin), etc. – kandyman May 8 '20 at 9:19

Expanding on kandyman's answer.

Origins of mukimuki: probably not German

According to the Shogakukan Kokugo Dai Jiten (KDJ) entry here, the first cited textual instance of a word mukimuki is way back in the 700s in the Man'yōshū poetry anthology. This is much older than the German word Muskel ("muscle"), of which Mucki is a derivation. Per the Herkunft ("Etymology") section in the Duden entry here, Muskel traces back to Latin musculus ("little mouse"), presumably from the way a flexing muscle looks a bit like a small animal moving around.

Origins of mukimuki: sense development

Again per the KDJ entry, mukimuki meant something more like "each going in whichever facing (muki) or direction", and this extended to a sense of "different preferences and inclinations". We see similar senses listed in the Daijisen and Daijirin entries here.

So far, none of these list any sense related to "muscular". We don't find that until we look here in the Daijisen entry for the kana-only spellizang むきむき, or here in the Japanese Wiktionary.

I can't find anything directly relevant to how the "muscular" sense arose. I suspect two possibilities:

  • From the oldest sense of "each going in whichever direction", developing from the idea of "able to go whatever way", to "capable / strong" in general, and from there to "muscular".
    This seems less likely, given the sizable semantic (meaning-wise) gap between "each in their own direction" to "muscular". The KDJ in particular is pretty good about listing historical development where known, and their entry for 向き向き is missing any such details.
  • Instead, a vowel shift and slight semantic shift from similarly-structured adverb mukumuku ("thickly, in a billowing or bulging manner"), first cited in the KDJ to a text from 1254.
    Mukumuku is limited to soft contexts, things like cotton batting or clouds or smoke. However, here we do have nearly the same word, with a similar "bulging" sense. There is at least one other example of a reduplicative adverb pair with one ending in -u and the other in -i, specifically kurukurukurikuri, of overlapping but not identical meanings. The pair sukusukusukisuki also have close senses and may be related, demonstrating a similar structure.

Tentative conclusion about the derivation

While I cannot find anything definitively stating when the "muscular" sense arose, I suspect it is significantly older than contact between Japanese speakers and German speakers, and indeed possibly older than the German word Mucki itself. As others have noted, this Japanese word is also much older than emoji.

  • I had considered including むくむく and くるくる・くりくり in my answer but I honestly thought it was pure speculation to do so. With so few examples of analogous phonotactic vowel shifts, I think it's more likely to be coincidence than a linguistic phenomenon. But that is also speculation. – kandyman May 7 '20 at 8:01
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    You are saying that it cannot come from German "mucki", since the word is older in Japanese. But, at the same time you are saying that it meant something completely different back then in Japanese. This does not exclude the possibility that the Japanese only started using the word in the sense of muscular after hearing it from the Germans. – a20 May 7 '20 at 16:46
  • @kandyman -- We know that vowel shifting is a word-formation mechanic in Japanese (at least historically, if not currently). We know that there are reduplicative adverb pairs differing only between //-u// and //-i//, where those pairs appear to also have semantic overlap, and seem to be likely cognates. From that, we have an analogy for how むきむき might be related to むくむく. But as you note, this is speculation. Without more textual evidence in the historical record, there's not much we can say with any certainty about むきむき with the "muscular" sense, so indeed, we are left with speculation. – Eiríkr Útlendi May 7 '20 at 17:10
  • @a20, no, we cannot entirely rule out the possibility of German influence. However, as I tried to express above, I find the likelihood of any German derivation to be quite low, particularly given the existence of almost-synonym むくむく from nearly 800 years ago. Barring more textual evidence, we cannot, definitively, say much about むきむき with the "muscular" sense. – Eiríkr Útlendi May 7 '20 at 17:11
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    @EiríkrÚtlendi I checked 青空文庫全文検索 (mainly <1950), BCCWJ (>=1970) and ヨミダスパーソナル (news articles, 1874-1989). ヨミダス had nothing interesting, which was not surprising because ムキムキ is more or less slangy. 青空全文 has 14 examples of ムチムチ/むちむち, so it's probably older than ムキムキ, and similar mimetic words tends to have similar meanings. Anyhow, to me, it's hard to believe there is a link between 向き向き and ムキムキ unless there is an evidence. – naruto May 8 '20 at 0:51

Although it is an interesting observation, it is unlikely to be anything more than a coincidence. There is an established theoretical body of literature on Japanese sound symbolism which takes into account things like phonoaesthetics. It seems that some onomatopoeic forms use particular combinations of consonants and vowels to convey a range of related concepts. It is most likely to be derived from such linguistic phenomenon. According to Tranter in "The Languages of Japan and Korea", most of these words are not derivable from content words anyway. In English, you see a similar thing in words like 'glow', 'glisten', 'glitter', 'glimmer', etc, which all convey something to do with light/reflection.

Also, although icons such as the ones you mentioned are ubiquitous these days, they weren't prevalent before the huge explosion in the spread of mobile devices in the last 15 years, whereas words like ムキムキ were.

Despite that, there is no reason to not use it as a visual pun :)

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