A related question: What does さようなら (左様なら) have to do with "left"?

The English-language A.Word.A.Day list this week is doing a "Words borrowed from Japanese" theme; today's word was sayonara. The etymology cited there says:

From Japanese sayonara (goodbye), short for sayo naraba (if it is to be that way), from sayo (thus) + naraba (if it be), ultimately from Chinese. Earliest documented use: 1863.

This feels a bit off to me. I also happened upon this source cited in the other answer, and another source briefly discussing the history of 左様; neither mentions anything specifically about Chinese.

My instincts tell me that both さ and なら are "native" Japanese words/constructions (よう feels more like an 音読み), which would completely remove Chinese from the etymology as the characters would be a "back-formation" rather than a Chinese borrowing. I also didn't see anything in my Chinese dictionary for 左様 or 然様, though it's possible the word was borrowed to Japanese and then lost in Chinese.

  • Fascinating outline of the term. I am a language amateur who spent three years in Japan many years ago. For a long time I have been struck by the similarity in meaning of "good bye" in many languages. E.g. good bye etymologically undoubtedly is from "God by ye" in middle English. In many dialogues with native Japanese English speakers, including some highly educated, queries as to the etymology of 'sayonara" were usually met with (to the effect) "Means, 'Just good by." Sep 28, 2020 at 18:19

3 Answers 3


Let's dive into this etymology.

(My reference, unless otherwise stated, is Shogakukan's 国語大辞典. I've got a dead-tree copy, and there's also a decent online version available for free via Kotobank. Note that Kotobank's layout is a bit confusing for terms spelled with kanji that have multiple readings.)

Sense development

  • さようなら
    Listed here as first appearing in texts from around 1742. Derived as a shortening of さようならば.

  • さようならば
    Listed here as first appearing in texts from around the late 1500s, early 1600s, as a conjunction. The meaning was as expected from its parts: [さよう]{like that, that way} + [ならば]{if it be}. The "goodbye" sense appears later, cited to a text from 1791.

→ We can surmise that the "goodbye" sense for either form probably showed up in the early 1700s.

Derivation of the parts

  • さよう
    First cited in the 伊勢【いせ】物語【ものがたり】 (The Tales of Ise) of the early 900s.
    This is a compound of さ ("that", medial distal marker, cognate with modern そ) + よう ("way, manner, appearance").

    • First appears in the Nara period (710–794) with the form さて. The shorter さ then appears from the Heian period (794–1185). Modern そう was formerly さう, and this さ may be the first component of that.
      Commonly spelled 然 in references. While cognate with the そ in words like そこ・それ・そなた etc., the そ version was used for physical and concrete things, while さ was used for abstract and psychological things.
      Note that the character 然 is borrowed from Chinese, but the reading sa is purely Japanese. 然 in Middle Chinese was read as something like //ȵiᴇn// instead, resulting in the modern Japanese on'yomi of zen.
    • よう
      Commonly spelled 様 in references. This is the only component of this phrase that derives from Chinese, specifically from earlier glyph form 樣 ("appearance; form; look").
      [In]{ } Middle Chinese when this was first borrowed into Japanese, the pronunciation was probably something like //jɨɐŋ// (the "j" here represents a sound like "y" in English; reconstructed based on linguistic research into sound changes and sound correspondences). The historical kana spelling in Japanese is やう, representing how it was probably first pronounced in Japanese: //jau//. (We see the same //au// → //oː// shift here as we saw above with さう.)
  • ならば
    The term さよう is a 形容動詞【けいようどうし】 or "-na adjective". The -na modifier particle in modern Japanese comes from older attributive (noun-modifying) なる, which comes from a contraction of even older に + ある. This なる developed some time in the Heian period when 形容動詞【けいようどうし】 were first used.
    [The]{ } ならば in さようならば, the oldest form of this term, is this older なる for -na adjectives, conjugated into the conditional or hypothetical form.

    • In modern Japanese, the conditional / hypoethetical is created by adding a ば onto the conditional / hypothetical verb stem, which ends in -e (sometimes with an extra -r- in the middle). Consider 行【い】く → 行けば, or 食【た】べる → 食【た】べれば. This -e stem evolved from the ancient / classical 已然形【いぜんけい】 or "realis conjugation" which expressed something that is or could be real, used in subjunctive or suppositional constructions.
    • In ancient Japanese, the conditional / hypothetical could be formed using the -e stem, or also by using the -a stem -- also called the 未然形【みぜんけい】 or "irrealis conjugation" which expressed something that isn't real. This is the same as the modern -a verb stem used for negatives.
      ([There]{ } seems to have been some subtlety of meaning differentiating the -eba usage from the -aba usage, but I haven't yet read a fuller exploration of that topic.)


The only piece with any Chinese derivation is 様【よう】. The best interpretation of the etymology given in A Word A Day is that it was somewhat scrambled, and the "ultimately from Chinese" portion wound up in the wrong place in the sentence.


Part of my family background is from Minnesota. When I was first learning Japanese and was taught the background meaning of さようなら, I realized it basically parses out to "well, if that's the way it's going to be" -- which somehow seems like a really Minnesotan way of saying "goodbye".

Please comment if the above does not address your question, and I can edit to update.

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    amazing answer! does the 然 of 未然形/已然形 have anything to do with our current construction? or just a coincidence Jun 4, 2020 at 1:21
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    Thank you for this great clarification!! I didn't know Minnesotan goodbye and I looked up an article from Internet. Hilarious!! The Minnesotan example has changed my view of さようなら. Japanese may often have had elongated conversation after さようなら. (I sometimes see such farewell in fact) Jun 4, 2020 at 2:45
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    @MichaelChirico, the 然 in 未然形・已然形 is read as zen and doesn't have much to do with our current construction. This zen is from Middle Chinese //ȵiᴇn//. The 形 in both terms is a kind of suffix, meaning "form, conjugation". The core terms are 已然・未然, where the 然 itself is a kind of suffix, meaning "like so, -like". We see this in many, many words, such as 偶然【ぐうぜん】 ("accident; accidental") or 自然【しぜん】 ("nature; natural"). But in さようなら(ば), the 然 is used more for the "so" part of its meaning, and the reading is purely Japanese -- the kanji is jukujikun. Jun 4, 2020 at 4:25
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    A very thorough answer, but I'd say the interpretation you've given of how this "etymology" found its way into A Word a Day is the most generous one possible, rather than the most likely!
    – Nanigashi
    Sep 28, 2020 at 20:49

I agree with @MichaelChirico and @Earthliŋ♦. Let me add a different viewpoint.

To say goodbye we often use many variant versions of "sayonara" such as:

  • じゃーね
  • それじゃーね
  • それならね
  • さらば

These have basically the same original meaning of "さようなら". Direct meaning is "Since that is the case, (let's call it a day)" or something like that. I think it's also similar to "then".

I have been very interested in whether there are people other than Japanese who use such "then"-like phrases to say goodbye. 再见, the Chinese goodbye, is exactly the same as "See you again".

So I'm not sure that 左様 is Chinese origin but the culture to use "then"-like phrase as goodbye is probably Japanese origin.

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    Agree 100%, and in fact it was a big "click" today to see the relationship of 左様なら and それじゃ (I have heard the latter much more often). FWIW, I do think "so..." as the start to a departure is common in English usually preceding by other departure rituals Jun 3, 2020 at 14:13
  • Oh I didn't know that "so..." as a goodbye use!! That's close to さようなら. It may be relatively common in human than I expected. Thanks!! Jun 3, 2020 at 14:24
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    Strangely, in my UK dialect (Yorkshire) we use 'Now then.' to mean hello rather than goodbye. Jun 3, 2020 at 16:30
  • @user3856370, the "now" kinda makes sense that it would be in reference to the current meeting and thus "hello". Any chance your dialect (or nearby ones) might use "well then" to mean "goodbye"? Jun 3, 2020 at 22:38
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    @EiríkrÚtlendi I'm afraid not (at least not that I've ever heard). Goodbye is 'Tarra'. Jun 3, 2020 at 22:53

I also feel that only 様【よう】 could somehow be viewed as "ultimately from Chinese", but the other parts, namely 然【さ】 (now usually written with ateji 左) and なら, are of Japanese origin. Thus it would seem that the phrase さようなら is "ultimately Japanese".

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    Do you have any recommendation for an authoritative source that 然 and なら are both of Japanese origin? Jun 3, 2020 at 9:29
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    @Leebo I basically agree with that. it's customary for etymology to split a word into it's component parts as relevant for etymology. "Ultimately from Chinese" would unequivocally be the wrong way to describe it IMO. It would be fine (&typical of analogously mixed etymologies in English) to say sa (Japanese) + you (Chinese) + Nara (Japanese). Jun 3, 2020 at 12:01
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    @Leebo & MichaelChirico So gogen-allguide.com/sa/sayounara.html lists a rather simple explanation for the etymology, but from entries in monolingual dictionaries for さよう I think it is clear that 然様 fits the meaning of the word with 然【さ】 (being kun'yomi), so that 左 is most likely ateji and さ is indeed of Japanese etymology — especially considering that 然様・左様 doesn't seem to be a word in Chinese.
    – Earthliŋ
    Jun 3, 2020 at 12:40
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    All in all only 様 is a loan from Chinese. But if the earliest documented use of さようなら is indeed 1863, then 様 should be well established as a loanword, so it feels like the role of Chinese in the etymology of さようなら is only "coincidental"...
    – Earthliŋ
    Jun 3, 2020 at 12:41
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    @Earthliŋ to clarify, the 1863 usage is a citation in English, i.e., the earliest usage of "sayonara" (i.e., not 左様なら) is 1863; the earliest usage in Japanese should be at a bare minimum a few years earlier (but could be centuries -- 1863 is of course around the time of Meiji restoration) Jun 3, 2020 at 14:10

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