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I came across the following sentence from the Dictionary of Japanese Grammar series:

X氏は、一方で慈善事業をやりながら、他方でかなりあくどい商売をしているという噂だ。

I think 慈善事業 should be read as じぜんじぎょう. But as I look up the dictionary for confirmation, I noticed 事業 can also be read in kunyomi, i.e. ことわざ, where one of its definitions 仕事・じぎょう also matches with the context in the sentence. My questions are:

  • When should the onyomi and kunyomi of 事業 be used?

  • Moreover, shouldn't ことわざ mean 'proverb'? Does that mean ことわざ is polysemous?

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I'd like to add onto samhana's answer.

Background about the term and reading

The ことわざ reading for 事業 is valid, but it is also ancient. This reading is not used in modern Japanese.

  • The ancient ことわざ reading is attested in a text from 757, as indicated in Shogakukan's Kokugo Dai Jiten entry here.
    (After a site redesign a while back, Kotobank's formatting makes it really hard to read the entries. The top paragraph under the bold heading, the first 〘名〙 section, is for the ことわざ reading.)
  • This reading is a simple compound of 事【こと】 "abstract thing, fact" + 業【わざ】 "intentional action": doing something intentionally and with purpose. The meaning is thus roughly the same as modern 事業【じぎょう】.
  • This is cognate with 諺【ことわざ】 from 言【こと】 "word" + 技【わざ】 "technique, skill", but it uses different senses of the underlying roots.
  • Considering that multiple dictionaries still list this reading (which usually doesn't happen for Old Japanese-only terms), I suspect that 事業【ことわざ】 may be used some in Classical Japanese as well. In fact, looking at it now, I see that the entry in my local copy of Daijirin includes a quote from the 養生訓【ようじょうくん】, a text from 1712.
  • At the same time, I also don't see any pitch accent information for this reading, which usually indicates that the dictionary compilers don't consider this to be used in modern mainstream Japanese (a.k.a. 標準語【ひょうじゅんご】).

The questions

Back to your questions:

When should the on'yomi and kun'yomi of 事業 be used?

In modern writing and speech, only use the on'yomi of じぎょう.

If you're writing something deliberately archaic, using Classical Japanese, you might be able to use the ことわざ reading. However, expect that modern readers will need ruby ([振り仮名]【ふりがな】) to understand that you intend this reading. Also, make sure you do a lot of research into how this term was used to make sure you understand it well enough to use it. (I certainly wouldn't be comfortable myself trying to use this.)

Moreover, shouldn't ことわざ mean 'proverb'? Does that mean ことわざ is polysemous?

Strictly speaking, ことわざ as a spoken word is indeed polysemous (at least, in older Japanese; see also the Japanese Wiktionary entry for ことわざ for even more homophones of different meanings, a.k.a. 同音異義語【どうおんいぎご】) -- but the kanji spelling 事業 is less ambiguous, and would never mean 諺.

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  • Curious about the downvote -- was there something specific you disagree with, or some improvement you could suggest? – Eiríkr Útlendi Apr 5 at 21:17
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事業 should be read as じぎょう, as you said, but cannot be as ことわざ. I cannot understand why the compiler of the dictionary says in its entry that 事業 can also be read in kunyomi, ことわざ. Almost any Japanese cannot read 事業 as ことわざ. ことわざ, as you pointed out, is a proverb written in Kanji as 諺. Next point which is additional for me but most important for you might be that each Kanji in this word, 事 can be read as こと and 業 as わざ, separately.

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  • Thank you for clarifying the pronunciation of 事業 under normal circumstances. However, I'd still like to know why ことわざ was listed authoritatively as a possible reading of the word. I saw the following examples under the ことわざ(事業) entry: 「はかなき―をも、しなし給ひしはや」〈源・朝顔〉; 「各その家の―を怠らずして」〈養生訓〉, which makes me wonder if its use is strictly limited to classical Japanese. – L Parker Apr 2 at 11:02
  • Samhana, are you suggesting that dictionaries are incorrect to include that entry? – Leebo Apr 2 at 11:49
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    Sorry. I should not have answered your question, because I am not a professional in classical Japanese. From your first example, you are now learning only modern Japanese. But now you seem to be an advanced learner of Japanese, and you are using a dictionary containing much information about archaic or old-fashioned Japanese words. Now what I can say from your examples and some I have found on the web is that this ことわざ is strictly limited to classical Japanese. – samhana Apr 2 at 14:35
  • Thank you for your answer though. As a learner of the language I came to realise certain kanji can be read in both kun’yomi and on’yomi in modern Japanese (e.g. 上手 as うわて and じょうず, although their meanings differ), and am therefore uncertain about 事業. I only came up with the classical Japanese guess after you asserted that 事業 as ことわざ is nonexistent in the modern tongue. – L Parker Apr 3 at 1:19
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    @samhana, yet some Old Japanese poems are nearly understandable by modern readers, while Beowulf is entirely impenetrable. :) In some ways, Japanese as a language has changed less than English -- it depends on which timeframe you choose, however, as your example shows. – Eiríkr Útlendi Apr 4 at 9:26

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