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Did 初める(はじめる) used to exist as a verb? It's not present today except as a frequent tripping stone for kanji autocomplete. However, the 初めまして word's まして seems to imply that this was a verb that could take a ます helper verb at the end of its stem form. Or is it perhaps an entirely different derivation of まして ? Or was it initially 始める ー> 始めて and then the other kanji got substituted in as an alternative?

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  • Do you mean to ask if 初める ever existed as a separate verb from 始める? In other words, is your question about the usage of kanji? Which kanji to use for native words is rather arbitrary and, in fact, はじめまして could be written as 始めまして.
    – aguijonazo
    Jun 18 '21 at 15:43
  • i'm just asking about the origin of the word - if it used to be 始めまして and then the kanji 初 was inserted later, then that's the history. if 初める existed separately and first, then that's the history.
    – eruciform
    Jun 18 '21 at 16:07
  • Possibly relevant post: What is the difference between 始め 初め and 始まり? Jun 18 '21 at 19:22
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Did 初める(はじめる) used to exist as a verb?

It still does. See various dictionaries, such as the monolingual Daijisen entry at Kotobank, or the bilingual entry in the Weblio E-J / J-E dictionary.

i'm just asking about the origin of the word - if it used to be 始めまして and then the kanji 初 was inserted later, then that's the history. if 初める existed separately and first, then that's the history.

はじむ came first, possibly pronounced as //hazimu//. This appears all the way back in some of the earliest Japanese texts, such as the 万葉集【まんようしゅう】 completed in 759. For any kun'yomi word, all kanji spellings are secondary, and pretty much any kanji comes from Chinese. So neither the 初 nor 始 spellings are "original", both were borrowed from Chinese and applied to an already-existing Japanese word.

(I say "pretty much any" instead of "all", since there are always exceptions -- some kanji were invented in Japan, often for native terms. These are called 国字【こくじ】, literally "national characters". Examples include 畑【はたけ】 ("dry cultivated field") or 峠【とうげ】 ("mountain pass"). But even here, the words existed first, and the kanji were invented and applied later. Consider even English: the spelling "cough" was invented long after the word existed.)

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  • Do you happen to have a source that clearly says はじめまして came from the verb? Some sources (like this) say it was a “polite” version of the adverb はじめて.
    – aguijonazo
    Jun 18 '21 at 23:30
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    @aguijonazo: I'm honestly a bit confused by the question. ます形 or not, both are clearly the ~て form. Both are clearly conjugated forms of the verb. Even should we posit that はじめまして was a development directly from はじめて, both still derive from はじめる, which in turn is from Old Japanese はじむ. Jun 18 '21 at 23:36
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    @aguijonazo: According to the 日本国語大辞典 entry for 始て・初て (hajimete), this is the verb in the regular ~て form, first cited to the Kojiki of 712. According to the entry for 初て・始て (hajimemashite), this is hajimete plus the regular polite auxiliary -masu, first cited to a text from 1873. Both derive ultimately from Old Japanese はじむ. Perhaps I've misunderstood your question? Jun 18 '21 at 23:43
  • Yes, I can see both ultimately derive from the verb. Maybe I should have put “directly”. はじめてお目にかかります doesn’t mean the speaker begins something and then meets the listener. はじめて is so established as an adverb that we (natives) don’t think of it as a conjugated verb form in that phrase. はじめまして is clearly a conjugated verb form and はじめましてお目にかかります sounds weird because the speaker doesn’t begin anything. Some seem to explain this by attributing はじめまして to はじめて, as opposed to the (modern) verb はじめる. If the former is the case, the kanji 初 doesn’t look too weird and this might clear the OP’s doubt.
    – aguijonazo
    Jun 19 '21 at 0:16

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