To be clear, this is not a question on why alternate forms exist. Obviously there are a lot of historical reasons behind them. It is also not about why people use rarer alternate forms generally. Often they can convey more subtle meaning, like using 已む instead of 止む or 亘る instead of 渡る.

No, the real question is about why authors choose to use versions of a word which, to the best of my knowledge, are both rare/obscure, and convey no extra meaning, even when there are less obscure ways of writing this. As an example of this, and the specific one that prompted this question, is the usage of 莫迦 instead of 馬鹿. The only difference between the two is that 莫迦 seems rare and comes from the old Sanskrit Buddhism stuff. Maybe one could use that if one of those things was relevant, but in the Tsukihime remake, it is used in a completely irrelevant context (calling the protagonist stupid for saying he would never use his power).

Obviously this was just a recent example for me. Another would be for これ. If one wishes to be fancy and write it as a kanji, 此れ or 之れ are going to be more understood than 是れ, but a quick google search will show that the latter is still used in modern published books, even though, again, as far as I can tell, there is no nuance between any of the three.

  • 3
    It is not very different from English speakers using French words or foreign people having Kanji tattoos.
    – sundowner
    Commented Sep 5, 2021 at 8:53
  • 1
    Keep in mind, at least culturally in the States, there has been over recent decades a trend toward abhorring the use of vocabulary seen as either obscure or too erudite: the complaint being why so many words that mean the same thing. Personally I find this perspective unfortunate. Nevertheless, this perspective obscures why in other cultures this sort of literary expression is treasured and even affectionately embraced.
    – A.Ellett
    Commented Sep 5, 2021 at 22:02
  • @A.Ellett Sounds like Newspeak.
    – sundowner
    Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 11:53

1 Answer 1


There is a nuance between them which only experienced readers can feel. 莫迦 looks more literary, elevated, fancy or poetic than 馬鹿, and readers will eventually develop such a sense after reading many literary works. I didn't know 莫迦 is related to Sanskrit because I haven't bothered to look it up in the dictionary, but I can easily imagine what kind of situation 莫迦 tends to be preferred in.

In almost every language, including English, there is a contrast between common words and literary words. In Japanese, such a distinction exists also with the choice of kanji. Many uncommon kanji are used in aesthetic writing to add a subtle nuance or literary flavor. I don't think it makes much sense to try to make clear distinction between "conveying subtle meaning" and "making it look elevated"; in many cases, it's about both.

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