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An auto-antonym is a word with multiple meanings (senses) of which one is the reverse of another.


So apparently the kanji meaning of this word is "previous" or "past". This seems to be tied to the Chinese origin and its on'yomi reading (せん), maybe?

The vocabulary meaning of the standalone word is "ahead" or "future". This meaning may be connected to the Japanese influence on the word and its kun'yomi reading (さき).


Is it true that this kanji (先) can refer to both future events and past ones? How did it evolve to be this way and what has the original chinese meaning to do with it?


UPDATE: So, this kanji means "prior" or "first" in Chinese according to this source. This further validates that it originally was connected to the concept of "past" and the "future" meaning came later and was introduced solely in Japan.

This still does not fully answer any questions.

Also my question are tangentially related to this exchange. But my questions have not been satisfactorily answered by that question and the core differs from what I am interested in.

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  • This question addresses the same thing. Long story short, it's more about perspective than the meaning actually changing. japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/89047/…
    – Leebo
    Commented Feb 22, 2022 at 22:55
  • @Leebo In that question the accepted answer suggests that the meaning of this kanji is "future" in Japanese and depending on the perspective it can seem to be translated as "past". But the Chinese origin is still the direct opposite of it. So the question of how this change came to be is still open in my opinion.
    – Saha
    Commented Feb 22, 2022 at 23:01
  • The core meaning is "before" as you were noting, but things that come "before" other things can still be in the future. I don't see it saying it means just future. It's just a natural consequence of applying the concept to various perspectives.
    – Leebo
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 0:50

3 Answers 3

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The Japanese word さき means the tip of something. For example, 指先 is the tip of a finger. When it is written as 崎, it means a cape, the tip of a land facing the sea.

When it refers to space, 先 means something like "ahead" or "a little farther" with respect to some reference point. It is usually modified by something that comes before it, as in この先, コンビニの先, etc. Imagine an arrow pointing towards that direction. It should not be difficult to see the connection with "tip."

When it refers to time, 先 basically means "earlier," not necessarily the past. This meaning is consistent with Chinese.

先に行くね。
先走了。

The noun-modifying form 先の, as in 先の戦争 in reference to WWII, has a formal tone to it. Incidentally, its pitch accent is [さきの]【HLL】, not [さきの]【LHH】 as in the other senses.

先 does refer to a future time in certain expressions, as in 三年先, 先が思いやられる, etc. This can be understood as an analogical usage of the spatial sense. You are heading towards the future, after all. In fact, この先 can be used in both senses. This usage of 先 seems mostly limited to contexts where you want to emphasis remoteness or uncertainty. If you want to state some concrete event is planned to happen in three years, you would most likely say 三年後, not 三年先.

To me, the English expressions “push back” and “push forward” are far more confusing. I am biased, of course.

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I'd say yes, it's an auto-antonym. Here are two definitions of さき from デジタル大辞泉:

8 未来のある時点。将来。前途。「―を見通しての計画」「―の楽しみな青年」

10 現在からそう遠くない過去。以前。「―の台風の被害」「―の大臣」

Definition 8 uses the word 将来 (future) and definition 10 uses the word 過去 (past). So it's an auto-antonym even if you just consider the word さき independent of the kanji.

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  • 1
    Those two definitions are different in pitch accent. They are certainly one same word, though.
    – aguijonazo
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 12:40
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Is "先" an auto-antonym?

Maybe yes, maybe no. Because...


If we have a time machine we could:

  • "Proceed going forward (to the past)"
  • "Proceed going forward (to the future)"

Same word, reverse direction.


In Japanese we say 結構です to mean "It's alright".

In either languages we may say:

  • It's alright (without it), I don't want it
  • It's alright (to accept it), I'll take it

Again, opposite meaning only because of perspective and surrounding context. The original meaning of the word is unchanged.

BTW "original" is an auto-antonym.


An auto-antonym is a word with multiple meanings (senses) of which one is the reverse of another.

So yes, in terms of 先, it may possess the meaning reverse of another, but only because of one's interpretation. Do we call this an auto-antonym? Maybe yes, maybe no.

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