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Basically, I'm asking if anyone knows of a possible etymological reason. Maybe it has to do with the ideogram itself, maybe it's a saying, but I'm not finding satisfying answers online.

Apparently, in Chinese it can also mean "in an awkward or difficult position", and according to wikitionary entry for the chinese etymology of the word:

An Old Chinese ideophone of the phonetic shape /raːd(s) paːd(s) ~ raːŋ paːd(s)/ (ZS), initially used to describe a limping or stumbling gait. Folk etymology (as used by Tang-Dynasty Duan Chengshi) states that 狽/狈 (bèi) was a wolf-like animal in Chinese mythology, which had very short forelegs and long hind legs, and needed to mount a wolf in order to walk, so the two animals would always hunt together. This eventually led to the meaning of “to conspire”.

I can see how this would lead to the meaning of "being in an awkard or difficult position". Further, the ideograms being two different kind of wolf kanji also make sense with this etymology, given that one wolf rides the other, and one is a legendary kind of wolf.

But then again, that's the Chinese etymology/meaning, and I'm more interested in the Japanese one. Apparently, 狼狽する is also in the phrase 周章狼狽する, which also means "consternation, falling into panic". And according to this answer on Japanese Yahoo Answers, it has to do with the codependence of both of the wolves, and it later changed, but there's no source on that.

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    周章, just like 狼狽, is also a 漢語 that goes a long way back. I don't think you can get a pure Japanese etymology since both words came from classical Chinese.
    – Eddie Kal
    Mar 14 at 16:14
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    This article argues that both 周章 and 狼狽 are probably onomatopoeia.
    – aguijonazo
    Mar 16 at 6:42
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    "being in an awkard or difficult position [...] makes sense [...] given that one wolf rides the other, and one is a legendary kind of wolf." This made my day.
    – jarmanso7
    Apr 20 at 3:51
  • Note that "folk etymology" as used at Wiktionary refers to an incorrect etymology that gained some currency despite being incorrect. Like explaining "acorn" as a shortening of "eggcorn". Sep 20 at 4:11

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The explanation from 新明解語源辞典 gives weight to the old meaning of codependence of both the wolves : both 狼 and 狽 designate legendary wild creatures. The first one with long forelegs and short hind legs. The latter with the opposite features. So 狽 must ride on the back of 狼 for both of them to advance efficiently. Hence the sense of codependence. But the insecurity is palpable too.

Also, interestingly, the same dictionary mentions that this interpretation dates from as far back as 唐代, Tang period (618-907). And that, in contrast to that classical interpretation, the onomatopoeia view has been gaining weight recently among scholars.

I personally find the "pair of legendary animals" interpretation much more satisfying and easy to remember, but I have no clue which, if any, is correct.

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  • Two such creatures (one with short front legs, one with short back legs) could not run well even in cooperation. Sep 20 at 4:12

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