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I know katakana can be used for loanwords, onomatopoeia, strange plants, animals, for emphasis, and more. However, I don't understand why ゴミ箱 is written in katakana. Can anyone shed some light on the logic/any relevant etymology?

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According to the web (e.g. this), using katakana is a way of clarifying word borders. That is, ゴミ was used for ease of reading.

The linked column and some other web pages mention that ゴミ looks more pejorative than ごみ, with which I don't really agree. But using クズ looks to me more despising somehow than くず (this is subjective visual impression).

Food names are often written in katakana, most probably for the same reason (e.g. ワカメ instead of わかめ).

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  • I found this after writing up : japanese.stackexchange.com/q/1930/45489
    – sundowner
    Apr 9 at 22:45
  • Interesting, thanks for the answer! Do you know of any rules to decide which words would be used to clarify borders? Like is there any set rule for what sorts should be katakana (I know foreign words, onomatopoeia, etc. but this seems beyond any category I have heard) Apr 10 at 0:49
  • @qiannianchong As seen in the linked question, it boils down to personal tastes and there are no hard (or even soft) rules. But maybe words consisting of 2-5 letters of some type (e.g. food) are often written in katakana for this reason (e.g. リンゴ). Even for onomatopoeia, I think both are often possible like ふわふわ/フワフワ. A possible obscure comparison, for the feeling using katakana gives, would be using a non-bold sans-serif font in serif font (say Arial in Times New Roman), which I don't think is common in English typography.
    – sundowner
    Apr 10 at 2:06
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The word ゴミ is indeed quite likely to be written in katakana. Come to think of it, though I don't have quantitative data, this word does have a short word form, high-frequency use, and no stable kanji spelling, all constitute factors for katakana.

The modern Japanese reading mode presupposes the mixed kanji-kana writing without spacing between words. The lack of spacing makes punctuation and script boundaries important clues in visual parsing. The longer same script (kanji-kanji, hiragana-hiragana...) continues, the more you are prone to misparse. At first sight, ごみ might be not look a common sequence, but it sometimes appears in the middle of other words: すごみ (凄み), なごみ (和み), ひとごみ (人混み), いきごみ (意気込み) etc., and ご- is also an honorific prefix. So, when ごみ is used in the middle of a run of hiragana, it might not stand out immediately to your eyes.

For example, if you first see a string 大変なごみ、それから油汚れ, it is pretty probable that you parse it like 大変 "very" - なごみ "heartwarming" - それから "moreover" - before noticing something is wrong. Keep writing ゴミ in katakana would decrease the chance of confusion in this case, but on the other hand it may be clearer in hiragana when adjacent with loanwords, such as ごみステーション.

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If you look at a dictionary entry for ゴミ箱, you can see that the most common candidate for writing it all in kanji is 塵箱. 塵 is an obscure character—it's not in the set of characters taught in Japanese grade school and it's covered in the second-hardest level of the Kanji Kentei, so it wouldn't be reasonable to expect an average Japanese-literate adult to know how to read it in this day and age. As a result, ゴミ is usually written in katakana as a stand-in. This is also common in names of e.g. plants and animals, which often have obscure traditional orthography that most people wouldn't easily recognize now.

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