I noticed that dictionaries usually treat differently some homonyms, which for a learner's perspective look similar. For example:

  • 熱い and 暑い are usually two different entries
  • 早い and 速い are usually one entry, shown with multiple kanji. Even though 早い and 速い have a different usage.

To me, both fit in the "very similar in meaning but used in different contexts" category. For comparison, I find it logical to have two entries for 熱い and 厚い and one entry for 青い and 蒼い.

As a learner I see little difference between the two examples. Is there a fundamental difference between these pairs of homonyms, is there something deeper, maybe from the etymology?

If so, is it important for a learner to see those two cases differently?


1 Answer 1


The short answer is no. The semantic "distance" between two homophones is determined at the discretion of the authors of each dictionary, and it is impossible to draw an official line. Some dictionaries may define 鳴く and 泣く in one entry, while others may define them in two separate entries.

Etymology is an important criterion, of course, but how much emphasis is placed on it depends on the policy of the dictionary. A dictionary that focuses too much on etymology may not necessarily be handy for everyday use by modern speakers.

Nevertheless, I agree most dictionaries explain 青い and 蒼い in the same entry, but 熱い and 厚い in separate entries.


Word Meikyō Daijisen Kōjien
あつい 3 [暑][熱][厚] 3 [暑][熱][厚] 2 [暑/熱][厚]
はやい 1 [早/速/疾/捷] 1 [早/速/疾/捷] 1 [早/速/疾/捷]
つとめる 3 [務][努][勤] 3 [務][努][勤] 1 [務][努][勤]
なく 2 [泣][鳴] 1 [泣/鳴] 1 [泣/鳴]
あおい 1 [青/蒼] 1 [青/蒼] 1 [青/蒼]

As for あつい, Meikyō and Daijisen define 熱い, 暑い and 厚い in three different entries, which is perfectly understandable to me. Kōjien defines 熱い and 暑い under the same entry, which is perfectly understandable, too. As for はやい, all the three dictionaries I checked define 早い, 速い (and 疾い, 捷い) in one big entry, but Meikyō explains when to use which kanji in detail.

Basically, you won't know until you actually look it up in each dictionary. We can only guess, but Meikyō is a relatively small dictionary designed to provide practical explanations for learners of modern Japanese, so they may have thought 暑い and 熱い are different enough practically. Kōjien is an authoritative large dictionary with lots of trivial or obsolete definitions, and they may have thought 暑い and 熱い are the same word etymologically. Daijisen is somewhere between the other two. Ultimately, it's up to the policy of each dictionary.

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    @TeleportingGoat, for あつい, 熱い・暑い ("hot") is one lexical item with one etymology, and 厚い・篤い ("thick") is a separate lexical item with a separate etymology. These two words ("hot" and "thick") are further distinguished in speech by different pitch contours -- "thick" is 平板【へいばん】 or "flat" as [あつい]{LHH}, while "hot" is 中高【なかだか】 or "middle high [+ downstep]" as [あつい]{LHL}. For なく, there is just one etymology, and the spelling difference is used to add nuance: 鳴 visually is "mouth" + "bird", and implies making a sound like an animal. 泣 is visually "water" + "stand", and implies tears from crying. Nov 2, 2022 at 16:53
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    @TeleportingGoat, note that spelling (kanji) and etymology (derivation of the word) for yamato kotoba or wago (native Japonic terminology) are two separate things. Japonic terms like atsui or naku came first, and then the kanji showed up as imports from China. Imagine if kanji were applied to English: we have words like "get" that have tons of meanings, and each meaning of "get" might get (ha!) a different kanji spelling based on the nuances of the written Chinese. Be careful not to get too caught up in the spellings for wago. :) Nov 2, 2022 at 17:03
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    @TeleportingGoat, re: 熱い・暑い, yes, this is one lexical item あつい ("hot") with one derivation. The term is attested since the Old Japanese stage of the language, when there were four temperature-related terms: あつし ("hot"), ぬるし ("warm"), すずし ("cool"), and さむし ("cold"). The distinction made with the kanji spellings has to do with a differentiation that was native to Chinese but not Japanese, distinguishing between 熱 "hot to the touch" versus 暑 "hot environment". See also NKD at Kotobank (in Japanese), particularly the [語誌] section. Nov 2, 2022 at 19:21
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    @TeleportingGoat Meikyo defines 熱い, 暑い and 厚い in three different entries, which is perfectly understandable. Kojien defines 熱い and 暑い under the same entry, which is perfectly understandable, too. We can only imagine why. There may be no particular reason.
    – naruto
    Nov 2, 2022 at 22:42
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    @TeleportingGoat Please see the edit. I think I have correctly understood the intent of your question from the beginning.
    – naruto
    Nov 2, 2022 at 23:00

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