In Chinese (Mandarin), there exists a word 可爱 that means "pretty" or "cute" in English. In Japanese, there is also a word 可愛い (adjective) that means the same thing in English.

Given that both words use the same characters, it is likely that one originated from the other.

However, I wonder which is the original word and which is the borrowed one. In most cases, many words were exporeted from China to Japan, but I talked about this issue with my Chinese friend the other day, and she said she believe it is a borrowed word from Japan. Also, the frequency of the usage of the word is far more prevalent in Japanese, which makes me suspect that it is from Japan, not China, in this case.

So is there any resource that proves it?

3 Answers 3


The Japanese word 可愛い is a loan word from Chinese. In Mandarin we have several words beginning with because this morpheme means -able. 可愛 therefore means lovable, adorable. The Japanese word is not possible to break into derivational morphemes in this way.

If you are interested in more words derived from , but you can find more here https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E5%8F%AF#Compounds.

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    This seems plausible. But did every word that derived from 可 orignate from Chinese?
    – Blaszard
    Commented Oct 24, 2016 at 12:12
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    You mean Japanese words with 可 in them? I can't say for sure that all of them are derived from Chinese. But in general, words that are pronounced with so-called on-readings come from Chinese. 可 has the on-reading "ka" -- and it is easy to see the similarity to the Mandarin pronunciation "kě". Commented Oct 24, 2016 at 12:23

It must be remembered that in the Japanese language system, the lexeme's sound and the lexeme's spelling are much less correlated with each other than even in Chinese; the phenomenon of 訓読み kun'yomi means that one lexeme can be written with several different spellings (even if the spellings overlap in meaning). The most well known example for beginners is あう = 会う or 合う or 遭う etc. which all have slightly different connotations on paper for "to meet".

Although かわい​い has only one kanji spelling 可愛い, it is known to be an ateji 当て字, i.e. neither 訓読み kun'yomi nor 音読み on'yomi. Hence the etymology of the かわい​い is probably derived from something else, despite the similarity of the 音読み on'yomi of 可 (か) and 愛 (あい​) to かわい​.

Wiktionary has an alternative to the straightforward "Classical Chinese to Japanese loan" etymology, one that is borne out by 語源由来辞典 (Gogen Yurai Jiten)'s entry. According to this, the original expression was 顔映ゆし (historical kana かほ kaho + はゆし hayushi), attested from the late Heian period, originally meaning "face radiating" in a negative sense, i.e. embarassed or shy.

The assumed phonological development of 顔映ゆし goes as: kahohayushi > kawohayushi > kawahayushi > kawawayushi / kahahayushi > kahayushi > kawayui, which is one possible reading of 可愛い. This regularly becomes かわい​い kawaii.

One of Wiktionary's quoted sources is the Dictionarium sive thesauri linguae Iaponicae compendium compiled by the Spanish-born early 17th century Dominican missionary Diego Collado. Under the entry for "miserabilis", i.e. pitiful (emphasis mine):

Miserabilis, e: cosa que causa lastima, cavaij.

Hence by 1632, the pronunciation had shifted to かわい​い although the meaning had only shifted a little, from embarassed to pitiful. From there, the shift to adorable and cute is quite straightforward but it is also something that has occurred in the last 400 years.

The written collocation of 可愛 has a much longer history in Chinese, dating back to the 書經 Shūjīng / 尚書 Shàngshū (the "Classic of Documents"), traditionally dated to the late Zhou, where it exists with a rather transparent original meaning in Chinese. In chapter 3, the 大禹謨 Dà Yǔ mó "Counsels of Great Yu", the following question is posed:


Of all who are to be loved, is not the ruler the chief? Of all who are to be feared, are not the people the chief?

This is certainly not what we in the 21st century would call cute or adorable; again, in fact like in English, there has been a semantic shift of "that which is to be adored and loved" to "cute".

So even if they share the characters, it is only the modern use that has become aligned; the roots of the words themselves are rather further removed from each other.

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    Awesome answer! Just out of curiosity, I looked up some old texts on ctext.org. I think 可愛 took on the sense of 'cute' at around the Wei/Jin/Northern and Southern period, because the the texts at this time mostly described small objects, animals and children as 可愛, not rulers. Commented May 2, 2018 at 10:50
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    This should be the accepted answer Commented May 30, 2019 at 10:39

The frequency of a word/phrase has nothing to do with the origin of the word/phrase. 可爱 is a very common phrase in Chinese daily conversation, however, there are a lot of Chinese phrases also mean 'cute', so there are lots of options. Kawaii is used very frequently in Japanese daily conversation is probably because there aren't many substitutes for it.

There is another word '萌' which originates from Chinese and it means 'budding, germinate, sprouting'. But the young people nowadays in Japan use '萌え'(moe) to describe a genre of animes/games which contain a specific 'cuteness' element. And Chinese young people have been influenced by the Japanese anime/game culture adopted this term in Chinese to describe anything cute.

There are many examples like these between Japanese and Chinese language.

  • 萌 is not 'anything cute' though, at least not the way it was loaned into Chinese (I don't speak Japanese). Cute/ke'ai is more generic - non-anthropomorphic animals and objects can be cute; but it would be odd to describe them as 萌, which is generally reserved for little girls or sometimes little boys (when used on adults, I'd feel it's derogatory, kind of like saying that they're acting childishly). Commented May 2, 2018 at 10:24
  • As an example, Rena Ryuuguu from Higurashi enjoys describing everything (including rubbish she found at the dump) as kawaii, which is translated as 可愛 in Chinese and 'kyute' in English; it would seem odd if she used 萌 instead. Commented May 2, 2018 at 10:29
  • Disagree, 萌is definitely used to describe anything (animals and objects) as cute in modern Chinese, terms like '萌宠'(cute pets), '萌物’ or ‘萌物百科'(cute thingy Wikipedia), '萌萌嗒'(cuteness overload). Using 萌 to describe pens, bags, glasses, and mugs etc, is a very common thing in China.
    – Kevin Lyf
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 1:07
  • I guess it's a regional difference then (I'm from Hong Kong). I would definitely never use 萌 for anything other than actual 萌系 stuff. Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 15:46
  • No wonder, this is the case for any Mandarin speaking regions, mainland China.
    – Kevin Lyf
    Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 22:31

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