I have an interest in learning the origins of various Japanese words, which is funny since I couldn’t care less for the origins of words in my native language, English. I don’t think it’s for the sake of history, since memorizing arbitrary facts puts me to sleep, and it’s not for utility since the origin of a word doesn’t necessarily help you use it any better.
I think one of the reasons is that understanding where a word or phrase comes from helps me learn more about Japanese grammar, and this in turn helps me make connections in my head between words and ideas. Hopefully, as a result of this I can gain better understanding of the language of a whole.
Though it’s true that there is a strong arbitrary component to languages, there is also a great amount of logic and reasoning holding things together, and this is something I actively seek out.
Recently, I became curious about the origin of the common Japanese word “ありがとう” (arigatou), which is used in modern Japanese to express gratitude or simply say “Thank you”. I had heard from several people that it originally meant something like “It is hard for me to exist”, and for some time I accepted this explanation. After all, one way to write this word is “有り難う”, which contains a form of “aru” (to exist), and a form of “gatai” which can be used to mean the previous verb is difficult to do.
But for some reason I had began to doubt this interpretation, was it really the origin of this phrase?
I decided to do a little research on this word, using mostly sites in Japanese, and discovered there was more to this story than I had been told. The description on this site was concise and well-written, and since that site specializes in word origins (由来/yurai or 語源/gogen in Japanese) I think it’s relatively trustworthy.
Rather than just giving a brief summary of the explanation, I’ve decided to translate the entire entry on “arigatou”, both as a translation exercise for myself and as a way to give you the full story.
=== (This text is copywritten by 語原由来辞書) ===
The origin of the word “arigatou” comes from the adjective “arigatashi”, made into it’s conjunctional form “arigataku” and further transformed via a euphonic change into “arigatou”.
“arigatashi” comes from from the words “aru” (to exist) and “katai” (difficult), and originally was used to express meanings such as “extremely uncommon” and “rare and precious”.
In the classic work “The Pillow Book”, a similar phrase “arigataki mono” is used to mean “It is difficult to exist in this world”, or put more simply as “It is hard to live”.
In the middle ages, “arigatou” began to be used to express feelings of religious gratitude, stemming from the idea that one possesses things which are precious and hard to acquire, such as the compassion of Buddha. In modern times this has evolved to express gratitude in a more general sense.
There is a theory that “arigatou” came from the Portuguese term “obrigado”, however due to the fact “arigatou” was used before the Portuguese came to Japan it is impossible that “obrigado” is the source of that word. As such, besides the fact that these two words have similar pronunciations, there isn’t much to this theory.
Even though this entry wasn’t too long, the inclusion of some linguistic terms and other words I don’t come across too often made it tricky to translate, but I think I managed to get across the meaning for the most part.
Update: I created a publishing company that targets Japanese literature under the name “Arigatai Books”, where “arigatai” is a word related to “arigatou” that means “thankful” or “grateful”. You can see more about this company here.
My Japanese teacher told us an old “Japanese folk story” of where arigatai- transformed to arigato. She said there was a blind sea turtle floating along in the ocean for years and years just going where ever the current would take it. Then one day as it was floating a cherry blossom booped it on the nose. And that one random and special and rare moment was “arigatai”. That story always stuck with me for some reason.
From Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword arigato was translated literally as “oh, this difficult thing.” The reason for this as an expression for gratitude is related to the idea of wearing an “on,” being indebted to the benefactor.