Word for today: noroshi 狼煙, "signal fire/smoke".

The kanji mean "wolf smoke", but have nothing to do with the Japanese word's etymology; they're borrowed from an old Chinese synonym. The Chinese word did really mean "wolf smoke", apparently, due to the fact that folks sending up a signal fire would mix some wolf dung in the fuel because it was said to make the smoke rise straight up.

The actual etymology of noroshi is surprisingly murky given that it isn't even attested before the 16th century. Most sources seem to agree that the noro- means "field" or "wild[erness]", closely related to the nora- in noraneko (stray cat) and noragi (fieldwork clothes). The -shi is variously attributed to shirushi (symbol), ki (air), or hi (fire).

(It's interesting to note that in Edo dialect they actually didn't distinguish hi from shi in speech—some people still speak this way in Tokyo. But I assume that this isn't directly related to the genesis of this word, since noroshi predates the Edo period itself by a century or so and in any case educated Edo folks still usually wrote the mora hi.)

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My paper dictionary also had 烽火 for noroshi, which seems to refer to the mountaintop ROTK-style "飛ぶ火" system they had back in the ritsuryo days. Maybe the sound was borrowed after this went out of use?


Might well be, Himajin. Particularly as Edo Period texts seem to be full of ateji for things (and word play; huzzah for [wider] popular literacy?).


烽火 is another kanji spelling for noroshi, but it doesn't inspire much confidence in me etymologically (especially since 烽 all on its own was also pronounced "tobuhi" = 飛ぶ火 back in the day).

Wouldn't it be more likely that "noroshi" was invented verbally and 烽火 and 狼煙 were both applied as ateji later in writing, one based on the spelling for "tobuhi" and the other borrowed from the Chinese word?


it even appears in Romance of the Three Kingdoms



Hi Matt, enjoy the etymological curiosa but have been wondering: which etymological reference works are you relying on? I'm looking into which to buy (probably more than one for a sense of completeness) and it would be quite valuable to know what others use.


I actually answered that pretty recently on metafilter. Those books are the sources I rely on most.

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