Saturday, March 31, 2018

Ko 子

In Japanese, the word ko 子 usually means "child." If you check dictionaries, translators, the translation going to be "child" most of the time. But ko has other meanings, too, and is used in certain ways that don't really make sense with that translation.


Let's begin with its classic meaning: "child."

As one would expect, it works just like in English most of the time. For example, ore no ko 俺の子 means "my child." The compound oyako 親子 means "parent (oya) and child." A maigo 迷子 (go is rendaku) means "lost child." And so on.

Okosan お子さん

The word okosan お子さん means somebody's "child," but it's normally used to talk about other people's children, not yours. (see: o__san お〇〇さん)

Kodomo 子供

One important thing is the difference between ko and kodomo 子供.

A ko 子 is just somebody's child. Born from someone, sometimes, somewhere, something. Meanwhile, a kodomo 子供 is normally a "child" is the sense they're young. That is, they aren't an "adult," otona 大人, therefore they're a "child," kodomo 子供.

Note that domo 共 is usually a pluralizing suffix, so you may mistakenly think that kodomo is the plural of ko. This isn't true. The word kodomo is singular, well, it may be plural, but that's because of how plurals work in Japanese. Anyway, you can say things like kodomotachi 子供たち to refer to multiple children if you need.

The word kodomo is often used alone, but ko frequently has an adjective of some sort accompanying it, forming new words entirely. Also, ko can be used to refer to people in general in ways kodomo isn't used.

Sono Ko, Ano ko その子, あの子

Sometimes ko is used with the demonstrative pronouns kono, sono, ano, dono to refer to adults, people you wouldn't really call "children."

Why does this happen? And what does it mean? Is it because everybody's technically somebody's child? Well, no.


The word ko 子 in this sense works exactly like hito 人, "person." You can even translate it exactly like that.
  • kono ko この子
    kono hito この人
    This person.
  • sono ko その子
    kono hito その人
    That person.
  • asoko ni hataraiteiru ko あそこに働いている子
    asoko ni hataraiteiru hito あそこに働いている人
    The person working there.

The only difference that exists between these two words is in the nuance, and that fact that using ko this way is more casual.


Although different, this meaning of ko 子 does stem from "child," so keep that in mind. And this stemming carries certain connotations, which are often unconscious and nobody really minds until it sounds off. But are also cool to understand because in manga they can hint the personality of a character.

For example, an older person calling a younger person ko 子 can imply they care about them like they're children. Younger people don't call older people ko 子 in this sense, so the usage of ko 子 is skewed to older people using it to refer to the younger.

Gendered Language

As it's associated with children, it's associated with youth, and then cuteness to varying degrees. So it gets used a lot to refer to young women.

Because of the word is used toward women a lot, people refrain from using it toward men. It's implicit that men calling other men ko 子 sounds off, but women calling men ko 子 is more common.

Since sono ko その子 is used by and toward young women, some people think it's female speech (terms used by women only.) Which means that men saying sono ko その子 may be considered effeminate and weird. (although not everyone thinks this, and some men do use the term nonchalantly.)

Implied inferiority

In some cases, referring to someone by ko 子 implies cockiness, as the term may sound condescending.

Using it toward pets, dogs, cats, etc. also happens. You can use kono ko この子 to refer to pretty much any animal on your lap. That's because a person might say "hey, don't call me ko 子!" and get pissed but animals won't care about it.

Sometimes, in anime, referring to machines, weapons, and other objects by ko 子 also happens.


Sometimes, the word musume 娘, "daughter," is read as ko 子, "child." This is an artificial reading, a gikun. When it happens, it implies the child in question is a girl instead of unspecified. (there is no common way to imply it's a boy.)

This happens for example in a phrase like ano ko あの娘. Maybe because ano musume あの娘 sounds a bit aggressive, "that girl! That damn girl!" compared to the docile-sounding ano ko

In anime, kko っ娘 is a suffix added to words to refer to different types of girls. Like meganekko メガネっ娘, for example, "glasses girl."

Not Exactly Child

Sometimes, ko means child in ways child isn't used English. That is, you can agree it's some sort of "child," the concept of child, but you wouldn't use the word "child" in English to say what it says. For example:
  • koneko 子猫
    Child cat. Kitten.
  • koinu 子犬
    Child dog. Puppy.
  • futago 双子
    Twin children. Twins.
  • kogaisha 子会社
    Child company. Subsidiary.

Sometimes the meaning of the word has historic reasons. For example, if you read manga with lots of gangsters, you'll see the word kobun 子分 sometimes, it refers to the people under someone else, their followers, gang members, henchmen, etc. But they aren't really children.

What happens is that, in the past, that word meant an "adopted child," and it probably morphed into the modern meaning because gang members kind of were "adopted" into gangs like children.

The other reading of the kanji, shi 子, also means child in weird ways, although its meaning is often closer to a "particle" of something, a part of a whole.

For example: rishi 利子 means "interest (monetary)," or, literally, "profit child." Meanwhile, denshi 電子, literally "electric child," or "electric particle," means "electron," or "electronic" when used as an adjective.

Adjective Before Ko

Like any noun, the word ko 子 can have an adjective behind it. Sometimes this is easy to understand and simple to translate, but not always.

For example, takenoko 竹の子, literally a "bamboo child," is, in English, a "bamboo shoot." A bamboo shoot is in a sense a child of a bamboo, but we don't say "bamboo child" in English.

This gets more complicated as the adjective is used more figuratively. And also more complicated yet when you consider the term isn't only used toward children.

For example, odoriko 踊り子 is a "dancer." A dancer is usually a young woman, who "dances," odoru 踊る.

Otokonoko 男の子

The term otokonoko 男の子 means "boy." This word is a bit weird, since literally you'd think it means a "man's child." The "child," ko 子, of a "man," otoko 男. This, however, doesn't make any sense, because any (human) child is a child of a man (and a woman.)

What happens is that the adjective otoko no here is just describing the type of child it is: a "male child." So otokonoko means a "boy."

Onnanoko 女の子

Likewise, the meaning of onnanoko 女の子 is a "female child," a "girl," and not a "woman's child."
Onnanoko 女の子

Hitonoko 人の子

Following the above, hitonoko 人の子, "person's child," refers to basically any "human" creature, child or adult. Any human. You can imagine a demon or deity or non-human being saying hitonoko 人の子 to warn others about humans.

Tsuchinoko 槌の子

The term tsuchinoko 槌の子, "hammer's child," makes literally zero sense. After all, hammers don't give birth to smaller hammers. Or to nails. Or to anything, at all. This word is actually cheating, tsuchinoko is the name of a mythological snake in Japan's culture.

Iiko いい子

The word iiko いい子 means literally "good child." Given how this ko 子 can be used to refer to adults, and even animals too, I supposed that translation only makes sense half of the time. In any case, iiko is a compliment, I guess, unless used sarcastically.

Saying iiko toward pets when teaching tricks like fetch, etc. could be understood as "good boy, good boy." Which just shows the difference between the words used in Japanese and English.

Waruiko 悪い子

An waruiko 悪い子 is a "bad child." Used literally with the opposite meaning of the above.

Kko っ子

Sometimes ko isn't used as a noun for adjectives but as a suffix instead, in which case it becomes kko っ子. In this case, the suffix goes after a noun that highlights an attribute of the ko 子. Some examples:

Ijimekko 苛めっ子

An ijimekko 苛めっ子 is a "child," ko 子, that "bullies," ijimeru 苛める, other children. This one is (hopefully) literally a child. A way to translate ijimekko is simply "bully."

By the way, ijimerarekko 苛められっ子 refers to the "bullied child."

Urekko 売れっ子

An urekko 売れっ子 is a ko 子 that "sells," ureru 売れる. This one is (hopefully) not a child. It could be, for example, about a model or actress that's popular and famous and sells a lot of... whatever they're selling.

Suekko 末っ子

A suekko 末っ子 is the "last child," or, looking at it from another perspective, the "youngest child" someone has.

At The End of Girls' Names

In Japanese, it's common for girls' names to end in ko 子. For example:
  • Aiko 愛子
  • Nobuko 信子
  • Sachiko 幸子
  • Sayako 清子
  • Youko 陽子
  • Yuuko 優子
  • Chiyoko 千代子
  • Miyoko 美代子
  • Kumiko 久美子

Why does this happen? Well, I don't know. It seems it got popularized in the past for some reason and up until the 80's such names were overwhelmingly chosen. Such names are still popular today, but not as popular as they were seventy years ago. I guess people got tired of them.

Guys' Version

The male counterpart for this, if there's one, would be rou 郎. There are many male names ending with rou, tarou 太郎, ichirou 一郎, jirou 二郎, saburou 三郎, etc. Specially because those are some (utterly lazy imho) counter names.

Basically, tarou means "first son," so name your first son literally "first son." Your "second son," jirou, that's more literally "next son," as in, next after the first. And so on. For example:
  1. Yaichirou 矢一郎
  2. Yajirou 矢二郎
  3. Yasaburou 矢三郎
  4. Yajirou 矢四郎

(these are actual names from Uchouten Kazoku 有頂天家族)

Quick Name Disguise

Sometimes in manga and anime, situations involving gender-bending end up requiring characters to come up with names for themselves on spot. Since naming stuff is very hard, it's a trope for the character to simply take their own name and add a ko 子 or rou 郎 to its end.

For example, in Baka to Test to Shoukanjuu バカとテストと召喚獣, the character Akihisa 明久 becomes Akiko 明子. Another case is the Gun Gale Online avatar of Kirito, that's been nicknamed Kiriko by fans.

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