Japanese poetry traditionally putting strict limits on the number of syllables used, various figures of speech were employed to stretch those syllables as far as possible. One of my favorite is the kakekotoba, or “pivot word”.1 It’s a kind of pun based on using a single word twice for two different meanings. The way to think about it is this: come up with a sentence where a word would be followed immediately by a homophone. One of the two words can actually be longer, as long as the part that’s adjacent to the other word sounds the same. Then, when writing the sentence, only write the shared sounds once. Instead of a sentence having multiple possible interpretations, a word has multiple interpretations within a single sentence.(CJAG:366)

This doesn’t work all that well in English, but let’s give it a try anyways. Let’s say I’m writing a tanka about vampires. I might want to say “The kindred dread dawn’s swift coming.” Making ‘dread’ a kakekotoba, I can just say “The kindread dawn’s swift coming.”, saving one crucial syllable, and more importantly impressing my peers with my poetic cleverness. A slightly better example is “The sisters pine incense fills the air.”2

Kakekotoba work better in Japanese than in English for several reasons. Firstly, Japanese has a lot of homophones. Having a more limited set of syllables to build words from increases your chance of collision a lot; part of the reason the Japanese writing system is so complicated is to tell homophones apart. Secondly, phonetic spelling: if two words sound the same, they’re (most of the time) written the same way in hiragana,3 so you don’t have spelling conflicts like I did with ‘kindread’. Finally, Japanese grammar rules are a little more flexible about word placement, so it’s easier to get the proper juxtaposition.

Here’s a Japanese example from the Kokinwakashū (dating to 914, in the Heian Period). It uses one of the classic examples: the word “matsu” can either be the verb “to wait” or a pine tree. Here, the tree interpretation is actually the first part of the name for a specific kind of insect.

Waiting Cricket (914)


Aki no no ni
Hito matsu mushi no
Kowe su nari
Ware ka to <a class="link61" href="http://xavid vente de viagra en suisse.us/paralyze/word/yuki” style=”text-decoration:none;”>yuki–te
Iza toburahan


まつ: matsu is a kakekotoba (pivot word) used twice: once for “waiting” and once for the first part of matsumushi, “pine cricket”.
: n is a nasalized sound change for mu that was common in the Heian period; the alternate original has mu.

The first text has the kakekotoba rendered phonetically, in hiragana, so the possibility of multiple interpretations is more obvious, which was common for kakekotoba.(en.wp:Kakekotoba) (The second text uses the kanji for “pine”, hiding the wordplay; since the poem would be agrammatical without it, this isn’t necessarily a good thing.)

While they can make things more challenging for a modern reader, kakekotoba were a common way of adding extra layers of meaning to a poem, and they’re fun to try to figure out. Can anyone think of any kakekotoba in English that you might be able to stomach actually putting in a poem?


  1. More literally “hanging word”.
  2. If you’re writing poetry targeted at linguists, you might be able to get away with “The buffalo me daily.”
  3. Classical Japanese does have some spelling distinctions that are lost in modern Japanese and are now both spelled and pronounced the same way; whether they were pronounced the same or not at the time is less than clear. I’ll go into more detail about this at a later time.