彼は3人前注文した。

How did 人前 become a word for portion? Because portions are in front of people?

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@Kuukyo
It’s not 3 // 人前 but 3人 // 前.

I looked 前 up but I couldn’t find directly answered explanations. So, the following explanation contains some guess work.

All of reliable sources simply define 前 as a suffix as “a share for or an allotment to someone”. They say there is no meaningful relationship between the suffix and the stand-alone 前 (in front of; before; prior). The suffix 前 is also used without significant meaning in the form of 当たり前.

So, my short answer is “just swallow it and move on; no native speaker cares about it.”

But you may be still interested in the etymology. Here is my long answer.

One (not so reliable) web article says that a portion of food is served in front of a guest, and that’s the etymology of ○人前.

Another article explains that the Kanji 前 consists of two parts merging into one: the first part means “to move forward or develop” and the second does “a knife or a sword”. So, the fundamental meaning of 前 is “to shape something in order to make it ready to use by cutting with a knife”.

I guess the first part of Kanji - “to move forward/develop” - is the primary meaning of 前 as “in front of/before/prior”. And the second part of Kanji - “to shape it with a knife” - is used as the suffix. It’s like cutting a whole round pizza into several pieces and serving a piece to each guest.

Below is just my further curiosity. I also wondered why 匹 is used as a numeric classifier to count animals.

The Kanji 匹 primary means “to pair/match up” or “comrade” - e.g. 匹敵する means the two entities have the same level of abilities. But the secondary meaning of 匹 is “abject/lower class”.

One article says that the Kanji 匹 represents the shape of two pieces of long flat clothes hanging on a pole. The shape was evolved into the meaning of a pair of a man and a woman. I couldn’t find why it was also partially developed to mean “lower class people” and finally became a numeric classifier of animals.

Most of the people don’t care why we use 匹 for both 匹敵する and a numeric classifier, which are totally different. It’s not so logical, but this kind of linguistic transformation often happens.

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Wow, thank you for your detailed reply!

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