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All the time, I've only heard of 敌人 = enemy, in TV shows and dramas. Yesterday I saw the word 冤家 in a folk song which apparently also means enemy in the dictionary. So I was wondering what's the usage or differences of 敌人 and 冤家?

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「敵人」is straightforward.

  • 「敵」means enemy, opponent
  • 「人」means person.

「冤家」is made from

  • 「冤」(crooked, unjust; cf. 「冤枉」)
  • 「家」(suffix used after a noun to specify a type of person; cf.「人家」,「老人家」)

「冤家」literally means someone who has treated you wrongly.

  • There are circumstances where「冤家」can mean the same thing as「敵人」, like for two opposing bitter enemies who want to exact revenge on each other. There must be an element of「仇」(hatred) for them to be interchangeable.
  • 「敵人」can mean rival, competitor (like in a game or business), but you cannot use「冤家」for this meaning. There is no「仇」in this circumstance.
  • 「冤家」can also mean someone who doesn't treat you fairly, but is dear to you > lover. I guess the implication was originally that your closest family/lover/friends sometimes treat you unjustly.
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My guess is that 敌人 is your enemy. 冤家 is your family and who is working against your wish.

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most dictionaries do not give a single translation, but a number of them plus examples showing difference,e.g. bkrs: https://bkrs.info/slovo.php?ch=%E5%86%A4%E5%AE%B6

(1) [enemy; foe]∶死对头, 指有冤仇的人 冤家相见, 分外眼红

(2) [one's destined love](in opera)∶称给自己带来痛苦而又不舍抛弃的似恨而又实爱的人 这一干风流冤家, 尚未投胎入世。 --《红楼梦》 freq.rank #17757 (敌人 #1669) syn. examples:做冤家对头 冤家路狭 冤家路窄 同义(2): 对象, 朋友, 情人, 情侣

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敌人 means "enemy" in general (someone you have to defeat or eliminate for any reason)

仇人/ 仇家/ 仇敌 means "hated enemy" (someone became your enemy by wronged you in a heinous way from your point of view)

冤家 also means "enemy" or "foe ", e.g. 冤家對頭 (natural enemy/ foe) . Before the modern era, France and England for hundreds of year were 冤家對頭 (natural enemy) to each other

There is one thing worth mentioning-- the term '冤家' is often used to describe 'sweetheart' or 'destined love' in opera

冤家 http://www.cantonese.sheik.co.uk/dictionary/words/57933/

enemy / foe / (in opera) sweetheart or destined love

The origin of this usage came from the fact that Chinese believe in reincarnation.

We have a saying: "無仇不成父子; 無冤不成夫妻" (People became father and son only because they were hated enemies in their former lives; people became husband and wife only because they wronged each other in their former lives). '冤家' in effect is short for '前世冤家' (enemies from former life = the ones who are fated to be couple in this life)

Even the ancient Chinese knew the one closest to you, is the one who can torture you the worst.

Nowadays people commonly use the term '冤家' for 'couple at odd' or 'couple in conflict' in day to day speech.

Example:

欢喜冤家 (amusing enemies) -- couple who love and hate each other (deep down they are more in love than hating each other )

鬦气冤家 (at odd enemies) - a loving couple that fight, argue and try to one up each other often

俏冤家 (lovely enemy)- someone you are in conflict with but can't really hate her/ him

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敵人 is a extensive word meaning someone that opposes you. However, they can also be your friends, as shown in the idiom 亦敵亦友, which means someone who is your enemy while being your friend.
冤家 is someone who hates you very much. He might have hatred towards your whole family (世仇). However, it can also be a nickname lovers use to refer to their other half.
These are the differences between 敵人 and 冤家.

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There are many other similar words like these two words.

IMO, it's all about the context.

  • 对手 is more oral. It means competitor (竞争对手) in English. You want to win the competition but you don't want to kill him/her.
    • 这次游泳比赛中你的主要对手是张三。
    • 高考快要开始了,清华大学在我省录取名额只有3人,我们是同学,也是对手。
  • 仇人 is more oral. It means the person has done something bad to you. Like frame you up or even kill your close family or friends.
    • 成昆是谢逊师父,但也是他的仇人,因为他杀了谢逊全家。
  • 敌人 is more formal. It just means enemy. It's more likely to describe a group of people, organization, army or country. In many cases, it means an army.
    • 我军对敌人采用了各个击破的战术。
    • 我军用猛烈的炮火摧毁敌人修筑的工事。
  • 冤家 is very oral. It can mean enemy, competitor, or can even be the nickname of lovers to each other in some traditional Chinese literary works.
    • 冤家宜解不宜结,你们还是化干戈为玉帛吧。
    • 这么着,我还得那边去招呼那个冤家呢。(红楼梦)
  • 仇敌 is a strong expression of an enemy. It's more formal.
    • 我们和恐怖分子是不共戴天的仇敌。
  • 宿敌 means you've been enemies for a long time. It's a very formal word.
    • 根据现代版故事剧情,原著中的宿敌蒙特格家族与凯普莱特家族因2000年在一个不知名的英国集镇发生的一起致命车祸而从此结下世仇。
    • 美国表示他们不准备加入到和宿敌恢复正常关系的行动中。
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敌人 means enemy.

冤家 means someone you have a grudge with. or someone you have unpleasant experience when he/she is present. The word is often used in a humerus tone. For example, when a married women says "我那冤家" to refer to her husband, she doesn't mean he is an enemy of hers.

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