Kanji Clinic #55 The Japan Times, June 10, 2004
gAnatomical kanji compounds can be real head-scratchersh


If you allow your tea to cool down from near-boiling temperatures before taking a sip, perhaps you've been called L (cat-tongue, nekojita). gHaving a tongue overly sensitive to heath-- as is said to be the case with cats--is the English translation of this nifty kanji compound word, but it just doesn't pack the same punch.

Over 40 of the general-use (joyo) kanji provide names for parts of the body. These characters are used extensively in combination with other kanji to form compound words (jukugo) of an anatomical nature, such as L. Familiarity with patterns used in forming jukugo can go a long way in helping foreign kanji learners decipher the meanings of newly encountered compounds. Knowledge of the various meanings of individual kanji, as well as of Chinese and Japanese culture, will also be helpful in learning new jukugo-- including those containing body-part kanji.

Take, for example, (decayed tooth, mushiba). You may know that the first kanji in this jukugo, , means ginsect,h and the second, , gtooth.h gInsect? Tooth?h you may ask. gWhatfs the connection?h Itfs a head-scratcher, until you learn that can also represent gwormh; thus is a gworm-eaten tooth.h Kind of makes you want to stop procrastinating on that visit to the dentist.

Or how about puzzlers s (insufficiency, fusoku) and (contentment, manzoku), both of which feature gleg,h , as their second component? was used by kanji creators in ancient China to represent not only glegh but also gsuffice,h a word having the same pronunciation as gleg.h Aside from its phonological value, the primary meaning of glegh also seems to have suggested an gableh (i.e., not maimed) quality associated with gsuffice.h Thus, s (meaning gnoth) joined to (suffice) renders s (insufficiency), and full + suffice = contentment.

Another jukugo containing thatfs commonly used in Japan is ֑ (snake-leg, superfluous, dasoku). This derives from an ancient Chinese tale of a group of servants competing for alcoholic drinks from their master. The fellow who could draw a snake the fastest was to be the winner, but one contestant went overboard and drew legs on his snake. Naturally, he lost, and ֑ came to mean something as superfluous as legs on a belly-crawling reptile.

In colloquial English, the word ggall,h meaning gimpudence,h (e.g., gI canft believe she has the gall to say such a thing!h) has a negative connotation. In Japanese, the opposite is true: Someone with _ (gall, tan) exhibits gpluck,h or gcourage.h The commonly used compound word _ (rakutan), with (fall) as its first character, refers not to a falling gallbladder (_ represents gallbladder, as well as the gall, or bile, it secretes), but to falling courage, or gdiscouragement.h

Another kanji representing a vital organ, (liver, kan), also has the secondary meaning of gcourageh in Japanese. gGallbladderh and gliverh together form ̒_ (kantan), which means gonefs innermost thoughts.h Just as we gspill our gutsh in English, the Japanese gopen their liver and gallbladderh (̒_J, kantan o hiraku) when they reveal what is really on their minds. And while villains are said to be gblack-heartedh in English, they are gblack-belliedh (, abdomen-black, haraguroi) in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Moving on to the extremities, the Japanese wear their wedding rings not on the gring fingerh (as the digit next to the little finger is known in English), but on the gmedicine fingerh (w, kusuriyubi). Same finger, different name. It seems topical remedies were applied with that finger back in the old days. The gthumbh is called the gparent fingerh(ew, oyayubi) in Japanese. This word is currently enjoying popularity as part of a three-kanji compound, ew (thumb tribe, oyayubi-zoku), used to describe cell phone addicts astoundingly adept at speed-typing text messages.

Once foreign kanji learners begin to read extensively in their target language, they are bound to encounter unfamiliar jukugo. This can be frustrating, but on the plus side, initially puzzling compound words often end up offering fascinating insights into aspects of East Asian culture, both new and old.

The rainy season has begun in most parts of Japan. To read a column about rain-related kanji compounds, go here.
Last month's column was also about body-part kanji.
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