Column #104 Kanji Clinic The Japan Times, July 21, 2010
"Kanji for ‘big’ is a titan word-builder"
Every year on Aug. 16, at exactly 8:00 p.m., the first in a series of five giant bonfires is lit on a mountainside overlooking the city of Kyoto, signaling the moment when ancestral ghosts return to the spirit world after visiting relatives on Earth during the three-day O-bon festival. The largest and most iconic blaze, on 大文字山(Daimonjiyama, Big Letter Mountain), comprises 75 torches arranged in the shape of 大, a kanji meaning "big."
大 (oo, DAI, TAI) pictures a headless stick figure with legs and arms spread wide. (Note that the kanji for "person," 人, can be seen within 大). In addition to its core meaning of "big," 大 possesses a variety of related nuances and serves as a powerful building block in an unending array of kanji compound words.
Used in its literal sense of "physically large," 大 may be found in 大陸 (tairiku, large/land, continent), 大根 (daikon, large/root, Japanese radish), and 粗大ゴミ(sodaigomi, shabby/large/trash, large trash items). 大袈裟 (oogesa, exaggerated) is a combination of 大 and 袈裟 (kesa), an ornate stole donned by Buddhist monks. 大脳 (dainou, large/brain) is the semantic no-brainer "cerebrum." While Westerners normally associate having large testicles with "daring," its Japanese counterpart 大胆 (daitan, big/gall bladder, daring) is reminiscent of the English expression "has the gall (to do something brazen)."
With an associated meaning of "extreme," 大 is the first kanji in 大好き (daisuki, extreme/liking, love) and 大嫌い (daikirai, extreme/dislike, abhorrence). 大丈夫 (daijoubu, extreme/height/man), meaning “all right,” traces its roots to the ancient practice of bringing along a tall man for security in threatening situations (a custom that continues elsewhere, too).
大安売り (ooyasuuri, extreme/cheap/sale, bargain sale) signs are ubiquitous in Japan. Far from being considered a deadly sin, 大食い (oogui, extreme/eating, gluttony) is a national obsession, with winners of eating contests attaining hero status. 大味 (ooaji, extreme/flavor) is a negative expression for food that is not subtly seasoned.
大 is also used to describe extreme (i.e., loud) noises, as in 大声 (oogoe, extreme/voice, loud voice). To inform your kids in Japanese that the volume on the TV is too much to bear, you can holler, “音が大きい!” (Oto ga ookii, “the sound is extreme”).
大 also can mean “important,” as in 大事 (daiji, important/thing, serious matter) and 大学 (daigaku, important/learning, university). 大物 (oomono, important/guy) is a generic “big shot,” while 大臣 (daijin, important/retainer) is a cabinet minister and 大統領 (daitouryou, big/united rule/leader) is a president. These two titles are tacked on the end of family names (i.e., オバマ大統領, Obama Daitouryou, President Barack Obama). 大名 (daimyou, important/name) was a feudal lord in premodern Japan, when 名 (myou) referred to a person subject to taxation on his land holdings.
With a meaning of “more or less,” 大 is the first character in 大体 (daitai, more or less/the body, generally) and 大雑把 (oozappa, more or less/miscellaneous/grasp, rough estimate).
While 大 is usually pronounced "oo" and "dai," or "tai" in compound words, a few notable exceptions--or “special readings”--are 大人 (otona, big/person), which means “adult,” and 大和 (Yamato, big/harmony), the name for ancient Japan.
大目に見る (oome ni miru, “to look with big eyes”) means to “overlook faults,” and 針小棒大 (shinshouboudai, needle/small/pole/big) is “exaggeration.” While English speakers use “a drop in the bucket” to describe a negligible amount, the Japanese say “big ocean, one drop”: 大海一滴 (taikaiitteki).
Speaking of oceans, don’t confuse 大 with 太 (TAI, futo-i), a near-clone kanji that means “huge” or “fat.” When writing 大西洋 (Taiseiyou, big/west/ocean, Atlantic Ocean) and 太平洋 (Taiheiyou, huge/flat/ocean, Pacific Ocean), 大 is the first character in the former and 太 in the latter. (太 was originally written with one 大 atop another to signify “doubly big,” but now a tiny dot stroke substitutes for the 大 at the bottom). As a memory aid, think of the dot stroke in 太 as the tiny nation of Japan floating in the vast Pacific Ocean.
The quiz below will allow you to explore more fully the remarkable word-building power of the kanji for “big.”
THE BIG (大) QUIZ
Match each of the following kanji compounds containing 大with its meaning and pronunciation.
7.大枚 (big/flat things)
a. gist (taii) b. soybean (daizu) c.terrible (taihen) d. bragging (ooguchi) e.landlord (ooya) f.major companies (oote) g.large sum of money (taimai) h. substantial (oohaba)
Answers: 1.b 2.d 3.f 4.e 5.c 6.h 7.g 8.a