25 May 2016

Open sesame!

The tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is world famous, so it's no surprise that it's just as well known in Japan. What did surprise me, for some reason, is the translation of 'Open Sesame!'.
開けゴマ (ひらけごま)
Literally, 'Open! Sesame'. Perhaps because it's a magic word, it hadn't occurred to me that 'sesame' would be literally translated.

However, ごま lends itself to some other Japanese phrases that don't translate quite as literally.

Literally 'navel sesame', an interesting way of describing belly-button fluff. Perhaps I'm weird, but it doesn't remind me much of sesame.

Sesame and salt noise: black and white noise. A common condiment is ground black sesame with salt, and it does look quite like static noise on a television, albeit more static than static noise, which, ironically, isn't actually static. The katakana word ノイズ means specifically 'random noise' rather than loud sounds in general.

ごますり or ごまをする
Grinding sesame: idle flattery. The verb here is する 'to grind; to rub'. Not to be confused with する 'to do', it conjugates normally, so the polite form is すります, not します. The grinding is specifically with a mortar and pestle, and the ground sesame sticks to everything it comes into contact with. Therefore, and this is a stretch, it means trying to 'stick' to everybody, hence flatter. This has led to a gesture for flattery: rubbing one hand against the other as though grinding sesame.

ごまふ (胡麻斑)
'sesame freckled' is used in the names of flora and fauna to mean black spotted or speckled. The spotted seal is 胡麻斑海豹 ごまふあざらし, the kanji meaning a sesame spotted sea leopard.

To deceive. Actually, this may or may not be sesame related. When written in kanji, these days it's usually written as 誤魔化す misunderstand + magic + -ise (verb forming ending, as in socialise), but this is 'ateji', with kanji used only for their sounds. One theory is that it comes from 護摩 ごま, a Buddhist cedar stick burning ceremony, with a verb ending かす. The ashes from this would be sold, but often you'd be more likely to be getting burnt garden waste from the not-so-devout ash salesman. So 'are you cedar-sticking me?' came to mean 'deceive'. The other explanation does involve sesame. 護摩菓子 (ごまかし), is sesame flavoured sweets, in this case referring particularly to an Edo period (1603-1868) cake called 胡麻胴乱 (ごまどうらん). This was hollow inside, so looked considerably much more substantial than reality. Therefore, 'sesame-caking' was outright deception.

The more interesting etymologies have come from http://gogen-allguide.com/.

18 May 2016

Unique Japanese

Japanese is not unique. As a human natural language it shares many similarities with every other language in the world, some more than others. But Japanese is unique, as it appears to have no common relatives, sitting as it does in its own language group. There have been various theories as to where it comes from, but none has been conclusive.

Numbers often a good way of determining the origin of a language as their social importance means that they cannot radically change from one generation to the next, and Japanese numbers show some unique properties.

In modern Japanese the Sino-Japanese numbers imported from China have all but replaced the native numbers, but the latter is clinging on for dear life as generic counting words up to ten.


The older forms were:

Believe it or not, there is a hidden pattern.

Going from one (ひとつ) to two (ふたつ): hito→huta
Three (みつ) to six (むつ): mi→mu
Four (よつ) to eight (やつ): yo→ya
Numbers are doubled by changing the internal vowels.
Five (いつつ) to ten (とお) doesn't follow the rule, unless you take the stem of five to be つ, so it would be tu→to.

The first recorded person to notice this was a chap called 荻生徂徠 (1666-1728), so as far as we know, until that point nobody had realised that such a rule existed.

Finding the rule opens up new questions:
  • Why does changing the vowel lead to doubling?
  • Why don't five and ten follow the rule exactly?
  • Is the same rule seen elsewhere in the language? 
  • Are there any other languages that share the phenomenon?

The pattern is too consistent to ignore, but it is not shared by any other language that Japan has historically had ties with. Mysterious....

Actually, as unique as Japanese may be, the answers to some of these questions are more related to how similar the language is to others than how different it is. Similar phenomena can be seen in all natural languages. But it's still quite amazing that the two times table is hidden in the number system, and that hardly anybody notices.

数字とことばの不思議な話 窪薗晴夫 岩田ジュニア新書 (p.2~)
日本語 金田一 岩波新書 (上、p.51~)

11 May 2016

Fun fun fun

The kanji 楽, fun, easy, was originally written 樂 and is supposed to be derived from a pictograph of some bells hanging from a tree. It was borrowed for its sound for the modern meaning, and it appears in a few other kanji. See if you can guess what these characters mean.

  • 薬 grass + fun
  • 擽 hand + fun
  • 轢 car + fun

薬 drugs, medicine
This is a fairly basic kanji, and it's easy to remember the meaning. The other two characters are quite rare.
薬 くすり drugs, medicine

擽 to tickle
As far as I can tell, the 樂 part is only there as a phonetic guide, but the constituent parts fit the meaning so well I'm surprised this character isn't better known.
擽る くすぐ・る to tickle

轢 to run over
Car fun! Joy riding? Well, one of the words this kanji is used in is  轢死. Car fun death? In the world of kanji, the most fun you can have in your car is to run somebody over. How macabre.
轢く ひ・く to run over

As gruesome as kanji gets, nobody really thinks that running somebody over is a barrel of laughs. The kanji 楽 comes from a pictograph of a tree with a lot of chrysalises, which referred to the saw-tooth oak. The chrysalises survived as the 幺 in the old character, today simplified as four dashes. Later an acorn was added, and this now is the most prominent part 白.

Then the character was borrowed for its sound. This is a very common phenomenon in kanji; the original meaning is completely lost, as its used for a more common homonym. In this case, the word for 'pleasure' or 'comfort'. To get the meaning of saw-tooth oak, tree is added to the left side 櫟, to tell the reader 'this is the tree 樂, I'm not using it to mean "fun" here'.

轢 is using 楽 for its sound, as they had similar pronunciations in Chinese, and, by a convoluted word association: a tree with acorns → acorns → small objects → small stones, it had the meaning of crushing small stones as you drive over them.

4 May 2016


As loofahs are often used for washing in a similar manner as a sponge, many people don't release that in fact it's a vegetable. They can be eaten, but after ripening the fruit can be boiled to remove the flesh, leaving the familiar wiry form. In Japan, the source of loofahs is well known. However, the origins of the Japanese name are rather convoluted.

The fruit first arrived in Japan during the Edo period, and due to it's fibrous nature it was known as 糸瓜: thread gourd. いとうり became shortened to とうり, and this name was current for a while. The modern word is へちま, which is derived from the older form.

In order to explain how, we have to take a bit of a diversion.

In modern Japanese, the kana is ordered in あいうえお order. It's a nice, straightforward way of systematically ordering the characters. However, formerly a more poetic order was favoured.

The いろは poem uses each kana once, and at the same time including some rather esoteric Buddhist philosophy.

The important part is in the first two lines of this poem.

A loofah is とうり, a ' gourd'. is between and in いろは order. means 'space' or 'between', so へちま means between へ and ち. Therefore (?) うり is へちま. This probably started life as a riddle, but for some reason it caught on as the actual name for a loofah, to the point where とうり isn't even a word for it any more. But the original name lives on: へちま is still written in kanji as 糸瓜.