Japanese Language Fun Facts (3)

I swear this relates to this article in some way.

I swear this relates to this article in some way.


Here’re some more words with interesting origins!

But First, a Statement

I hope what’s below will help you understand the connections between words. Of course, nothing beats exposure. Hearing the same phrases and realizing they have connections is a wonderful experience in itself, and I don’t want to take that away from you. So be warned, because I’m kinda taking that away from you. :p

There are two important methods of connecting words in Japanese: Kanji and sounds.

Kanji is obvious. 水 means “water”. 水泳、水死、水管、水道、水源、水車 all have connections to “water” (swimming, drowing, water pipes, water supply, source of a river, water wheel, respectively). Even the apparently odd ones 水曜日 have connections that you might not see. The days of the week have connections to the planets, and 水星 is Mercury. Wednesday is named after “Woden’s Day”, as Woden was once called the “Germanic Mercury”. Mercury, referring to the metal, is 水銀.


Even if the three Mercury-related ones have little connection to “water” itself, we can just throw 水 as also having the meaning of “Mercury”. In any case, the point of kanji is to see the obvious meaning of the words in the writing and how they connect to each other.

Sounds, however, make obvious connections as well. In other languages, sometimes these are taken for granted. In Japanese however, many learners who focus on the written component of Japanese (like me) fail to see the obvious connections with the sounds of Japanese. I certainly did. Sure, it was obvious to me that におう and におい were connected—they’re practically just different versions of the same word. But when I made written mistakes with words like くさい and くさる, I realized that there were connections between native Japanese words (as opposed to loanwords) that underlie much of the language.

Anyway, enough of this statement. Let’s get onto the words.

Word Origins (Intermediate)

The following words have no connection to the original word from a kanji basis. Only their sounds give us a clue.

Also, I’ve decided to put a few examples below of common phrases. No sense learning a word without any context.

Word: 導く (みちびく)
Meaning: To guide / to lead
Origin: Two words we need to be aware of: 道 (road) and 引く (to pull). ひく, of course, coming after the ち sound would likely change to びく. To pull someone down a road—to guide them, to lead them. Seems pretty obvious, yeah? So obvious, in fact, that 道 is in the kanji for 導く.

先生は生徒を導く(The teacher guided the students (like a role model).)
神に導かれる ((They) were lead by god.)

Word: 醜い (みにくい)
Meaning: Ugly
Origin: みる+にくい-ending. To add にくい to the end of a verb stem makes it something that’s hard to do. みにくい means that it’s hard to look at something. Well, if that something is ugly, that makes sense. :p

あのやろう超醜い!キモい! (That guy is really ugly! He’s the worst!)
大人なのに、みにくいアヒルの子の話が好きだね。(Even though he’s an adult, he really likes the story of the Ugly Duckling, doesn’t he.)

Word: 試みる (こころみる)
Meaning: To experience for the first time / to have a shot at something
Origin: みる, of course, means “to see”. こころ is your metaphorical heart. In fact, the normal version of saying that you’ll try something in Japanese is to take the “te-form” of a verb and then add みる to the end. ビールを飲んでみる (I’m going to try this beer)。 While 試みる is often translated simply as “to try” and the kanji has that meaning, it’s used more when you’re doing something for the experience, like skydiving or traveling to a new country. See (or try) with your heart. It’s similar to こころざし from the previous fun facts post.

スキーしようと試みる。(I’m going to take a whack at skiing.)
言語勉強についてむやみやたらに試みるやり方が好みます。(In regards to studying languages, I prefer a shotgun approach. (Try a little bit of everything, ya know?))

Word Origins (Advanced)

Not only are the next words rare, they’re not building off of common words. Hope it’s interesting in any case.

Word: 司る (つかさどる)
Meaning: To govern
Origin: An uncommon / archaic word for the chief, head of something, or official is つかさ (written 司, 官, 長, etc, if that helps), which I only learned in trying to understand this word’s pronunciation, and was only able to memorize because it was the same as the main character in .hack//SIGN, which helped me make enough connections to form something solid. Rare words require a lot of work sometimes. In any case, とる is “to take”, so つかさどる is naturally “to take the head position/office”. That will let you govern. Makes sense, yeah?

市長は市政を司る (The mayor governs the city.)
あの志の高い女の人国を司ろうと試みるつもりなんだ。 (That ambitious woman is going to try and rule the country.)

Word: 詔 (みことのり)
Meaning: Imperial decree
Origin: Man, all these old-fashioned words. What’s with that? In any case, the obscure word to know here is みこと, which can either mean “Lord / Your Highness; or, the spoken words of an emperor or noble. のる means to “get on or to join” (it’s a really versatile word, actually, like ひく, みる, とる, and all the other ending words here). An imperial decree is basically riding the words of the emperor, yeah?

Read all about 詔s here.


Or maybe this is just another way of saying that my origin story for this word is a little harder to believe…

Word: 滞る (とどこおる)
Meaning: To stagnate / to be delayed
Origin: The first thing that gave me a hint here was こおる, which is to freeze. Anytime I see a お following a kana with the same ending sound (そ, こ, ろ, と, も, etc.) in the middle of the word, I’m always like, “whoa, there”. 凍る is already enough to make this word work—the connection is obvious. Freezing? Stagnating? They’re practically synonyms.

But even more common is the word とど, Steller sea lion. This is like a classic Japanese 101 word. I probably should have put this in the beginner section, but well, it’s too late for that now. So imagine you have one of these northern sea lions delivering your goods to the polar bear kingdom in the north. They’re usually pretty reliable, but this time you lose contact.

“Oh, man. What happened to my Steller sea lion?”
“He’s probably fine,” your best friend and business partner says. “Or she. Did we ever check?”
“I hope she’s fine.”

Two weeks later the polar bear king gives you his good word. He got his floes, just like he asked. Turns out the Steller sea lion (とど) got frozen in some ice along the way to the north pole. Thankfully that shouldn’t be a problem in a couple of years.

あかちゃんの突然号泣だから二度寝が滞る。 (Because the baby suddenly started crying again, I couldn’t go right back to sleep.
魔物攻撃のために支払いが滞った。 (Because of the monster attack, my payment was delayed.)

Well, I hope you learned something. I certainly did. Good luck and try to incorporate these into your speech. Or if not that, at least try and see the connections between words.

All the best!

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