Though I hate thinking of languages as mysterious, I really wonder how the heck these words came about.
Tae Kim and Green Dragon Feet
This post was inspired by a post Tae Kim himself made on the facebook fan page for Tae Kim’s guide to Japanese. The post is all about how he can never remember the reading for the word 美人局. Any mid-to-high reader of Japanese can easily read all three kanji in other contexts, and would likely assume the reading to be びじんきょく. Department of Beauty / Beautiful People / Beautiful Women. Something like that.
The real reading? つつもたせ.
The real meaning? Badger game. Which I had never heard of. According to Wikipedia, apparently it’s: “an extortion scheme, often perpetrated on married men, in which the victim or “mark” is tricked into a compromising position to make him vulnerable to blackmail.”
In Japanese, the popular explanation of the word is that つつ is a slang term for a woman’s genitalia and もたせ comes from 持たせる, in this case to “let someone have something”. This explanation is crude, and moreover, groundless, but it’s all we got.
In any case, not only is the meaning a bit bizarre, and the kanji don’t give any obvious help, but the pronunciation is off the rocker.
It reminds me of a joke my friend had. He talked about going to a Japanese-learner-focused message board where everyone was asking about their favorite kanji. Everyone, it seemed, like a war of escalation, needs to show how odd their favorite kanji is. So naturally, someone brings up some obscure kanji as their favorite, the so-called “green dragon foot” kanji.
Why is there a kanji for green dragon foot? Who needed it?
Fact is, there ain’t. But sometimes, when you see words like these, you think it’s pretty plausible.
So, of course, like any language learner, you start to amass words that you like. Maybe the meaning is odd. A lot of people throw around words like 木漏れ日(こもれび) in Japanese as untranslatable. The light that shines through the trees. The kanji help with the pronunciation, but probably most people would think きもれび or something at first glance. Indeed, words like this check all the boxes.
But, everyone knows 木漏れ日. So, let’s dig deeper.
Here are some of the odd words that, like 木漏れ日 or 美人局, gave me a little confusion when I first encountered them.
漢字（ひらがな） – My understanding of the word at first glance? The actual meaning of the word.
- 輪廻（りんね） – The spinning ring? The Buddhist “Samsara”, or the endless cycle of life and rebirth.
- 杜撰（ずさん） – Choosing the woods? A careless or sloppy person, especially in the case of an author who makes many mistakes or uses unsupported references.
- 蔓延る（はびこる） – To extend the tendrils? To run rampant and become powerful.
- 柵（しがらみ） – Fence (because with the pronunciation of さく, it does mean fence)? Ties of obligation to something.
- 漢（おとこ） – Han dynasty? A man amongst men.
Seriously, can Japanese stop using different pronunciations for the same Kanji. I’m not talking about 食べる（たべる） and 食う（くう）. I’m talking about 避ける（よける） and 避ける（さける）. Or 行って（いって） and 行って（おこなって）. I guess context is everything.
- 善処（ぜんしょ） – The good place? Using discretion.
- 棒読み（ぼうよみ） – Reading a stick? Reading something in monotone, or talking in a way that’s clearly putting on an act.
- 売春（ばいしゅん） – Selling spring? Prostitution.
- 傾城（けいせい） – Leaning castle? Beautiful woman… or prostitute.
- 遊女（ゆうじょ） – Woman having fun? Prostitute.
I could go on, but I think you’ll have to trust me that pretty much all the words relating to prostitution are somewhat odd. Makes sense. Taboo topics often require lots of words to work around. We certainly have our fair share of those words and phrases in English.
- 憑代（よりしろ） – To possess a generation? Object representative of a divine spirit, or just an object that a spirit is drawn to.
- 自画自讃（じがじさん） – My picture, my praise? To sing one’s own praises.
- 自業自得（じごうじとく） – My business, my acquisition? To get what’s coming to you.
- 我武者羅（がむしゃら） – I’m a warrior person…silk? Reckless.
I suppose most 四字熟語 are going to be weird, since half of them came from China. It’s a little unfair, I suppose.
Okay, how about words that you see all the time?
- 田舎（いなか） – Rice field house? The countryside, esp. any part of Japan that isn’t Tokyo or Osaka.
- 合羽（かっぱ） – Wings coming together? A raincoat.
- 台詞（せりふ） – A platform for poetry? Someone’s common (catch)phrases.
At least that last one is often written in katakana. I’ll give it a pass.
Unfortunately, there really doesn’t exist much in the way of “green dragon foot” odd kanji. Most of them, even if they have a weird usage, have a pretty plain meaning. I mean, I don’t think you really need 力, 剛, and 毅 to all mean roughly “strength”, but I’ll take variety. Variety’s cool.
. . .
Well, that’s what I got from searching through the word’s I’d catalogued in my dictionary or remembered on the spot.
Is there any words I’ve forgotten? Please, enlighten me.