18. The "Sword" Radical: 刀, 刂, and 刁
You might not think it would be easy to have a sword escape notice, but it does happen. Some of the most common kanji contain a full sword, 刀 (a radical known as かたな), or its sliver of a variant,刂 (called りっとう). By the way, 刁 is also supposed to be a variant of 刀. However, as far as I can tell, the radical 刁 appears only in the non-Joyo kanji 刁 (チョウ: crafty, cunning), so let's ignore this second variant.
Swords That One Easily Overlooks in Kanji
Even though 刀 and 刂 pop up in so many characters, these shapes rarely announce themselves as swords. Take, for instance, these kanji, each of which has a dominant 刀:
切 (156: to cut)
分 (199: to divide; part; minute)
初 (507: first; beginning)
Although 切 and 分 respectively contain seven (七) and eight (八) swords, I still somehow tend to overlook them! (Actually, the 八 in 分 means "to split," not "eight." But the 七 in 切 really does mean "seven"!)
And then there are these two ultra-common kanji:
前 (159: before)
別 (579: separate; another)
Do these characters ever make you think of a sword? In both cases, the etymology is convoluted; the one for 前 involves making progress with a cutting tool, whereas the sword in 別 cuts through a bone, which leads to a chain of extended meanings.
Even if the back stories made perfect sense to me, I still wouldn't or couldn't see the swords in these characters. They're so commonplace that I can't help viewing them holistically. When I started learning kanji and spent oodles of time on component analysis, I most likely noticed the weaponry on display. Now, though, it takes me by surprise.
Photo Credit: Kenji Ishihara
Of course, there are cases in which the 刂 is simply a miscopying or simplification of another shape and has nothing whatever to do with a sword. That's true in these kanji:
帰 (96: to return)
到 (1641: to arrive; attain; reach; extreme; prevail)
倒 (1643: to topple, fall, collapse)
At other times, the characters are so obviously related to swords or knives that when I gaze at the shape, I do catch the glint of a blade:
刀 (181: knife, sword; single-edged sword)
刈 (1092: to clip)
剣 (1214: sword; double-edged sword)
刃 (1446: blade)
Etymology of Kanji with Swords
On many occasions, spotting a sword makes my head spin with questions about the etymology. Because so many characters have swords in their hilts (so to speak), I can't present all of their etymologies here, but here are several (all from Henshall):
列 (414: row, line)
This combination of "denuded bone" and "to cut" originally referred to butchery.
利 (596: advantage; profit)
Reaping a harvest led to profit. Incidentally, this kanji can mean "sharp," either abstractly (e.g., a keen mind) or literally (as we'll see in a moment).
制 (722: system; control)
The left-hand side once looked different, representing a "many-branched tree." Thus, this character meant "to prune a tree," which is a way of "putting things in order" or "controlling" them. This extends, logically enough, to "system." Ah, a kanji about becoming organized! Be still my Virgo heart!
判 (769: to judge)
Half (半) a sword? No, this kanji is about cutting something in two, which is to say "dissect." That later expanded to mean "analyze, judge."
刑 (1193: penalty, punishment)
"Punishment" conjures up images of the harshest possible sentence, and I'm afraid to find out if 刑 has anything to do with beheading, but ... Yes, it does! Eek! Henshall says this kanji initially meant "to injure someone with a sword," evolving to mean "cutting with a sword by way of punishment." Then the general definition of "punishment" replaced the sword-specific ones. Whew.
Japanese Words with Multiple Swords
With swords popping up all over the place, I can't help wondering if any Japanese words contain two swords. I found one with three!
剪刀 (はさみ or せんとう: scissors) to cut + knife
People usually write this word in hiragana. The first kanji is non-Joyo.
Photo Credit: Lutlam
As for other s(words)—that is, words with multiple swords!—I've dug up these:
剃刀 (かみそり: razor) to shave + knife
The first kanji in this common word is non-Joyo.
刀剣 (とうけん: sword, dagger, knife) single-edged sword + double-edged sword
This is a generic way of referring to a sword without specifying much about it, as explained in essay 1214 (剣).
刀刃 (とうじん: sword blade) sword + blade
Amazing-looking word, isn't it?
剣劇 (けんげき: sword play; samurai drama) sword + drama
This word also appears in essay 1214 on 剣.
刺刀 (さすが: dagger) to stab + sword
This is an archaic word.
利刀 (りとう: sharp sword) sharp + sword
This list is by no means exhaustive, but even from this small sample, I conclude that when a word contains two swords, the cutting or stabbing agenda becomes much more obvious. The sword comes out of the hilt, and the "games" begin.