RADICAL NOTES

44. The "Corpse" Radical: 尸

It's best not to be black and white about things, as there's almost always a gray area. But when it comes to being dead, you either are or you aren't, right?

Apparently it's not so simple in the kanji world! The non-Joyo kanji 尸 (シ, しかばね, かたしろ: corpse, remains) derives from the pictograph of a "slumped figure." (You can see the old forms on Sears's site.) When it serves as the "corpse" radical, 尸 can mean either "corpse" or "slumped figure." That is, 尸 represents a dead person or a living one! There's flexibility for you!

Before we explore these life-and-death matters, let's clear up some nomenclature. Here is the radical we're discussing:

尸 (しかばね: the “corpse” radical)

In addition to しかばね, the radical 尸 has two more names in Japanese: しかばねだれ and しかばねかんむり. As explained in Radical Terms in the section "Radical Positions," both -だれ and -かんむり indicate that the radical sits atop characters, while -だれ further implies that it slides down their left sides. Given its shape, 尸 (which has no variants and thus consistently looks like this) is always in a -だれ position, as in 展 (944: to expand). For that reason, -だれ strikes me as a more accurate position suffix than -かんむり.

As for English names, Nelson calls 尸 the "flag" radical. That matches its shape, but the nickname bears no relation to either the etymology or the current meaning of 尸, so I suggest that we ignore any mention of flags and think solely of corpses.

Two more notes up front:

  • Unless otherwise indicated, all etymologies below come from Henshall.
  • Be sure not to confuse 尸 with 戸. That's the "door" radical and is number 63 in the radical-numbering scheme. Someone may be as dead as a doornail, but there's otherwise no connection between corpses and doors.

High-Functioning "Corpses"

Let's look at a few characters in which 尸 means "corpse." In all cases, I think you'll be surprised to find a dead body!

尼 (1674: nun)

The corpse or "slumped figure" (尸) here represents an injured person. So does ヒ. Originally, 尼 meant "person too badly injured to move." Someone later decided that this kanji (which has an on-yomi of ニ) should phonetically represent the NI of bikuni (a Japanese rendering of the Sanskrit word for "priestess").

届 (948: to arrive, deliver, reach)

This 尸 again represents a sick or injured person, one moving along slowly (thanks to the meanings of the other components). According to some scholars, says Henshall, the sick or injured person will slowly but surely reach a destination, so 届 came to mean "arrive, reach."

居 (649: to exist)

What a shock to think that a corpse might lie within a kanji meaning "to exist"! In 居, the person is alive but is slumped. And 古 means "old," also acting phonetically here to express "crouch." A person in a crouched position is someone who stays in one place for a long time. That's more or less "residing" or "existing"!

All these injured, slumped, and somewhat immobilized people are doing pretty well for themselves!

Relaxing

There's nothing more relaxing than death. In yoga classes, we finish with Shavasana, Corpse Pose, also called Final Relaxation. (It's final in that it comes at the end of class, but I suppose we're also getting a preview of our "final" state!)

Henshall says that when 尸 means "slump," it can have the connotation of "relaxing." As far as I can tell, that meaning affects just one Joyo character:

屋 (236: shop, roof)

Henshall says this kanji represents a room where, having arrived, one can relax! Incidentally, Kanjigen offers a different etymological interpretation, arguing that the 尸 in 屋 symbolizes a "roof" covering the room in question.

Buttocks

Frequently, 尸 means "buttocks." Given where buttocks are on the human body, it may seem odd that "buttocks" would be positioned atop a character. However, if you picture a dog or horse, the location seems perfect.

In the following characters, 尸 represents "buttocks" or something nearby:

尾 (1734: tail)

"Buttocks" plus "hair" (210: 毛) equals "tail"! If I were creating a "tail" pictograph, I'm not sure I would put the hair under the buttocks, but never mind.

尿 (1675: urine)

Originally, the upper shape here wasn't 尸 but rather 尾, which meant "genitals." "Water" (水) from the "genitals" is "urine."

尻 (2035: buttocks, hips)

Kanjigen says this 九 represents a "person with a bent hand." It also stands for "tip, end." Both hands and buttocks are at the "end" of a human body. Given that this 尸 means "buttocks," we're more interested in the buttocks here than in the hands!

As for 屈 (1188: to bend), the essay on that contains two competing etymological theories. One interprets the 尸 as "hips," owing to associations with 尻 (buttocks) or 尾 (tail). According to the other theory, 尸 is a simplification of 尾 and represents the genitals, especially the testicles. There's more on that (including a bit about castration!) in the Etymology Box of that essay.

No Corpses Here

In several other kanji with the 尸 component, don't go digging for corpses because you won't find any! Here's the scoop on those characters:

局 (262: bureau; office)

This kanji has an obscure etymology and may relate to 尸 as "bending." I'm sure you've noticed that bureaucrats bend over backward to help you!

属 (744: to belong to)

The 尸 here is related to 尾 (tail). How fitting that there's a tail in a kanji meaning "to belong to"! It reminds me of the tail that belonged to Eeyore before Owl appropriated it as a doorbell pull.

尺 (884: Japanese foot, shaku)

This is a pictograph of an elbow stretching down to an extended fingertip, plus an outstretched hand. It has nothing to do with a corpse.

層 (921: stratum; social class)

The 尸 is a simplification of 屋 (which means "building" in this case, says Henshall).

尽 (1447: to exhaust)

The shape of this kanji has changed many times. The etymology bears no connection to 尸.

履 (1896: to fulfill; footwear)

The 尸 was added to the rest for both its sound and its associations with "inertia" or "lack of vitality."

Words with Two 尸s

Now that we understand this radical a bit better, all that remains is to look at a few words containing this shape twice—always a visually striking phenomenon:

尻尾 (しっぽ: tail (animal))     buttocks + tail

Although 尾 alone means "tail," someone thought it necessary to tack on 尾 (buttocks) for good measure! It's the opposite of the Eeyore story, in which Christopher Robin nailed a tail onto buttocks!

屋根屋 (やねや: roofer)     roof (1st 2 kanji) + business owner

Fun! A 屋 sandwich!

屁理屈 (へりくつ: quibbling)     passing gas + reasoning (last 2 kanji)

To know more about this word, including the non-Joyo kanji at its head, check out essay 1188 (屈). You may be surprised at what you discover about this term!

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