JOK Notebook

All-Hands Meeting

My husband and I frequent an Indian restaurant in San Francisco, not just because the korma is heaven-sent, and not just because the naans are fluffy and scrumptious. We also enjoy the quirkiness of the server.

One time he emerged from the back to take our order and held up both hands as though he'd never seen them before. "I've been looking at my hands," he said very slowly, "and I noticed that the right one is larger than the left." He turned them upside down, then right-side up, then upside down, as if the three of us had no purpose other than to consider his hands.

He finally got around to taking our order. (I may have redirected him with a "So, anyway ....") When he later arrived with the food, I exclaimed, "Oh my god, your hands aren't the same size!"

Apparently, it didn't cross his mind that I was teasing. He put down the dishes, returned to staring at his hands, and said a bit forlornly, "Yes, I've been thinking the same thing. The right one is definitely bigger than the left." He continued to stand there, and my husband and I struggled not to laugh, though we did plenty of that later.

Many kanji lately have made me think about hands and fingers. For instance, I came across this word:

人差し指 (ひとさしゆび: forefinger; index finger)     person + pointing + finger

The breakdown suggests that people use the forefinger to point at other people. And yet that's a big no-no in Japan. Could the breakdown instead mean that a person's finger is useful for pointing? No, that would mean that 人 would precede the Japanese names of all the fingers, which isn't true.

I checked with my proofreader, and his sources unanimously say that 人差し指 means “the finger for pointing at other people.” In the past, he muses, pointing at others must not have been as much of a taboo in Japan.

Photo Credit: Andrea Schaffer

Hotei, god of happiness at Jochi-Ji Temple in Kita-Kamakura.

That middle kanji, 差, is actually very confusing. It can also mean "measuring." Primarily, 差 means "difference, discrepancy, inequality." Quite a range! In fact, Denshi Jisho lists 16 meanings for 差す! (Notably, "to point" is not one of them. However, my proofreader says that 差 can definitely have that meaning in certain contexts.)

Theories abound as to how the shape evolved and how  came to mean what it does. Henshall offers several ideas, two of which involve hands. Some scholars feel that 差 involved an unequal comparison between the left hand and the right, with the left (左) proving to be stronger. Others feel that 差 relates to the uneven length of fingers on a hand, with this kanji later coming to mean "unevenness" and "difference" in general.

Oh, why does this make me crave chicken korma and naan?!

Because 差 and 指 can both have the kun-yomi of さ(す), they can substitute for one another in a phrase that people write in various ways:

指を指す (ゆびをさす: to point at)     finger + to point
指を差す (ゆびをさす: to point at)     finger + to point
指をさす (ゆびをさす: to point at)     finger + to point
さす (ゆびさす: to point at)            finger + to point

The Japanese prefer options 2 through 4, says my proofreader, probably because the repetition of 指 looks awkward to a Japanese eye. But when you can write an intelligible phrase such as 指を指す and have the kanji mean different things (while featuring different yomi), I can't see why anyone would want to avoid option 1! It's downright amazing that the same kanji can act on itself in this way!

Here's another reason I've been thinking so much about hands and fingers—they make me uncomfortable! Well, I mainly mean that this compound evokes that feeling:

指摘 (してき: pointing out; identification)
     to point out + to point out (a person's mistakes); expose

I've been writing an essay on 摘 (to pick, pinch, pluck), and I've found that in addition to picking strawberries or flowers with 指, people also use this kanji for nitpicking! Just check out sample sentences with 指摘 and tell me that you feel at ease:

彼女は私が犯した誤りを指摘した。
She pointed out the mistakes I had made.

彼女 (かのじょ: she); 私* (わたし: I); 犯す (おかす: to commit); 誤り* (あやまり: mistake)

彼は率直に私の欠点を指摘した
He frankly pointed out my faults.

彼 (かれ: he); 率直 (そっちょく: frankness); 欠点 (けってん: faults, defects)

私は誤りを指摘されて決まり悪い思いをした。
I was abashed when my mistakes were pointed out.

決まり悪い (きまりわるい: feeling awkward; being ashamed); 思い (おもい: feelings)

It seems as if "picking" has turned into "picking on others" or "picking a fight"!

Clearly, the negativity here emanates from 摘, but what about 指, which originally meant "hand" and expanded to mean "point"? As I think about the sentences we just saw, I imagine a witch's gnarled finger, pointing at someone with an intention to maim! ("I'll get you, my pretty," and all that!)

Halpern says that 指 primarily means "finger, to point, point out; to direct, instruct." Then he supplies some final definitions: "to appoint, nominate; accuse." Wow, that deteriorated in a hurry!

Etymologically, 指 combines 扌 ("hand") with 旨 ("good," according to Henshall). What's more, this 旨 phonetically expresses "branch," says Henshall. The branches of the hand are fingers! I've never once thought of them as branchlike, but I suppose they are!

Henshall can assert that this hand contains "goodness," but I need to see it in action to be convinced. Well, I needn't look far. Consider this word:

指導者 (しどうしゃ: leader, mentor, coach)     to point + guidance + person

A leader is someone who "points" the way! I like that! This word has the following one at its root:

指導 (しどう: guidance, leading, instructing)     to point + guidance

What's going on with 導? It's as if someone lost control and couldn't stop drawing this kanji, squiggling in the "movement" radical (辶) on the left as a flourish and then adding 寸 for good measure! Henshall says that this 寸 means "hand, measure," which is to say "careful use of the hand." (Everything comes back to the hand!) And 道 means "road, way." So 導 means "to lead someone carefully along the road by hand." That eventually broadened to mean "lead, guide." What a pleasant feeling these images give me—so much nicer than being pointed to and exposed!

As it happens, I've found another hand-related word that makes me smile:

指図 (さしず: directions)     to point + map

One points to a map while discussing directions! 

The breakdowns of two more 指 terms are also fun because they suggest entirely the wrong meaning:

目指す (めざす)

The kanji combination makes it seem like someone is sticking a finger in an eye (目), but no!

指数 (しすう)

It seems like this word refers to the number (数) of fingers on a hand, but that's not right either.

While you mull over what these might mean, I'll give a sneak preview of today's new essay:

Okay, give up? Here are the two words again, along with definitions:

目指す (めざす: to aim for, have an eye on)     looking + to aim at

指数 (しすう: index (number); exponent)     to indicate + number

The first one is the root of this term:

頂上を目指す (ちょうじょうをめざす: to set out for the summit)     summit + top + to aim for (last 2 kanji)

Yes, climb every mountain! That's very positive indeed!

Have a great weekend! Oh, and be sure to check out a great article about Joy o' Kanji! David Jacobson of Chin Music Press interviewed me and wrote a terrific review of the project. I'm very grateful to him. In fact, let's all give him a hand! 

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