JOK Notebook

Taking Wing

I appeared on an NBC talk show this week! I'm told that the interview went well, but I'm frustrated with one of my answers. When the host asked why people are so attracted to kanji, I told him about the importance of being able to read signs in Japan, completely forgetting to mention my favorite aspect—namely, compounds!

In separate news, I came across 羽 this week in two very cool contexts. One is in the new essay 1080 on 嚇 (threat; intimidation) in this sentence:

His threat got me to start studying seriously.

彼 (かれ: he); 嚇す (おどす: to threaten); 私 (わたし: I, me); 本気 (ほんき: serious); 勉強 (べんきょう: studying); はめ (破目 or 羽目: undesirable situation or result)

Well, 羽 isn't in the sentence itself, only in the vocabulary in the second rendering of はめ (undesirable situation or result). 

As to why 羽目, wing + eye, translates as "undesirable situation or result," this term is ateji, so we need to disregard the meanings of each kanji. Daijisen and Nihon Kokugo Dai-Jiten say that the word comes from はめる (to fit in). The 破目 rendering is ateji, too.

I know I also spotted a terrific expression for "taking wing," but I failed to jot it down, so that leaves me as frustrated as my omission in the TV taping.

In an unsuccessful attempt to find the "taking wing" term, I browsed all of Breen's 羽 compounds, still having no luck. But instead of feeling even more annoyed, I delighted in many 羽 concoctions. The only damper on the delight was seeing how well they captured all the magic I didn't mention on TV! 

I'll share the best 羽 compounds with you in two quizzes.

Quick Quiz 1

To make the first quiz more challenging, I'll omit breakdowns for the time being! Match the kanji with the definitions of these verbs:

1. 羽を畳む (はねをたたむ)     a. to spread one's wings
2. 羽を広げる (はねをひろげる)  b. to let one's hair down
3. 羽を伸ばす (はねをのばす) c. to be chosen
4. 白羽の矢が立つ (しらはのやがたつ)  d. to fold one's wings 

I'll block the answers with a preview of essay 1080:

Okay, here we go.

1.d.  羽を畳む (はねをたたむ: wings + to fold) means "to fold one's wings." You may recognize 畳 from 畳 (たたみ: tatami (mat)), an object that folds up as neatly as wings do! The phrase 羽を畳む is just about birds, not about, say, giving up or withdrawing conversationally. That's too bad.

2.a. 羽を広げる (はねをひろげる: wings + to spread) means "to spread one's wings." Again, this is just for the birds.

3.b. 羽を伸ばす (はねをのばす: wings + to stretch) means "to let one's hair down; have fun after a period of work or stress." Look what a difference it makes when you "spread" your wings versus "stretch" them! 

4.c. 白羽の矢が立つ (しらはのやがたつ: white + feather + arrow + to be erected) means "to be chosen." Note that 羽 here means "feather," not "wing." 

According to Digital Daijisen, this phrase comes from an old belief; when a god wanted a girl to be sacrificed, the deity would plant an arrow with white feathers straight up in the roof of her house. How unexpected that such a pure-looking object would carry that ominous a meaning! It's also unexpected that I blogged about this phrase exactly two years ago.

Well, that was fun! Let's do another quiz!

Quick Quiz 2

Paying attention to the breakdowns, match the kanji with the definitions:

1. 手羽元 (てばもと)     hand + wing + base, root a. chicken drumette 
2. 羽振り (はぶり)     wing + style b. influence; power
3. 羽繕い (はづくろい)     wings + mending  c. preening    
4.  尾羽打ち枯らす (おはうちからす)    tail + feathers + emphatic auxiliary verb + to wither d. to be in a miserable state

Here we go:

1.a. 手羽元 (てばもと: hand + wing + base, root) means "first segment of chicken wing; drumette." This contrasts with the following term:

手羽先 (てばさき: (tip section of) chicken wing; second segment of chicken wing)      hand + wing + tip

2.b. 羽振り (はぶり: wing + style) means "influence; power." Well, that's the secondary meaning. The first definition is "plumage." People usually use 羽振り in the expression 羽振りがいい (influential; powerful; popular; prosperous).

3.c. 羽繕い (はづくろい: wings + mending) means "preening"! When a bird preens, it's like mending its wings?! How wonderful!

4.d. 尾羽打ち枯らす or 尾羽うち枯らす (おはうちからす: tail + feathers + emphatic auxiliary verb + to wither) means "to be in a miserable state; be down and out." Dictionaries say that even the magnificent eagle appears miserable when its feathers and tail are damaged, so this expression refers to a person who looks as if he or she has seen much better days. 

A Few Final Flaps

Before closing, I want to share two more great terms, starting with this one:

羽風 (はかぜ: breeze caused by wings flapping)     wings + wind

I don't believe I've ever felt or heard such a phenomenon, but I would enjoy that!

Here's the other word:

羽翼 (うよく: wings; assistance)     wing + wing

The second kanji also means "wing"! To understand this term, you need to know that in both China and Japan, bureaucrats assisting the emperor are often called “right” and “left” (as in "right-hand man"). So help from both sides is help from both "wings."

Remember the song "Wind Beneath My Wings"? I'm sure you wished I hadn't mentioned that!

The dense 翼 kanji consists of 羽 on top plus 異 on the bottom. So we have four wings (羽) in this word! It has really taken wing!

Have a great weekend!


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