123. The "Sheep" Radical: 羊

I think of a sheep as a straightforward animal. What you see is pretty much what you get. In the same way, the six-stroke "sheep" radical 羊 offers few complications.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Names of the "Sheep" Radical

In English there are no variations on the name of the "sheep" radical. Japanese, by contrast, offers two names. 

In general, we can refer to the 羊 radical as ひつじ. This corresponds to the kun-yomi of the autonomous sheep kanji:

羊 (986: sheep)

Henshall calls this shape a stylized pictograph of a "sheep's head and horns." 


Photo Credits: Eve Kushner

At a sheep farm in the Rokko Mountains above Kobe, the gorgeous dog Lucy (well, ルーシー!) has a sign identifying her as a sheepdog:

牧羊犬 (ぼくようけん: sheepdog)     to herd + sheep + dog

The first kanji has a "cow" radical, 牛, and the last one means "dog." Thus, this short word contains three types of animals!

The "Sheep" Radical on the Left

If the sheep shifts to the left side of a character, we can use the term ひつじへん, but this happens only in non-Joyo kanji. Here's an example:

羚 (レイ: antelope)

I am sharing this with you not only to show how the radical grows thin and curved on the left but also because it amuses me to find a sheep inside an antelope! By the way, the full word for "antelope" is as follows:

羚羊 (れいよう: antelope; かもしか: (Japanese) serow)

Now we have two sheep in an antelope!

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The left side of a kanji may look different from the right. Same goes for a half-shorn sheep.

Sheep on Top    
When the sheep clambers on top of a character, the shape of the radical changes again, becoming 

(2031: to be shy; feel ashamed)

It makes sense to me that a sheep would be associated with being sheepish, but that's not the etymology at all! Kanjigen says that the radical here means "lamb (meat)" and that because this 丑 means "clasped hand," this meat is being "strained finely by hand."

(2045: envious, jealous; to covet)

Kanjigen says that this 羊 means "delicious food" or "good thing." Another source agrees that it means "feast" and then adds this: "Why a sheep? The 羊 (sheep) was said to be a sacrifice to god in ancient times. Thus, in a kanji context, 羊 (sheep) came to be used as a symbol for 'god.' A big, well-formed sheep was chosen for a sacrifice. The 羊 then came to mean 'being beautiful' or 'being good.'"

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Sheep shame at not fitting in with the others.


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When sheep are on top, they rule the roost.

More Sheep on Top

A sheep is again on top in the next two examples, though that may be hard to see in the first case:

美 (376: beautiful)    

This etymology is similar to the last one. Henshall says that 美 combines "sheep" and "big" (大) and that a big, fat sheep was highly prized and desirable. Its desirable appearance eventually led 美 to take on the broader meaning of "beautiful."

義 (645: righteousness, justice; faith; meaning; -in-law)

This character combines "sheep" and "self" (我). The etymology is unclear, so Henshall offers three theories. In one the "sheep" radical means "praiseworthy," in another this animal is slaughtered, and in the third the shape contributes only sound.   

We find the same shape atop the next kanji:

着 (343: to wear; arrive)

Up till now, I have presented only kanji in which the 羊 radical is on duty. When it comes to 着, sources disagree. Halpern, Kanjigen, and Denshi Jisho say the "sheep" radical is on duty, whereas Nelson sees it as a mere component. He classifies 着 under radical 109, 目, the "eye" radical. The Joy o' Kanji database reflects Nelson's classification. In any case, this kanji etymologically has nothing to do with sheep because, according to Kanjigen, its original shape was 著, which consists of 艹 (grass) + the sound component 者 (to gather), meaning "to gather in one place."

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The name of this salon contains two back-to-back sheep! Clearly, beauty relies heavily on sheep. The kanji break down as follows:

久美 (くみ: woman's given name)
美容室 (びようしつ: beauty salon)


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In Tahiti, a Chinese temple called 信義堂 (Hall of Loyalty) features 義 in the middle of its name. In Japanese, 信義 (しんぎ) means “loyalty,” and -堂 (-どう) is a suffix meaning “temple, shrine, hall.”

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A sheep eye is quite complicated. No wonder 着 presents us with some problems!

Sheep on the Right of a Character

Sheep really move around! It's also possible to find 羊 on the right side of a character:

群 (657: flock, group, crowd, herd, swarm, cluster)    

To refer to a flock of sheep, you can use this kanji in either of the following phrases:

一群の羊 (いちぐんのひつじ: flock of sheep)     1 + flock + sheep    
羊の群れ (ひつじのむれ: flock of sheep)     sheep + flock    

In each expression we again see two sheep! Despite the predominance of sheep, 群 can also refer to a swarm of bees, a flock of sparrows, a group of monkeys, and more. Whatever the application, it becomes apparent that the "sheep" radical is a good choice here because sheep have a distinctive "groupiness." In fact, Henshall says that 群 originally referred to "herding sheep" but then came to represent "group of animals."

The Japanese now use 群 for humans, as well, he says. And that sounds just right to me. After all, English speakers deride "sheeple" for their groupthink!

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

On Shodoshima, an island in the Inland Sea, a park full of monkeys has a sign referring to two big groups. A群 (エーぐん) contains about (約, やく) 300 "heads" (頭, pronounced トウ when it is a counter for monkeys), whereas B群 (ビーぐん) has about 200.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Groupiness means following the flock.