RADICAL NOTES

124. The "Feather" Radical: 羽

The "feather" radical 羽 has really taken wing! Although it's the on-duty radical in just six Joyo kanji, 羽 has migrated to four positions in those characters. Its Japanese name changes accordingly.

What Are the Positions and Names of the "Feather" Radical 羽? 

This kanji doubles as the radical in question:

羽 (812: feather; wing; counter for birds or rabbits; "feather" radical) 

The Joyo kun-yomi of 羽 is はね, so that's the origin of the name はね for the 羽 radical. Actually, we also see the origin of the English radical names here; people call 羽 both the "feather" radical and the "wing" radical. 

We can continue to call the radical はね when it sinks to the bottom of a character or moves to the right side:

(1037: elderly man; honorific title for a great man)

(1826: to flutter; overturn; change representation)

However, when 羽 rises to the top, the radical name becomes はねかんむり (羽冠):

習 (307: to learn; custom)

翌 (988: next)

翼 (1885: wing)

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

A yakitori restaurant in Bangkok offers 手羽先 (てばさき: chicken wings). I like the look of 羽 in the sign. Here are the other words, from left to right:

ぎんなん (銀杏: ginkgo nut)

炭火黒焼 (すみびくろやき: charcoal-blackened yakitori)

もも (腿: chicken thigh)

タレ (垂れ: sauce)

塩 (しお: salt)

ハツ ((chicken) heart)

A few notes: The gingko nuts are grilled. Both 杏 and 腿 are non-Joyo, and people seldom write 垂れ with kanji. Customers have a choice of sauce versus salt. The sauce is mainly made from soy sauce, mirin (a sweet saké for cooking), saké, and sugar. As to the ハツ, people usually render “heart” as
ハート, but in the yakitori realm the rendering is ハツ. 

Why Are These Kanji Winged?

The 羽 character is the pictograph of a "bird's wings," so it's obvious why 羽 (812: feather; wing; counter for birds or rabbits; "feather" radical) means what it does (except perhaps for the rabbit part!). Similarly, it's not surprising that 翼 (1885) means "wing," given what's on top. But what about the other four kanji? Let's look at Henshall's etymologies:

習 (307: to learn; custom)

The etymology is somewhat obscure but because the bottom part phonetically expressed "repeat" in the past, the whole character once represented a "repeated (flapping of the) wings." This referred to a fledgling's learning to fly. Henshall doesn't say more about how 習 came to mean what it did, but both learning and customs involve a great deal of repetition. I love thinking that students and members of a culture figuratively keep flapping their wings until they learn something crucial!

翌 (988: next)

This character combines "wings" on top with "to stand, rise, leave" on the bottom. The 立 acts phonetically here to express "to fly" while lending the idea of "rise and leave." Originally, 翌 referred to a "bird flying off." The current meaning, "next," is borrowed, so the etymology is irrelevant, except that I anticipated that 羽 would appear in at least one kanji about taking wing, and 翌 used to mean that.

(1037: elderly man; honorific title for a great man)

The top part, 公, means "public," acting phonetically here to express "head." So 翁 "originally referred to the (soft) plumage on either side of a hawk's head." One theory is that people applied 翁 "by association to whiskered old men and/or those who had gone bald on top of the head and had hair left only on the sides"!

翻 (1826: to flutter; overturn; change representation)

The 番 ("number, turn") acts phonetically here to express "reverse, change" and lends connotations of "in turn, sequence." Thus, 翻 once represented "to change the wings in turn (in flight)," which is to say "flap." That meaning later broadened to "flap, flutter, change."

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that 羽 appears in an extremely common kanji in which it is a mere component:

曜 (216: day of the week)

This character combines 日 (sun) and 隹 (bird) with 羽 (wings), says Henshall, noting that these parts combine to mean "sun winging like a bird, giving the passing of a day." 

Note that the 羽 shapes have turned into ヨ shapes in 曜. But they were originally 羽 and still are in the Chinese version of the character.

Photo Credit: Lutlam

We need to read the kanji on this cemetery monument from right to left, but how?! It's not easy to recognize the characters, as they're in seal script. Here are the modern versions:

石垣翁
Stone monument for the great Mr. Ishigaki

石垣 (いしがき: surname); 翁 (おう: elderly
great man); 碑 (ひ: inscribed stone monument)

The Japanese often use –翁 (-おう) as an honorific title for elderly great figures, so the 翁 here doesn't just refer to his age.

Look at the shape of the 羽 in the 翁 on the monument. There used to be more feathers in those wings. Just as men go bald, wings seem to lose feathers, at least in the kanji world!

While we're discussing the shape of 羽, I'd like to mention that this radical has a variant—namely, the part of the non-Joyo 栩 (type of oak) that lies to the right of 木.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

This sign is for a dental practice in Osaka with unusual hours. I glanced at the 午後9時 line several times without taking in what it's saying. Most businesses open at 9 a.m., so that's initially how I read it, but actually the 夜間 (やかん: nighttime) hours are from 午後9時 (ごごくじ: 9 p.m.) to 午前3時 (ごぜんさんじ: 3 a.m.) the 翌- (よく-: next) morning. That's appropriate because this is an emergency (緊急, きんきゅう) clinic. But what if there's a dental emergency between 3 and 9 in the morning?.

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