135. The "Tongue" Radical: 舌

Though one sees tongues everywhere—in humans, in dogs and cats, and even in sneakers—the "tongue" radical 舌 is on duty in just one Joyo kanji:

舌 (732: tongue; words)

This six-stroke radical, which has no variant shapes, takes the English name "tongue" from the main definition of this kanji. Similarly, the Japanese radical name した matches the Joyo kun-yomi of this character.

The name したへん works when the on-duty 舌 radical is on the left side, but that's never the case in a Joyo kanji, only in a non-Joyo character such as 舐 (lick).

Although 舌 occupies the left side of the following characters, the right-hand component is on duty:

辞 (500: to resign; decline; leave; word)

乱 (989: confusion; disturbance; random; reckless)

I wondered (strangely, for the first time) whether a Japanese person would still refer to the 舌 in 辞 and 乱 as したへん, even though 舌 isn't on duty. And I learned that indeed, laypeople would likely do so, though that's technically incorrect.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

When my dog Masala saw a cardiologist, I needed to hold her still for an echocardiogram, so a vet tech restrained my other dog Chai by holding her leash. As I intently watched splashes of blue and red on a screen, I did not realize that at some point the brave young woman had picked Chai up, though she never permits such behavior. How happy I was to turn around and see the two of them together like that! Their hair even matched!

Like many chihuahuas, Chai suffered from dental problems and had almost all her teeth removed. Now her tongue tends to slip out the side of her mouth, as you can see here.

The Meaning of 舌

Henshall provides these etymological interpretations of 舌 in his newer edition:

• One expert sees the 口 as "mouth" and the 干 (originally "forked weapon," now "dry") as phonetically conveying "include. " If so, 舌 meant "contained in mouth," which is to say "tongue."

• Another researcher sees early forms of 舌 as combining 口 (mouth) with another component representing the "tongue" itself. Accompanying strokes may have depicted "saliva." Ick!