140. The "Grass" Radical: 艹 and 艸

The "grass" radical, 艹, is as graphically simple as can be. And yet, just as tall grass may hide such realities as slithering snakes, so too does the "grass" radical.

Snake in the Grass: Parent and Variant

The three-stroke 艹 is actually a variant of the outdated, six-stroke parent form 艸. In the past, 艸 appeared in characters instead of the simplified 艹. That is, whereas (1011: potato; sweet potato; taro; yam; tuber) is the modern form, the old style looked like this version from Richard Sears's page:

Seal-script version.

I must admit that the ancient shape looks much more plantlike than the rigidly linear 芋.

Nowadays, no one uses 艸 as a part of other kanji. It exists solely as the non-Joyo kanji 艸 (ソウ, くさ: grass, plants), which nobody uses either. Nevertheless, in the train station in Basel, Switzerland, a sign for a tea shop has the old form of the grass radical in the 茶 (ちゃ: tea) kanji:

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Furthermore, some dictionaries (e.g., Denshi Jisho) present 艸 (rather than 艹) as the radical of, say, 芝 (1335: lawn grass), as you can see here on the right side:

The tea shop sign is charming, but when it comes to dictionaries I feel that this adherence to the old ways sets kanji learners up for confusion. After all, the 艸 shape is not visible in 芝 or any other characters with the "grass" radical. To avoid this problem, Joy o' Kanji treats 艹 as the parent and 艸 as the variant. There's one other variant, as well: . It's not always electronically supported, so I've inserted an image here. Also, it may look indistinguishable from 艹, but this four-stroke variant actually consists of two plus signs, side by side.

Yomi of the Radical

You can call any version of the "grass" radical くさかんむり if the radical sits atop a kanji, as it almost always does. Otherwise, you can use the names くさ or そうこう. You might think that this くさ comes from the yomi of 艸. Instead, here's the way to write くさかんむり (or そうこう) in kanji:

草冠 (くさかんむり or そうこう: "grass" radical on top of a kanji)      grass + crown  

As it turns out, 草 (162: ソウ, くさ: grass, plants) has the same meaning and many of the same yomi as 艸. In fact, the Japanese have long used 草 in place of 艸 to mean "grass."

Grass and Water

Another peculiarity of the "grass" radical is that it pairs up with the "water" radical 氵 in at least 23 kanji (both Joyo and non-Joyo), including these Joyo examples:

落 (408: to fall)

藻 (1531: duckweed, seaweed)

薄 (1699: weak)

藩 (1721: feudal domain)

In all these cases, 艹 is the radical and 氵 is just a component. You can even tell that from the structure of the characters; the grass stretches out over the whole kanji, as if to assert its dominance, while the water plays a more subservient, supporting role, tucked underneath.

On the flip side, we find these two Joyo characters:

漢 (442: Chinese)

An all-important kanji in our study of 漢字!

(1700: desert; vague)

Both water and grass in a desert?!

In these instances, the water protrudes past the grass and serves as the radical.

Big Sun

Those two kanji, 漢 (442) and 漠 (1700), look alike, don't they?! if you take the latter one and remove the water, you produce a 莫 configuration that recurs inside several kanji with "grass" radicals:

墓 (788: grave, tomb)

幕 (977: curtain; (theater) act; shogunate)

模 (980: to copy)

募 (1787: campaign; to enlist)

(1788: to adore; admire)

(1789: to live; earn a livelihood; grow dark; come to an end)

膜 (1834: membrane)

Many kanji in this list have the on-yomi ボ, and we can thank 莫 for that on-echo.

Meanwhile, if we return to the other look-alike, 漢 (442: China), we can observe that it shares a prominent component with the following character:

嘆 (1566: to grieve)

The etymology of these right-hand sides is obscure, says Henshall, and they have no grass connection.

Ultimately, the takeaway from comparing 漢 (442: China) and 漠 (1700: desert) is to notice that although they do look quite similar, they actually belong to different families, where we can find other patterns (and a heap more confusion)! A snake in the grass indeed!

The Position of the "Grass" Radical

We've seen that the "grass" radical tends to lie at the top of a character. In fact, when it stretches across the crown, it's almost certain to be the radical:

茶 (171: tea)

薬 (398: medicine)

芽 (434: bud)

Conversely, when 艹 is tucked away inside a character, it does not function as the on-duty radical:

(1110: broad)

匿 (1664: to conceal)

墳 (1771: grave mound, tomb)

憤 (1772: indignation)

Similarly, when 艹 is shunted to the top right or top left of a kanji, it doesn't function as the radical:

備 (774: to equip)

You know this kanji from 準備 (じゅんび: preparation).

勤 (842: to be in the service of)

You're likely familiar with 勤める (つとめる: to work for, be employed at).

難 (949: difficult)

This helps to form 難しい (むずかしい: difficult).

(1259: hurried; flustered; panic)

諾 (1557: agreement)

(1651: tower; pagoda; monument)

(1652: boarding; loading (vehicle))

In two Joyo kanji, 艹 is so small that it's almost impossible to spot. Look for it (really hard!) in the upper left corner:

警 (847: to guard against, warn, admonish)

(1172: to be surprised)

You know this as 驚く (おどろく: to be surprised).

In both instances, the unit to consider isn't 艹 but rather 敬, a kanji in its own right:

敬 (846: respect)

Inside 敬, the 艹 probably has no real relation to grass; Henshall says it might have represented a "headdress made of sheep's horns"! In 警 and 驚, then, it's appropriate that we can barely spot the grass because there's nothing grassy about it. Furthermore, grass doesn't serve as the radical in either kanji. To put it another way, the grass is definitely greener in other kanji.

Where's the Plant Life?

Rather than considering the "grass" radical in characters as obviously connected to plants as 花 (9: flower) and 葉 (405: leaf), I find it far more compelling to see why grass would be growing in some unlikely kanji. I'm talking about the following Joyo characters for which all but one etymology has come from Henshall:

荷 (239: load, burden)

The kanji originally meant "lotus" but, in Japanese, it has grown far from that. The journey to "load, burden" is disputed.

芸 (470: art, craft, skill; to plant)

This character can mean "to plant"! I didn't know that! What's more, 木 (tree) appeared inside an early version of this kanji. According to Henshall, "planting a tree" was associated with "horticultural skill," which later became "skill" in general, then "artistic accomplishment."

若 (886: if; young)

The plant here has to do with a miscopying of another shape.

蒸 (904: steam)

Initially, the shape depicted "hands throwing brushwood on a fire." The "grass" radical represented "brushwood." Where there's fire, there's steam, or something like that. Actually, scholars don't know where the steam came from, as 蒸 contains no water, but someone may have mixed up its innards with 水 (water).

蔵 (923: to store; storehouse)

This shape originally referred to "concealing a wounded and incapacitated person with grass," which is to say "protecting them." So it's not just snakes that lie hidden in grass.

著 (937: author; literary work; conspicuous)

Many etymological theories exist. As one explanation has it, 著 first meant "variety of plants," which led to meanings involving "showiness" and "displays." It's possible that "writing a book" is one such display.

(1047: confection; cake; sweets)

"Plant, vegetation" (艹) + "fruit" (果) yields "fruit" again, says Henshall in his newer edition. In fact, 菓 may simply have been an expanded version of 果 in early Chinese. Henshall notes that nowadays the Japanese use 菓 to represent confections, not fruit.

荘 (1515: villa, dignified)

This character once represented a "place where grass is fertile but kept in order." Where would that happen but at a "country estate" or "villa"?!

(1579: to accumulate)

Henshall says in his newer edition that the 艹 represents "plants" and that the 畜 may have the extended sense "accumulate," yielding the overall meaning "accumulate vegetables (for winter)." He also cites a theory that the 畜 phonetically conveys "soak skeins in pot of dye," making 蓄 mean "accumulate (color from plant dyes)." By contrast, Kanjigen breaks down 蓄 as 艹 (grass) + the phonetic 畜 (enclose and keep an animal as livestock), saying that the latter component refers to vegetables that one stockpiles to make it through winter.

(1971: irritation; torment; bullying)

Kanjigen says this radical means "grass," and the 可 means "to be bent in the shape of an inverted uppercase L" or "one's voice becomes hoarse." Combining 艹 with 可 yields "the kind of plant that irritates one's throat," as well as "an act causing severe friction or stimulation."

Burying the Topic

One final note before we bury the topic of the "grass" radical. Let's consider a kanji where grass is so essential that it occurs twice:

葬 (1523: funeral; to bury)

The bottom component used to be 艸 and therefore represents "grass" just as much as the 艹 on top does. The middle part, 死, is "death" or "dead person." An ancient practice was to cover a corpse with grass, rather than interring it, so burying involves surrounding a dead person with grass, says Henshall.

The "grass" radical is often related to life and growth, but it can also be associated with death. A full-service radical, I would say!