RADICAL NOTES

172. The "Old Bird" Radical: 隹

The radical name "old bird" conjures up the image of an aging winged creature who feels too creaky to leave the nest. That's poignant perhaps—but wrong. 

In addition to being a radical, 隹 is a non-Joyo kanji read as スイ and とり. Kanjigen calls it a pictograph of a "short-tailed bird" and says it means "bird," though no one uses it as an actual kanji.

The same source indicates that the “old bird” radical 隹 is called that because it appears at the heart of 舊, the former, non-Joyo variant shape of 旧 (648: old, former). Thus, 隹 is the "bird" radical in a kanji for "old," not an animal getting on in years.

The radical name ふるとり mirrors this logic; the ふる (古) means "old," and the とり (鳥) means "bird." 

Alternate English names for the 隹 radical include "small bird" and just "bird," but let's stick with "old bird."

A Gathering of Birds

This sign is for a Tokyo coffee and tea shop named 集 (しゅう: gather):

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Together the non-Joyo characters 珈琲 serve as an ateji rendering of コーヒー (coffee). In the Meiji period (1868–1912), people wrote the word as 珈琲. The 茶館 (さかん) means "tea shop."

Though the proprietors likely want just humans to gather there, the name 集 etymologically alludes to avian gatherings. That is, according to Henshall in his newer edition (the source of all etymological information in this Radical Note), the traditional form of 集 included three birds on one tree (木) and therefore meant "collect, gather." The contemporary shape showcases only one bird.

More on 隹 Versus 鳥

Unlike Kanjigen, Nelson says that the name "old bird" distinguishes 隹 from 鳥 (radical 196) which is called とり in Japanese and "bird" in English. But that makes no sense; why would 隹 be any older than 鳥?

Actually, with regard to the following kanji, it is instead 鳥 that is older than 隹:

難 (949: difficult; disaster; fault)

That is, Henshall says that some early forms of this character featured 鳥 on the right, not 隹. He comments that "the identity of the bird is not known"! I'm not sure what he means, but I'm tickled! He also calls the current meanings of 難 loan usages.

Similarly, he says that the 隹 in the next character is a stand-in for 鳥:

雅 (1057: elegance; refinement)

There is "no doubt" that 雅 is a variant rendering of the non-Joyo 鴉 (からす: crow), says Henshall, noting that the 牙 (tusk) phonetic in either version of the character provides the sound of a crow's cawing! At some point, he adds, the Chinese borrowed 雅 for its sound to represent another word meaning "elegant, refined," and those have become the main meanings of 雅.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

In Frankfurt, Germany, an impressively multilingual sign includes 難 in this warning:

盗難にご注意!
Watch out for theft!

盗難 (とうなん: theft);
注意 (ちゅうい: attention)

The Joyo Kanji Featuring an On-Duty 隹 Radical

It's kind of a shame that the non-Joyo 舊 is the reference point for the radical name when nine Joyo kanji feature 隹 as an on-duty radical. We've already encountered these:

集 (309: to gather)

難 (949: difficult; disaster; fault)

雅 (1057: elegance; refinement)

Our eight-stroke radical is always easily discernible because it has no variant shapes. You can see that, as well, in the other six kanji with this radical on duty:

雑 (687: miscellaneous; mixed; disorderly; coarse)

雇 (1232: to employ)

雌 (1323: female)

隻 (1483: one of a pair; counter for ships)

雄 (1869: male; magnificent)

離 (1897: separate; distant)

If for some reason these nine kanji weren't good enough as a basis for the name of the 隹 radical, someone should have chosen the non-Joyo 讐 (revenge). What a kanji! Two birds (隹) sit on a word (言)! Perhaps these are the two proverbial birds who were killed with one stone and who now have something to say about it! No, of course that's not the real etymology. According to one online source, the top represents "two birds facing each other." And the whole character symbolizes a judicial decision to imprison someone based on a type of fortune telling that involves observing a bird's actions (e.g., analyzing birdcalls, determining the direction of the branch on which the bird perches, and assessing the direction in which the bird flies)! Wow, that's better than anything I ever could have imagined! 

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

In this sign, 雑 (687: miscellaneous) heads off 雑貨 (ざっか: miscellaneous goods; general goods; sundries). The initial 和 (わ) indicates that the products are Japanese. The non-Joyo 乃 corresponds to the possessive particle の. The 店 (みせ) means "shop." And the ようこそ ... へ means "Welcome to ...."

The Role of the Old Bird

I've shared the role of 隹 in a few kanji, but I can't help wondering how birds flew into other characters. Here are more Henshall etymologies:

雇 (1232: to employ)

In one view, the radical represents a "migratory bird," which ancient farmers saw as an important indicator of seasons, whereas the 戸 is a phonetic. There are competing theories, though.

隻 (1483: one of a pair; counter for ships)

The 又 means "hand," so the character meant "catch a bird"! The meaning "one of a pair" evolved later, and "counter for ships" is probably loan usage.

離 (1897: separate; distant)

One theory has it that the character denotes a "black-naped oriole." That's extremely specific! The left-side phonetic typically means "mountain deity (in beast form)"! Definitions such as "separated" are likely loan usage. Another interpretation of 離 involves "birdlime," a sticky substance smeared on twigs to catch small birds." In that concept, 離 represents "bird caught on birdlime," with the left side being a simplified form of a character for "birdlime." The meaning "remove from birdlime" generalized to "remove," which has connotations of "separation" and "leaving."

Then we have our gendered kanji:

雌 (1323: female)

The 此 phonetically expresses "small," so the whole character represents "smaller bird (compared with male)." One scholar believes that the 此 instead conveys "matched with (a partner)." Either way, 雌 symbolizes "female bird," which broadened to "female (of birds, game, etc.)."

雄 (1869: male; magnificent)

The left side may phonetically express "bold, courageous," yielding "bold bird, male bird" as an overall meaning. Alternatively, the phonetic could suggest "light, vivid colors," producing "bird of beautiful colors" and "male bird" as overall meanings. A third idea is that the phonetic suggests "make outer frame taut," causing 雄 to mean "male bird puffs up its frame."

Find out more about these two kanji and others meaning "female" and "male" in the Thematic Explorations piece "Gendered Kanji."

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