27. The "Cliff" Radical: 厂

Once you become aware of the two-stroke "cliff" radical 厂, you start seeing it everywhere! 

This radical is actually on duty in just five Joyo kanji:

原 (107: field; plateau; original, primary)

厚 (672: thick; kind; enrich)

厳 (854: strict; severe; solemn)

厄 (1859: unlucky; trouble)

厘 (1913: small unit; little)

If you think you're spotting  elsewhere, you may be seeing these radicals instead:

radical 53: 广 ("dotted cliff")

radical 69: 斤 ("ax")

radical 104: 疒 ("sickness")

Photo Credit: Sui Feng

Not only is 厂 on duty in 厳 (854: strict) in the lower sign, but the 厂 component also pops up in the upper sign in 危 (danger) and 蔵 (storehouse). This shape is not, however, part of 所 (place); instead, the whole right side of that kanji constitutes radical 69, 斤 ("ax").

Here's what the signs say:

Underground tank for storing hazardous materials

危険物 (きけんぶつ: hazardous materials); 地下 (ちか: underground);
貯蔵所 (ちょぞうしょ: storage place)

火気厳禁 (かきげんきん: No fires allowed)

I cropped out my Canadian friend, who was nonchalantly standing next to the signs. I wonder if he knew about the dangers lurking below. I'm glad he didn't have a cigarette in hand!

What Is 厂 Called in English and Japanese?

In addition to being a radical, 厂 is a non-Joyo kanji that means "wild goose" and carries the kun-yomi かりがね. But that has no bearing on the radical name. According to Nelson, it is instead the role of the 厂 radical in the non-Joyo 雁 (がん: wild goose) that enables us to call 厂 the "trailing goose" radical.

The "trailing" part refers to radical position 6, which is for "sagging" enclosures that go down the left side of a character and across the top. (To understand this nomenclature, see "Radical Terms" and consult the fourth and fifth sections.) The Japanese refer to "trailing" radicals as -たれ, which they voice as -だれ in this name for 厂:

がんだれ ("trailing cliff")

The name refers to a "cliff" radical that's in the "trailing" position, as it is in 雁 (がん). 

Photo Credit: Ulrike Narins

In this name plate (表札, ひょうさつ) bearing the surname 大河原 (おおがわら or おおかわら), 厂 elegantly juxtaposes with 河, which almost has a backward 厂. That nearly reversed 厂 does not, however, constitute a radical.

What's a Cliff Doing in a Kanji Like That?

Cliffs seem ubiquitous in the kanji world, given the prevalence of 厂, but does this shape really mean "cliff" in each character? For the answer, let's turn to the etymologies in Henshall's newer edition:

原 (107: field; plateau; original, primary)

The bronze form of this character depicts "a spring gushing out from the foot of a cliff," so 原 is the early version of a word later represented by 源. The current meanings "plain, open country" were borrowed from a much more complex-looking character. Yes, the 厂 means "cliff"!

厚 (672: thick; kind; enrich)

The radical indeed means "cliff, crag." The remainder represents an inverted "watchtower." That phonetic has the associated sense "pile up" or "build up in thick layers." Thus, the whole character means "cliffs/crags one on top of the other," which extended to the meaning "thick."

厳 (854: strict; severe; solemn)

One scholar sees the radical as "cliff" and the interior 敢 (usually "daring") as a phonetic with the associated sense "hole, cave." The whole thing would then mean "cave in mountainside." In that theory, the part above the  厂 originally consisted of two small boxes that served as an additional phonetic, also with the associated sense "hole, cave." Another researcher sees the top bit the same way but views the entire remainder as meaning "cliff." The modern meanings are borrowed.

厄 (1859: unlucky; trouble)

Scholars typically interpret the early form of 厄 as a pictograph of a "yoke attached to a horse's neck." A second proposal is that the character combines 卩(person kneeling) with 厂 as a phonetic with the associated sense "protrude." The whole character then means "hunchback kneeling." A third idea has 厂 as a radical meaning "cliff" and the interior as "person (non-upright)." If so, then these shapes collectively mean "(person) hard-pressed to move." As for the current definitions, "disaster, calamity," Henshall calls those loan usages.

All in all, 厂 means "cliff" more often than not in these kanji!