JOK Notebook

Coloring Whales and Crowning Monkeys

This week I tried to figure out why English speakers refer to a blue whale whereas the Japanese include 白 (white) in their word for the same animal. 

I found that one Wikipedia article in English describes the whale as being blue-grey on its back and lighter underneath. In turn, Japanese Wikipedia notes that when the whale rises to the surface of the water, it looks white from above.

While sorting all that out, I became curious about the following phrase from the Japanese Wikipedia article:


白 (しろ: white); 現在 (げんざい: current); 
和名 (わめい: Japanese name)

In particular, I zeroed in on the red word and its surprising second meaning (which applies in this case):

冠する (かんする: (1) to crown; cap; wear a crown; (2) prefix with; start with; begin with)

The primary meanings make perfect sense because 冠 primarily represents a crown. Many of us know 冠 (かんむり) as the term for a kanji radical when it "crowns" a character. For example, the top of 芝 (lawn grass) is 草冠 (くさかんむり: the "grass" radical in the "crown" position).

But 冠 also means "to prefix with"? Why would one use 冠 for that when a prefix goes on the side of a word?

Ah, I've got it! A prefix goes on the side only if a word is written horizontally. If it's vertical, as in traditional Japanese, then a prefix actually goes on top of a word! 

Figuring this out feels like my crowning achievement for the day! But wait—my proofreader is not on board with what I thought was obvious. Saying "It's not a bad theory," he notes that he has had no luck confirming it. Hmph.

Thinking about all this led me to wonder when people use 冠する in this secondary way (aside from in explanations about whales). As luck would have it, I found a discussion on Chiebukuro addressing this very issue. The Q&A there is actually about this phrase:

名を冠する (なをかんする: to prefix with a name)

"I often see this phrase," said the questioner. "What does it mean, and when does one use it?"

The answerer (if that's a word!) cited these examples of when 名を冠する applies:

• when naming a building after a company 

e.g., Kyocera Dome Osaka        
e.g., Suntory Hall

• when naming a sports competition after a company    

e.g., Mazda All-Star Game

• when naming a clinic after its founder    

e.g., the Yamada Surgical Clinic

• when naming food after a country

e.g., Japanese soba, french bread

In no time, we've somehow traveled from colored whales to carbohydrates! And thanks to the wonders of kanji inquiry, we can make yet another leap by briefly examining this archaic term:

沐猴にして冠す (もっこうにしてかんす: to be an incompetent leader (like a monkey wearing a crown))     monkey (1st 2 kanji) + to wear a crown

Even the verb here is archaic; 冠す corresponds to the contemporary 冠する. I

The first word, 沐猴, is obscure (says Breen), consisting of two non-Joyo kanji that break down as to wash + monkey. To wash a monkey? Has anyone tried?! Probably not many people, which must be why the word fell into disuse!

It actually feels right to have a monkey wearing a crown in this old phrase. As the Year of the Monkey begins, any monkey certainly deserves a coronation. I'd love to see a crowned monkey, though I'm not sure I would want him or her to lead my country. (From the looks of the current American election season, that may end up happening!)

Now that we're talking about governing systems, I have the perfect segue to introduce the essay of the week:

I found 堀 to be a fascinating kanji to examine. Moats played an integral role in the layouts of Japanese castles, back when a castle served as both the seat of government and the heart of the military. 

Come to think of it, castles have to do with royalty and therefore with crowns (in a European context, not a Japanese one), so we're back to 冠! Sometimes life is as circular as a moat. Actually, Japanese moats tend to be rectilinear, but never mind!

Have a great weekend!


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