JOK Notebook

Confused and Amused

It's time for a round-up of Japanese expressions that have confused and amused me recently.

A Japanese friend wrote this to me:

I need your honest advice.

歯 (は: tooth); 衣着せぬ (きぬきせぬ: to speak frankly);
願いします (おねがいします: please (humble form))

Oh, dear. On top of feeling the fear that immediately strikes when someone wants total honesty, I had no idea what was going on here. Why was there a tooth (歯) wearing (着) clothing (衣)? I did notice that the yomi of きぬきせぬ had a nearly perfect internal repetition, and that soothed me, but I was mostly riled up!

The term 衣着せぬ is in a negative form; its antonym would be 歯に衣着せる. A site about proverbs has this to say about that latter phrase: "If the back teeth 'wear clothing' or have anything stuck between them, speech becomes unclear. Therefore, 歯に衣着せる describes a way of talking that makes remarks sound unclear and secretive."

I do wish this image weren't so gross! Anyway, we need to return to a negative form of the expression. That gives us a remark that sounds perfectly clear and straightforward. My friend wanted me to speak in that way to him. About what?! I was almost afraid to ask. "Oh," he said casually. "Just tell me when you see mistakes in my English." Hmm. That's another can of worms altogether. It's not a one-time question about a sensitive topic. Rather, it's an uncomfortable conversation that could last for years, even though his English is amazingly good.

As long as we're talking about body parts such as teeth, let's think about shoulders. The shoulder kanji appears in these puzzling comments from a native speaker who wrote to me after reading one of my essays:

You have been working diligently. I think it must be hard work. Please pace yourself and continue in a relaxed manner.

こつこつ (a state of continuous work); やる (to do, shown here in its polite form, which is identical to the passive form); 大変 (たいへん: difficult); 思う (おもう: to think); 気負う (きおう: to be too eager); 肩の力を抜く (かたのちからをぬく: to let the tension out of one's shoulders); 続ける (つづける: to continue)

This sentence was nearly impossible for me to understand, making use as it did of several idioms. Fortunately, my friend Yoshio-san provided a translation. Even so, I felt confused by quite a few things.

I'll skip around, starting with 気負わず. This is a negative form, so my correspondent was telling me not to be too enthusiastic! That sounds weird unless you interpret it as "Please pace yourself because it's a long journey."

Next there's 肩の力を抜く. It can mean both "to let the tension out of one's shoulders; relax" and "to not take oneself too seriously." Yoshio-san reassured me that the former applied here. Whew. That's a relief, though if I relax too much I can't keep producing one essay a week!

Let's go back to the beginning of the sentence: こつこつ. This means "slowly and steadily." One can write this term in kanji as 兀兀 or 矻矻, both of which feature non-Joyo kanji.

I encountered two more repeating words in the forthcoming essay 1850 on 茂 (to grow thickly; be overgrown). Here's the first:

押すな押すな (おすなおすな: crowded (with people))

The verb 押す (おす) means "to push," and 押すな is the negative imperative, meaning "Don't push." When a place becomes overcrowded, people push, voluntarily or not. Thus, 押すな押すな (literally, “don’t push, don’t push”) means "crowded"!

Then there's this fun text, which is from a folktale in essay 1850 (just as the last term was):

“It’s hot! It’s hot! My bottom’s on fire!”

尻 (しり: buttocks); 火がつく (ひがつく: to catch fire)

As you can imagine, it's quite a story!

I had no idea how to interpret the あちちちち, but it turns out to be あつい (hot), あつい, あつい, あつい  four times fast! The つ and い melt into each other (as is only natural in extreme heat), becoming ち. Thus, あちちちち!means "It's hot!"

I'll present the last two discoveries in the form of a quiz. You  know that 漢字 (かんじ) are "Chinese" characters. What kinds of characters could the next words represent?

1. 苗字     rice seedling + character

2. 丁字     town subsection + character

While you think that over, you can find out about the newest essay I've posted, which is essay 1576 on 稚:

That preview may not block the answers sufficiently, so while we're considering funny types of characters, I'll present my own funny Kanji, shown here as he "helped" my officemate with her doctoral dissertation:

Photo Credit: Christina Coto

He helped her to such an extent that he scored a mention in her acknowledgments section!

Okay, give up?

1. 苗字 (みょうじ: rice seedling + character) means "surname; family name." People more often write this term as 名字 with the same yomi. As 名 means "name," that rendering makes perfect sense to me. How can one possibly write みょうじ with the kanji for "rice seedling"? Well, a "seedling" is a thin object. The 苗 kanji also means “lineage, descent,” something handed down through generations via a “thin line of blood." Hence, 苗 is associated with “descendant.”

2. 丁字 (ていじ: town subsection + character) means "T-shaped." For some reason, I love that this term includes a kanji rather than a T! And look how, in a sheer coincidence, the yomi of 丁 happens to be てい!

Have a great weekend! Hope it suits you to a 丁!


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