JOK Notebook

Crossing the Line: A Final Look at "Womansword"

We're about to cross two lines. First, there's the finish line to run, walk, or crawl across as work ends for the year. Second, there's the line separating the ghastly 2016 from 2017. As you cross either line, be sure not to describe that with the following phrase:

一線を越える (いっせんをこえる)     1 + line + to cross

As 一線を越える literally means "to cross the line," it seems as if you could use it that way, especially because 越 has strong associations with new years, as in these terms:

年越し or 年越 (としこし: (1) seeing the old year out and the new year in; (2) New Year's Eve; end of a year)     year + crossing over

年を越す (としをこす: to enter a new year)     year + to cross over

However, the euphemistic and rather formal phrase 一線を越える means "to have sex"! That's particularly true if you use it this way:

最後の一線を越える (さいごのいっせんをこえる: lit. "to cross the last line" which means "to go all the way" here)     last (1st 2 kanji) + to cross the line (last 3 kanji)

Did I cross a line in telling you that?!

I learned 一線を越える from Kittredge Cherry on page 148 of her terrific book Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women, now out in a 30th anniversary edition. In JOK Notebook posts over the past three weeks, I've enjoyed looking closely at Cherry's text. For this final installment, I'll examine terms from the sections "Sexuality" and "Aging." As usual, I like to do so in the form of quizzes.

Maiden Voyages

The Japanese use a prefix that means "purity," "beginning," "unexplored," or "the first time," as in these examples:

a writer's first published work

first ascent of an unclimbed mountain

Which prefix do I mean? Here are your choices:

a. 処女 (しょじょ: virgin, maiden)
b. 童貞 (どうてい: virginity (esp. a man's); male virgin)
c. 生娘 (きむすめ: virgin; innocent young woman)
d. さら (new)

I don't have a new essay to preview this week, so I'll block any quiz answers with recent pictures of my dogs Chai and Masala.

The answer is a. 処女 (しょじょ: virgin, maiden). Cherry tells us that of the many words for "female virgin," this is the one doctors use. She says it literally means "female in the home." (In this context, my proofreader explains, 処 doesn't mean "place," as it usually does. Instead, it means "to reside." In Chinese, 処女 originally referred to an unmarried woman still living in her parents' home.) Anyway, just as English speakers have "maiden voyage" or "virgin wool" (and let's not forget extra-virgin olive oil and Virgin America!), the Japanese use these expressions:

処女作 (しょじょさく: a writer's first published work)

処女登頂 (しょじょとうちょう: first ascent of an unclimbed mountain)

As for the false options, Cherry also has choice things to say about those on pages 149 and 150:

• The male equivalent of 処女 is this word (option b):

童貞 (どうてい: virginity (esp. a man's); male virgin)     child + chastity, fidelity

Despite the equivalence, the Japanese never use 童貞 and the prefix 処女- in the same way.

• Option c breaks down as follows: 

生娘 (きむすめ: virgin; innocent young woman)     pure + young woman

This term, says Cherry, comes up in literature and the conversation of older people. What an intriguing use of 生, which can mean "raw," "life," "student," or any number of other things. I would never have thought that 生娘 meant "virgin"! Nor would I have guessed that the yomi of this 生 was き. With that reading, 生 means "pure, genuine" or "raw," as in these examples:

生で飲む (きでのむ: to drink (whiskey) straight)     pure + to drink

生糸 (きいと: raw silk (thread))     raw + thread

• Option d came from this puzzling sentence (p. 150) about more terms for "virgin":

There are cruder words used by men with a prurient interest in females who are "new" (sara).

Sara as "new"? With which kanji? My mind first went to 皿 (さら: plate, dish). And associating tableware with women's sexuality wouldn't be far-fetched, given this explanation of Cherry's:

Homophobic people jeer at lesbians as "honorable pans" (onabe), a play on the slang "honorable pots" (okama) for gay men (p. 146).

The italicized words correspond to お鍋 and お釜, respectively. My next thought on the さら issue was 更に (さらに: furthermore). Wrong! The answer is 新 (new), which has a non-Joyo kun-yomi of さら. Strangely, most of my sources don't reflect that.

Grandmothers, Aunts, and In-Laws

Let's move into the "Aging" section of Cherry's book, where we find a great explanation (p. 162) of these confusingly similar words:

おばさん (aunt)

小母さん (おばさん: ma'am)     little + mother

おばあさん (grandmother)

About that last term, Cherry writes this:

Obaasan are so elderly that their skin has become lined with row upon row of wrinkles, one following another like the waves of the sea. That is one explanation of the Japanese word obaasan, in which the ideograms for "woman" and "wave" join to compose another character that means grandmother (p. 162).

That's a little hard to visualize, so help me sort it out. Which word means "grandmother":

a. 叔母さん
b. 伯母さん
c. お婆さん    
d. 小姑さん

The answer is c. That is, お婆さん (おばあさん) means "grandmother."

The first two false options are ways of rendering おばさん (aunt) in kanji. The first, 叔母さん, refers to an aunt younger than one's parent, whereas 伯母さん is for an aunt older than one's parent. (Both 叔 and 伯 mean "uncle"! It seems that the mother kanji 母 feminizes them!) Many Japanese don't know these renderings and just use the hiragana おばさん.    

As for the last false option, 小姑さん isn't a word. But it involves two concepts that Cherry introduces on pages 166 and 167.

First, the non-Joyo 姑 (しゅうとめ or しゅうと) means "mother-in-law." Meanwhile, the non-Joyo 舅 (しゅうと) means "father-in-law," so しゅうと could refer to either (though the Japanese seldom use しゅうと for women). What an odd blurring of gender differences at a time when they seem important. 

We can preface each kanji with 小-, forming the following terms:

小姑 (こじゅうとめ or こじゅうと: sister-in-law)     little + mother-in-law

小舅 (こじゅうと: brother-in-law)     little + father-in-law

Cherry explains (p. 167) that a bride in feudal times was lorded over not only by her mother-in-law but also by her husband's siblings—hence the terms "little mothers-in-law"  and "little fathers-in-law." 

My proofreader says that こじゅうと could refer to either gender, though in this case (unlike with しゅうと for 姑 and 舅) the こじゅうと typically refers to “sister-in-law." That's because sisters-in-law, rather than brothers-in-law, are much more likely to be mean to the bride!

On that cheery note, I wish you a Happy New Year! Lots of luck crossing the line. I'll see you on the other side, returning with a JOK Notebook post in two weeks.


Add comment

Log in or register to post comments