JOK Notebook

Detonation by Contact emails me about the Word of the Day, and I was thrilled that the April 16 word may have had a connection to Japanese:


1. knowledge, understanding, or cognizance; mental perception: an idea beyond one's ken
2. range of sight or vision

Here's the example from the email: 

Books, Mr. Taylor thought, should swim into one's ken mysteriously; they should appear all printed and bound, without apparent genesis; just as children are suddenly told that they have a little sister, found by mamma in the garden.

     〜Arthur Machen, The Hill of Dreams, 1907

The email also supplied the origin of the word: 

English ken comes from the very widespread Proto-Indo-European root gnō- (and its variants gnē-, gen-, and gṇ-) “to know.” The variant gnō- appears in Greek gignṓskein (and dialect gnṓskein), Latin gnōscere, nōscere, and Slavic (Polish) znać “to know.” The variant gnē- forms cnāwan in Old English (and know in English); the variant gṇǝ- (with suffixed schwa) yields cunnan “to know, know how to, be able” in Old English (and can “be able” in English). Ken is recorded in English before 900. 

The reason I'm telling you all this is that 見 (to see) has the on-yomi ケン. That matches the second definition of "ken," constituting either an amazing coincidence or proof that the world is smaller than we think. In other words, I'm guessing that the English "ken" and the ケン yomi of 見 bubbled up from the same cauldron (perhaps located in India), with one word traveling west to England and the other traveling north and east to China and eventually Japan.

By the way, I hadn't heard the term "Proto-Indo-European," but as the "prehistoric unrecorded language that was the ancestor of all Indo-European languages" or the "hypothetical language, reconstructed by modern linguists, from which the Indo-European languages are thought to have descended," PIE (as it's known!) appears to be the aforementioned cauldron!

Now I've looked into "Indo-European," which can refer to "a family of languages that includes most of those spoken in Europe and many of those spoken in southwestern Asia and India." Sanskrit is just one of the many languages considered "Indo-European, but I'm glad India is part of the picture, or else my "tale of two 'kens'" theory doesn't work well. 

Ah, it seems that it doesn't work well for another reason! My proofreader says it's very unlikely that 見 as ケン came from Sanskrit through Chinese into Japanese. He comments, "When translating Sanskrit into Chinese, they attach more importance to the meaning, not the sound. Phonetic transcription also happens, but only when translating a concept that is nonexistent in China. My gut feeling is that the phonetic similarity is just accidental."

Oh, dear. Perhaps it's safest to get back to Japanese! Here's a term that's actually relevant to all of this talk about how one language might affect another:

触発 (しょくはつ: (1) detonation by contact; contact detonation; (2) touching off something; triggering; provocation; (3) inspiration)     contact + exploding

I found the word in Amazon text about a book on plagiarism, the topic of the forthcoming essay on 窃 (1488: to steal). Here's the text in question:

Pablo Picasso, the greatest artist of the 20th century.

世紀 (せいき: century); 最大 (さいだい: greatest); 画家 (がか: artist)

Rembrandt, El Greco, Velazquez, Manet, and so on ...

Picasso was inspired by many past works.

過去 (かこ: past); 多く (おおく: many); 作品* (さくひん: work)

After absorbing them into his own style, he created his own works, which were entirely new and successful.

独自 (どくじ: original); 消化 (しょうか: absorption); 自ら (みずから: one's own); まったく (entirely); 新た (あらた: new, novel); 開花させる (かいかさせる: to let something flower)

I want to return to this fascinating term:

触発 (しょくはつ: (1) detonation by contact; contact detonation; (2) touching off something; triggering; provocation; (3) inspiration)     contact + exploding

The original meaning is dreadful, involving underwater bombs that ships trip off as they sail past. But look what the term becomes figuratively. Of course, the second definitions, "touching off something; triggering; provocation," are still pretty negative, with the bombs now being pain (more cauldrons) that an earlier trauma left in the heart and mind. Other people often unintentionally set off those bombs, retraumatizing the person who carries the pain. 

But look at that last definition, "inspiration." Now I have the sense that being in contact with something wonderful and energetic can cause ideas to explode in the mind like fireworks, one after the other so that one can't take notes fast enough to record them all. 

I like that 触発 has evolved in such a positive way. The trauma of exploding bombs has somehow morphed into the beauty of creative inspiration. If only everything culminated in something so valuable!

Here's a preview of the newest essay, which is actually a good fit for this discussion, having a little to do with literal shooting and a lot to do with aiming for where one wants to go:

Catch you back here next week! Stay inspired!


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