JOK Notebook

Earthworks Enlightenment

I've never been much for earthworks. I recently went to New Orleans, glanced at the levees several times, and couldn't really register what I was seeing. They mostly looked like small grassy hills without character, and I hadn't the slightest idea how they worked to control water.

No one explained the system to me, but that's just as well. I'm quite bad at understanding how physical structures might operate. Last weekend I went to a Finnish sauna, and the employee gave me a quick tour beforehand, indicating three ropes that would make things hotter, cooler, or wetter. I couldn't absorb the lesson (it just made me anxious) and ended up nearly frying myself. (From what I gathered from his tour, I think I may have also scalded people in adjacent saunas. I'm still not clear on how the sauna worked, so I'll never know.)

Given my limitations in this area, I was shocked that I found essay 1620 on 堤 (embankment) utterly engrossing to write. I now know that an embankment is far more than the grassy slopes lining a river. This structure actually goes fairly far under the water and all the way across a river.

It blows my mind that the Japanese have been building embankments (at least some version of them) since the Yayoi era (3rd century BCE–3rd century CE)! I wouldn't know where to begin taming a river. By the 16th century, if not earlier, Japanese men in power were even ordering their subjects to change the courses of rivers!

In addition to all this rudimentary civil engineering, I also learned things related to kanji as I wrote essay 1620! For instance, I came across one expression that might make a fun quiz. What do you think the following term might mean?

犬走り (いぬばしり)     dog + running

a. grunt work; manual labor
b. berm; earthen bank (e.g., against the exterior wall of a house)
c. working around the clock to meet a construction deadline
d. failing to keep a built project up to code; "running" from the law

I'll block the answer with a great photo from the new essay.

This book contains Japanese translations of works by two famous French writers, both of whom went by pen names, much to my surprise:

Marguerite Duras (1914–1996), whose name was actually Marguerite Donnadieu.
Françoise Sagan (1935–2004), whose real name was Françoise Quoirez.

First we have the 1950 novel Un barrage contre le Pacifique by Duras. This title could translate as “A seawall against the Pacific,” but the English translation is instead The Sea Wall. The Japanese translation is closer to the original:

The Pacific Seawall

太平洋 (たいへいよう: Pacific Ocean); 
防波堤 (ぼうはてい: seawall)

The novel, says French Wikipedia, was largely inspired by the author’s adolescence in French Indochina (now Vietnam). A film version of this book appeared in 1958 (or 1957, according to IMDB), as did another one 50 years later in 2008.

Duras is most famous for her 1984 novel L’Amant, translated into English as The Lover and into Japanese as 「愛人/ラマン」. The word 愛人 (あいじん) means “lover,” and ラマン is the Japanese approximation of l’amant, serving here as furigana of a sort.

Meanwhile, Sagan wrote and published Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness) in 1954 at age 18! Though she was prolific, that novel was always her best-known work. The Japanese title is「悲しみよ こんにちは」, where 悲しみ (かなしみ) is “sadness” and よ is a particle used at the end of a phrase or clause when addressing someone. In this case, the title translates literally as “Hi, sadness. How are you?”

Here's the answer to the quiz:

b. 犬走り (いぬばしり: dog + running) means "berm" or "earthen bank (e.g., against the exterior wall of a house)." I included the second definition because that's what I associate with berms, but people tend not to be talking about houses when they discuss berms or 犬走り. Hmm, it's slowly dawning on me that the topic of berms is probably way over my head. I think I'm so heady from what I learned in essay 1620 that I forgot my gross limitations when it comes to understanding the physical world! Let's focus on kanji instead!

In explaining the origins of the term 犬走り, Japanese Wikipedia and other sources say that a berm is broad enough only for a dog to run on it.

Although 犬走り doesn't appear in essay 1620, the next term does:

白羽の矢が立つ (しらはのやがたつ: to be chosen)     
      white + feather + arrow + to be erected, stand vertically

This phrase is part of a wonderful folktale about an embankment and a human sacrifice, a story I've presented in the essay. Here's the relevant sentence:

A young tenant farmer was chosen. 

小作人 (こさくにん: tenant farmer); 
若者 (わかもの: young man)

How confusing it would be to come upon this red phrase without the slightest idea of its idiomatic meaning! 

According to Digital Daijisen, this phrase comes from an old belief; when a god wanted a girl to be sacrificed, the deity would plant an arrow with white feathers straight up in the roof of her house. How unexpected that such a pure-looking object would carry that ominous a meaning!

I have one more discovery about the physical world to share with you. I would say that it's in the forthcoming essay 1011 on 芋 (potato; sweet potato), but it isn't. I mean, it used to be, back when I thought the following term was valid after spotting it in Breen:

芋堀り (いもほり: potato field furrows)    

However, my proofreader found no evidence anywhere that this word exists, concluding that the 堀 is a typo and that 芋掘り (いもほり: (1) digging for (sweet) potatoes (esp. as an outing); (2) (sweet) potato digger; (3) derogatory term for rural people) is the only legitimate term of this sort. That is, someone must have confused the "earth" radical 土 in 堀 (moat) with the "hand" radical 扌in 掘. In fact, I just sorted out a similar mix-up in essay 1620; people seem to use 堤 in certain words when only 提 will do, and mistakes of that sort appear in Breen and elsewhere.

Strange as it sounds, I'm thrilled that someone confused 芋堀り with 芋掘り because this error led me to investigate what a furrow is. As I learned, farmers and gardeners don't plant potatoes in level ground. Rather, they dig small trenches, piling the dug-out dirt on either side of a ditch. This creates a furrow, producing an undulating field. (And of course undulation was the theme of the essay that came out last week on 凹, "concavity"!)

Anyway, now that I know what "furrow" means, I understand why English speakers use the phrase "furrowed brow"! What a fun expression! When we worry, our foreheads look like undulating fields!

Here's a sneak preview of essay 1620 on 堤:

Have a great weekend! May it be full of discoveries and free of furrowed brows!


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