JOK Notebook

Giving an Inch

Let's start with a quiz. What do you think this could mean?

寸前 (すんぜん)      old Japanese inch + before

a. old, obsolete measuring system
b. tiny amount
c. just before
d. coming up short; failing to meet expectations

I'll block the answer with a preview of the new essay 1587 on 駐 (parking; residing in; stationed):

c. 寸前 (すんぜん: old Japanese inch + before) means "just before," as well as "on the verge; on the brink."

I came across that word in the following sentence from essay 1183 on 駆 (to run (race); rush; ride a horse; drive (a machine); gallop; drive (something) off):

He ran into the train a moment before departure.

彼* (かれ: he); 発車 (はっしゃ: departure of a vehicle);
列車 (れっしゃ: train); 駆け込む (かけこむ: to rush in
(at the last minute); stampede)

Although the word 寸前 has evolved far from its original, literal meaning, which had to do with inches, the sentence made that initial meaning vivid for me. I could just imagine the train door as it slid shut an inch behind the latecomer. As they say, he had not even an inch to spare.

Breen offers several other sample sentences for this word, all of which seem ominous:

His old car is on its last legs.

古い (ふるい: old); 車 (くるま: car);
ポンコツ (piece of junk (esp. car))

Our company is on the verge of bankruptcy.

内の会社 (うちのかいしゃ: our company);
破産 (はさん: bankruptcy)

The obsolete regime is about to collapse.

時代遅れ (じだいおくれ: old-fashioned; behind the times);
政権 (せいけん: (political) administration); 崩壊 (ほうかい: collapse)

Wait, here's one that doesn't portend doom:

The plane was about to take off.

飛行機* (ひこうき: airplane); 離陸 (りりく: takeoff)

But then check out this sentence:

The plane turned to the right just before it crashed.

墜落 (ついらく: crashing); 右 (みぎ: right); 旋回 (せんかい: turning)

Oh, dear! I would say that the man who made it onto the train in the nick of time was a good deal luckier than he may have realized.

As long as we're talking about essay 1183 (which we were for a moment anyway!), I'd like to share another discovery. It involved a sentence featuring this keyword:

夜討ち朝駆け (ようちあさがけ: attacks late at night and early in the morning)     
      night attack (1st 2 kanji) + early-morning attack (last 2 kanji)

The following comment is something a politician would typically say:

It’s such a pain to have you reporters here bothering
me late at night and early in the morning.

君たち (きみたち: all of you); 記者 (きしゃ: reporter); 
連中 (れんちゅう: troupe; company; a lot); 参る (まいる: ____)

My knee-jerk reaction was to define 参る as "to come." After all, it's a humble term that temples and shrines often use in signs that politely address people who have come to their premises. But why would the humble verb 参る appear in a disrespectful sentence?

Well, it turns out that 参る also means “to be a pain,” “to be stressed out,” “to get upset," or "to be annoyed." According to Daijisen and Daijirin, this verb started out meaning "to be dominated by someone" and then came to have the meaning of “giving in." In the context of the politician's comment, this verb means "to be exhausted; be dead tired; collapse." In using 参る, he's saying that he's tired of having to deal with the reporters and their questions at all hours. The Japanese often say 参った to mean "I give up" or "I don't know what to do."

That's intriguing, but it still doesn't explain the huge jump from the way temples and shrines respectfully say, "We humbly thank you for gracing us with your presence," to the politician's "Go screw yourself, you worthless pieces of garbage!" Okay, he didn't go quite that far with his comment, but 寸前だった !

Have a great weekend!


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