JOK Notebook

The Good Kind of Surprise

Life is full of surprises. People are full of surprises. I usually think I like surprises until I come up against one that's a bit too surprising to handle! 

I'm a big fan of stability and consistency, and I somehow imagine that as long as I plug away in the same fashion day in, day out, week in, week out, the world will act in kind. It will not and does not. There's nothing consistent or kind about it! And if I crave constancy in an ever-changing world, I will always be surprised. That really should come as no surprise, and still it does. 

In the face of surprises too big to handle, I always retreat into the delight of kanji compounds, which afford the good kind of surprises. 

Let's do a quiz! What do you think the following terms could mean:

1. 分水嶺 (ぶんすいれい)     division + water + peak, summit

a. myth about a god who divided the seas from a mountain peak
b. stock-exchange term
c. watershed; divide    
d. reconciliation after negotiations

2. 亡命 (ぼうめい)     death + life

a. seeking asylum from one's country
b. the gamut (from death to life)
c. resurrection, renewal
d. reincarnation

3. 盗撮 (とうさつ)     to rob + photograph

a. stealing a camera
b. photobombing
c. stealing someone's soul by photographing that person
d. taking photos surreptitiously

4. 前頭葉 (ぜんとうよう)     front + head + leaf

a. frontal lobe of the brain
b. outermost leaves on a head of lettuce or cabbage
c. eager student who sits at the front of the class
d. last few hairs on a balding man's head

I'll block the answers with a preview of the newest essay:

Okay, here we go!

1.c. 分水嶺 (ぶんすいれい: division + water + peak, summit) means "watershed; divide." The third kanji is non-Joyo. The idea is that, as rain falls on a peak, various rivers form. This depends on the slopes of a mountain because the slopes divide the water. Thus, we have a "water-dividing peak."

This made me curious about the water in "watershed," and I found that it actually plays a similar role to the water in 分水嶺. That is, "watershed" literally means "ridge or crest line dividing two drainage areas; water parting; divide." Figuratively, the term refers to an important point of division or transition between two phases, conditions, and so on.

My language partner used 分水嶺 as we discussed the Battle of Leyte Gulf. When the Japanese lost this crucial naval battle in 1944, it was the beginning of the end for them, he said. 

He also told me that whereas 分水嶺 is narrow in meaning, the synonym 分岐点 (ぶんきてん: junction; crossroads; division point; parting of ways) is a broader way of saying "turning point." With 分岐点, we once again have a mountain, this time as the radical of 岐 (to fork, diverge). Henshall says that 岐 combines "mountain" with "branch" (支), the latter acting phonetically here to express "fork" and probably lending the idea of "branching" or "bifurcation." He adds that 岐 originally referred to a particular mountain in China known for its twin peaks, then came to mean "forked mountain" in general and eventually just "fork." 

Thus, it seems that whereas the mountain in 分水嶺 divides water, the one in 分岐点 divides air!

2.a. 亡命 (ぼうめい: death + life) means "flight from one's country; seeking asylum; defection; emigration (for political reasons); (going into) exile; becoming a (political) refugee." Dictionaries say that this 命 means "family register"—namely, the 名籍 (めいせき or みょうせき) or the synonymous 戸籍 (こせき). Moreover, say those sources, 亡命 originally meant "drifting away from one's family register and fleeing." This has apparently broadened to mean "drifting away from one's country." 

3.d. 盗撮 (とうさつ: to rob + photograph) means "taking photos surreptitiously."

4.a. 前頭葉 (ぜんとうよう: front + head + leaf) means "frontal lobe of the brain." In this context, 葉 represents flat, thin tissue, which is figuratively a kind of leaf.

This blog is a lot shorter than usual, isn't it? Surprise!

Have a great weekend!


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