JOK Notebook

Losing One's Bearings with a Folic Acid Trip

Let's start with a quiz. See if you can match the compounds with the definitions:

1. 動画 (どうが)     moving + picture a. beginner, newbie
2. 新米 (しんまい)     new + rice b. folic acid
3. ニ短調 (にたんちょう)     2 + short + to investigate c. losing one's bearings
4. 葉酸 (ようさん)     leaf + acid d. video
5. 等身大 (とうしんだい)     equal + person + big e. life-sized
6. 戸惑い (とまどい)     door + delusion f. D minor

Because this is quite a significant challenge, it's only appropriate to block the answers with a preview of the new essay on the challenge kanji:

Okay, are you ready for the answers? Here we go.

1.d. 動画 (どうが: moving + picture) means "video." But it's not just any video. Rather, the Japanese use this word for the type displayed on YouTube. By contrast, a VHS videotape that goes into a VCR is a ビデオ.

2.a. 新米 (しんまい: new + rice) means "beginner, newbie." To be "new rice" is to be "green" (that is, inexperienced)! If you say this about someone else, it's a mild insult. As Kermit said, it's not easy being green. However, it's more common for newcomers to say this about themselves when meeting other people. I'm trying to imagine how that conversation would go: "Hi, I'm a newbie who knows nothing." That doesn't sound like the most comfortable introduction.

3.f. ニ短調 (にたんちょう: 2 + short + key (music)) means "D minor." Note that I've changed the breakdown, reflecting that 調 can mean not only "to investigate" but also "key" in music (as well as several other things).

In ニ短調, the 短調 means "minor" in a musical context. By contrast, 長調 (ちょうちょう: long + key (music)) means "major." In both languages, these terms refer to the size of intervals. (An "interval," in turn, is the difference between pitches. I used to know all this stuff cold! No longer! I'm back to being a 新米!)

Meanwhile, the ニ corresponds to "D" and is part of a system of pitch names:

イ (A), ロ (B), ハ (C), 二 (D), ホ (E), ヘ (F), ト (G)

This series comes from the famous archaic poem いろは歌 (いろはうた).

As long as we're sorting all this out, the terms for "sharp" and "flat" are as follows:

sharp: 嬰 (えい), which is a non-Joyo kanji
flat: 変 (へん)

So the term for "B-flat major" is 変ロ長調.

In Japan, music universities have Japanese, English, and German versions of these terms but mainly use the German nomenclature, rarely the English.

4.b. 葉酸 (ようさん: leaf + acid) means "folic acid." Really?! The acid of a leaf?

Oh! I just realized that "folic" must be like the French feuille, which means "leaf (from a tree)," as well as "sheet of paper." Yes! That's right. The dictionary says that "folic" was coined from the Latin folium, which means "leaf." Furthermore, "folic" comes from "folio" + "-ic." The leaf connection is that green leaves such as spinach abound in folic acid.

This blows my mind while also sending it off in several directions.

A "folio" is a "leaf of a manuscript" or a "sheet of paper" with certain characteristics (e.g., being folded in half or having writing on just one side). Again, the theme of a leaf emerges.

Aha, "portfolio" must be "leaves" of paper that you can "carry"! Yes, that's the origin!

And what about "foliage"? The Latin folium and the French feuille gave rise to that word.

Look how much I've learned about three European languages, thanks to Japanese! This calls for celebratory pictures of fall foliage! Here's how the Japanese maples in my garden look this morning:

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

5.e. 等身大 (とうしんだい: equal + person + big) means "life-sized." Well, that makes sense! I just never would have guessed that that's what those three kanji meant together!

6.c. 戸惑い (とまどい: door + delusion) means "losing one's bearings; confusion; wonderment." This kun-kun combination has a verb form, 戸惑う (とまどう: to be bewildered; be perplexed). And what of the breakdown? Door + delusion means that you're so confused about something that you're unable to find the door! I figured this would mean you couldn't find the door out of a room, as can happen with excessive partyingInstead, the word originally had to do with not knowing which room to enter. I imagine being in a long hotel hallway full of identical doors, unable to remember which room is yours. I've had that happen, and it's not something I would wish on anyone! 

Have a great weekend! And be sure to keep track of all the doors in your life!


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