JOK Notebook

Nothing Stays the Same

Like Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory, I'm a big fan of homeostasis. As a Virgo, I need routines and predictability while also requiring just enough change and inspiration so I don't go out of my skull with boredom. 

I find it strangely easy to achieve a balance between these extremes, but then life has a way of coming along and unbalancing everything. Nothing has seemed normal in my life for months. One dog gets sick and dies, and new dogs come along and pee and poop everywhere (despite multiple instructions about where they're actually supposed to do that) and bark up a storm (again against my recommendations on the matter). 

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

They look like angels. Don't be fooled.

And then on top of all that tumult, one dog somehow eats marijuana on an evening walk and ends up at the emergency clinic at midnight. (Why do crises have a way of happening in the middle of the night?) This is the same dog who escaped down busy streets twice in one day. Less than a month ago, she swallowed a "styrofoam" pellet. It turned out to be the kind that is made of cornstarch and dissolves quickly, only I didn't realize that until the nurse at the emergency clinic had induced vomiting twice. Anyway, the marijuana event brought the tally to four crises, and Masala hasn't even lived with us for two full months!

Turning to kanji matters, I'll share recent gleanings that have to do with transformation. Don't expect depth in the discussions—just lightning-fast transitions, mirroring the pace of life! 

Cool Phonetic Changes

As perhaps you guessed from the preview above, I've just posted essay 1927 on 暦 (calendar, almanac), a kanji with the Joyo kun-yomi of こよみ. Before writing the essay, I puzzled over that yomi awhile, feeling that it was familiar but just a little off, as if it had evolved from something else. What was that something else? I figured there had to be a connection between the よみ of こよみ and the ようび in words like 火曜日 (かようび: Tuesday). Yes, that made perfect sense.

It may have, but that wasn't the history at all! I was right that the sound evolved—and completely wrong about the details! Here's what I learned from Gogen and wrote in essay 1927:

The yomi こよみ (what a great rhyme!) originated with 日読み, which the Japanese once read as かよみ (though that has changed to ひよみ). In the word 日読み, the 読み means “counting” (not “reading,” as it usually does), so 日読み meant “counting days.”

For more phonetic evolution, let's shift over to this word:

八百屋 (やおや: vegetable shop)

Why does this term break down as 800 (1st 2 kanji) + shop?! Gogen to the rescue again! Apparently, やおや comes from 青屋 (あおや: lit. "green shop"), which is to say "vegetable store." There are two theories as to why あおや changed as it did:

1. Given that あおや sounds just like 青屋, a shortened term for "indigo dyer," people could confuse the two words. (Well, if Japanese had changed every time someone heard homophones, the language would be unrecognizable today!)

2. Vegetable stores sell many things, so 八百屋 ("800 store") conveys that that sort of shop has everything.

Role Reversal

Quick change of topic. 

Normally, the Japanese distinguish between things in incredibly specific ways. For example, the forthcoming essay 1528 on 燥 (to dry up) explains how 皮, 膚, and 肌 differ, even though all mean "skin." 

And before I posted essay 2055 on 踪 (traces, footprints; whereabouts) last week, my proofreader and I went back and forth endlessly about 失踪 (しっそう). That term means "disappearance"—only if the disappearance remains shrouded in mystery. We talked about Malaysia Flight 370, and he noted that because some wreckage has been found, we can no longer use 失踪 for that situation, even though most of the plane is still missing! He said, "If one wrote about the incident before the wreckage was discovered, 失踪 would be the most appropriate term. If one believes that the wreckage doesn't belong to the flight and that the plane is still missing, then one is likely to use 失踪. It depends on how one sees the incident." Wow. Just wow!

Lately, though, I keep running into situations in which Japanese is less specific than English, causing challenges in the opposite direction. To wit:

• "Calendar" and "almanac" aren't all that different in the Japanese mind, and it's often hard for native speakers to know which concept 暦 represents, even when they encounter that kanji in context.

• The Japanese use one word (漆喰, しっくい, in which 喰 is non-Joyo) for "stucco," "mortar," and "plaster"! That must cause confusion!

• A proofreader mentioned that, in Japanese, there's no difference between "flower" and "blossom." One can express both with 花 (はな). That blew me away, given that the Japanese are so particular about plant-related terms. Essay 1740 on 苗 (seedling (esp. rice)) gives quite a bit of space to the way terms for "rice seedling" change, depending on the seedling's level of maturity and the number of leaves it bears! How can such agriculturally-minded people use 花 both for a blossom that will become a cherry and for a rose?

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Orange blossoms brought down by today's storm. These blossoms have created the most heavenly fragrance in our garden this month—more than I ever remember in the past. That's the one bright spot about standing out in the rain, waiting for dogs to do their business, only to have them refuse and then go inside and promptly perform on a rug. 


With flowers on the brain, I wanted to share something wonderful from essay 1927 on 暦:

One can divide the Japanese lunar calendar into as many as 72 microseasons! That’s what you’ll find in an app called 72 Seasons. Each tiny season has its own name (such as “First Spring 3: Fish Rise from the Ice”) and lasts about five days. Thus, the app charts the delicate changes in nature that most of us are too busy to notice. The app also provides illustrations, poems, photos, and factoids about the ancient microseasons. 

Led Astray

I started off by saying that things have been catawampus on this end. It's amazingly fitting that I spent the first two days of this week writing essay 1942 on 惑 (bewildered; to lead astray). Actually, it might be more accurate to say that I lost myself in it, as I produced the longest JOK essay to date, despite cutting and cutting. 

It was also appropriate that before I could post essay 2055 last week, my proofreader and I had an endless back-and-forth about this bit of text on the cover of a novel:


沢村 (さわむら: surname); 徐々 (じょじょ: gradually)

We simply could not settle on the best translation. Part of my problem was that Breen correctly defines 運命 (うんめい) as "fate" and incorrectly defines 狂う (くるう) as "to go mad," so I thought this sentence was about how it was Sawamura's fate to go crazy little by little. 

Not at all. My proofreader explained that 狂う technically means “to get out of order, go wrong, not work as it’s supposed to." That sense informs the following phrase:

運命は ... 狂う (うんめいは ... くるう: to have life go off track)

To illustrate his point, he concocted this scenario: Tanaka, a married salaryman with kids, was supposed to lead a happy life, but when he falls in love with someone other than his wife, his life starts to go off track. His lover calls the wife and exposes the affair, destroying the family. His life isn't as it was anymore. It's much worse (as is typically the case with 運命は ... 狂う). 

He continued: A similar example is 時計が狂う (とけいがくるう), which means that a clock or watch doesn't precisely keep time anymore. In the same way, there's 歯車が狂う, where 歯車 (はぐるま) means "gears." In a device with gears, gear wheels are supposed to engage with each other. Once they are out of gear, the machine doesn't work as it's meant to work. Hence, 人生の歯車が狂う figuratively means the same thing as 人生が狂う. 

After hearing that explanation, I proposed this translation, which he accepted:

Sawamura’s life gradually goes off the rails ...

As I mulled over our discussion, I perceived big cultural differences. The Japanese seem to expect that life will adhere to a precise plan. By contrast, a ticking watch and interlocking gear wheels don't reflect my culture's thinking at all. I'm very directed, and I naturally prefer that nothing interfere with my plans. However, what I'm really hoping for is that life won't be too crazy or unmanageable! Avoiding chaos seems to be the best-case scenario!

Have a great weekend!


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