JOK Notebook


Here's a quiz for you. What's the connection between an ostrich and a camel?

To block the answer I'll post a preview of the newest essay:

These are the Japanese terms for each animal:

ダチョウ (駝鳥: ostrich)

ラクダ (駱駝: camel)

To show you why I find this wonderful, let me reconstruct my path to this discovery.

I was talking with my language partner Kensuke. (By the way, this month marks the 10-year anniversary of our having met and become partners!) And he told me that when it comes to one key challenge in his life, he often prefers this approach: 

to avoid knowing

知る (しる: to know); 逃げる (にげる: to escape, run away)

I replied that English speakers are forever talking about "denial." He in turn mentioned this term:


I didn't know it and looked it up, finding this:

現実逃避 (げんじつとうひ: escape from reality; escapism; ostrichism)
     reality (1st 2 kanji) + escape, evasion, flight (last 2 kanji)


I wanted Kensuke to share my joy about this great word, but that proved harder than expected. The first thing for me to do was find the Japanese word for "ostrich," which I accomplished: 

ダチョウ (駝鳥: ostrich, Struthio camelus)

On seeing camelus, I vaguely remembered having written about the ostrich-camel connection before. (Ah, I've just found that old blog post.) I then looked up "camel":

ラクダ (駱駝: camel)

These words share the non-Joyo kanji 駝 (hunchback). So the two animals, which couldn't look more different, are forever "connected" by the curves in their spine! Here's how the terms break down:

ダチョウ (駝鳥: ostrich)     hunchback + bird

ラクダ (駱駝: camel)     white horse + hunchback

A hunchback bird! A hunchback horse! Brilliant and beautiful! 

After showing Kensuke this kanji connection, I needed to explain "ostrichism" and the idea of "burying one's head in the sand" when confronting difficult issues. Again this was tough because he didn't know ostriches have that habit. 

This shocked me until I realized that most English speakers only know this thanks to the colorful idiom "burying one's head in the sand." And that thought intrigued me greatly. Figurative phrases not only make our languages richer but also teach us about the natural world, among other things. Moreover, idioms enable certain pieces of information to filter into our minds effortlessly. How efficient our educations can be when sayings do double duty in this way. When it comes to Japanese, kanji add another layer of delight. The characters also create and reveal connections between concepts that seem far-flung in other languages. There's too much fun to be had!


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