JOK Notebook


On the whole, I really like the kanji of the week,  (inscription; established name; to engrave on one’s mind). I like the way it looks. I love how people have taken a figurative leap, originally using 銘 to represent inscriptions in metal, stone, and pottery and later using this kanji as "to engrave in the mind and heart." What a clever way to talk about meaningful experiences. 

The Japanese also include this character in terms for "memorization," and my proofreader made a fascinating comment about that: "Once one inscribes something on metal or stone, it can’t be easily changed or lost." That is, it seems that no one uses 書 (to write) for metaphorically making a mental note. Rather, to show that they have committed to remembering something, the Japanese use 銘, as if they're etching an idea permanently into a hard material such as bronze or rock.

Though I admire these applications, I am ambivalent about one aspect of 銘, which is its role in marketing spin. People use the prefix 銘- in terms for many kinds of items, thereby deeming them exclusively made, high-quality products. Here are some examples:

銘菓 or 名菓 (めいか: excellent cake; cake of an established name)
     established name + cake

銘茶 or 名茶 (めいちゃ: fine green tea; brand-name tea, famous tea)
     established name + tea    

銘酒 or 名酒 (めいしゅ: excellent saké; brand-name saké, famous saké)
     established name + saké

These terms appear in that order in the following images.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

The green writing at the top is as follows:

Excellent cakes of Karuizawa

軽井沢 (かるいざわ: resort town
in Nagano Prefecture on Honshu)

On a scan of packaging for a brand of 煎茶 (せんちゃ: green tea), 銘茶 appears just under 九州 (きゅうしゅう: Kyushu) on the upper right.

Photo Credit: Corey Linstrom

With the red vertical text, we have this:

world-class saké

天下 (てんか: the whole world);
之 (の: possessive particle, a non-Joyo kanji)

I'm ambivalent because I'm all for people's figuring things out for themselves. In that vein, I dislike "received wisdom" about anything. That's especially true when it comes to which cakes and drinks are good. What about personal preferences? What about approaching life without preconceptions and experiencing everything afresh? 

Well, I need to be realistic. I know we're all in a rush, and when someone curates our many choices, it's quite helpful, which is why we rely on Yelp, Amazon reviews, and friends' recommendations.

When it comes down to it, 銘- may be little more than an effective marketing technique, not an insidious force that's meant to stifle personal exploration and individual discernment.

But of course marketing spin clouds the mind in other ways. One is seldom sure whether or not to believe it. This issue arose in the new essay 1847 on 銘 in a surprising way. I introduced this keyword:

銘打つ (めいうつ: (1) to engrave an inscription; (2) call (designate) itself; mark; label)     inscription + to engrave

To illustrate it, I provided this sentence, which came from my proofreader Kana:

Eco-friendly products have been selling well recently.

最近 (さいきん: recently); 環境 (かんきょう: environment); 優しい (やさしい: gentle); 商品 (しょうひん: product); よく売れている (よくうれている: to be selling well)

The phrase 銘打った商品 literally translates as “products labeled eco-friendly.” That sounds fine in Japanese, but it’s so unnatural in English that I wanted to delete the 銘打った. Kana voted against that, saying that the 銘打った in the sentence helps her feel the manufacturer’s intent.

I didn't understand, so I took the matter to another proofreader, "Lutlam." He agreed with Kana and provided this explanation:

環境に優しい商品 is an objectively eco-friendly product. 

環境に優しいと銘打った商品 is labeled eco-friendly, but we can't know for sure whether it really is. 

So the difference between the two phrases is と銘打った, which translates as "is labeled." Shifting over to an English-only context, we're talking about the differences between these statements:

She is pretty.
She is considered pretty.

He's the best actor of his generation.
He's been called the best actor of his generation.

Effective in the battle against blah-blah-itis.
Said to be extremely effective in the battle against blah-blah-itis.

All of this surprises me, in that the 銘- of 銘菓 is supposedly a mark of excellence, whereas we should regard 銘打った as more of a warning label! 

Here's the preview of essay 1847 on 銘:

Have a great weekend!


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