JOK Notebook


Let's start with a quiz. See if you can match the Japanese words to the English definitions. Some of the Japanese terms have multiple meanings, but not all of the English definitions are valid matches!

1. 針目 (はりめ)                       needle + eye
2. 板目 (いため)                       plank + eye
3. 背筋 (はいきん or せすじ)   back + muscle
4. 針子 (はりこ)                       needle + girl

a. seam of joined boards

f. line down the back

b. acupuncturist 

g. vertebra

c. seamstress

h. woodgrain

d. muscles along the spine

i. eye of a needle

e. seam; stitch


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

Okay, here we go:

1.e. 針目 (はりめ: needle + a place something is done) means "seam; stitch." Note the change in the breakdown of 目.

2.a and h. 板目 (いため: plank + a place something is done) means "seam of joined boards" and "woodgrain." I love this; the seam could be where two boards meet or where two lines join up within a single piece of wood.

3.d and f. 背筋 has two yomi, definitions, and breakdowns:

背筋 (はいきん: muscles along the spine)     back + muscle  
背筋 (せすじ: line down the middle of one’s naked back, where the spine is)     
      back + line

4.c. 針子 (はりこ: needle + suffix for a profession) means "seamstress." Again, the breakdown has changed. I wanted to think that this term for "seamstress" corresponded to "needle girl," as that seemed very cute, though sexist. But this use of -子 as a professional suffix aligns with its role in 売り子 (うりこ: salesclerk, vendor) and 馬子 (まご: pack horse driver), which are unisex terms.

Answers b, g, and i were red herrings!

And why am I focusing on seams? The newly published essay 2064 explores seams that come apart (literally and figuratively) and those that people intentionally pull apart (so as to remake clothing). I immersed myself in the topic and thoroughly enjoyed the contrast between the literal and figurative meanings of verbs such as these:

Literal meanings:
綻ぶ/綻びる (ほころぶ/ほころびる: (1) to come apart at the seams; be ripped; be torn)

Figurative meanings:
綻ぶ/綻びる ((2) to begin to open; begin to bloom; (3) break into a smile, relax one’s expression; (4) have hidden things or feelings appear)

To understand how the figurative definitions evolved from the original ones, we need to consider that seams aren’t meant to open. When one does come apart, it exposes the previously sealed-off interior, opening up that space for all to see. With 綻, something hidden may become visible, as when a tightly closed bud transforms into a beautiful flower.

This intriguing idea opens a seam in my imagination, enabling ideas to pour out! Do English speakers have any parallel concepts of revealing what was previously hidden?!

Although I spent a great deal of time contemplating seams while working on essay 2064, I posted it and immediately realized that I still didn't know the word for "seam"! That is, I was missing vocabulary for the sort of seams a 針子 would create. I could discuss only the ones a person might destroy. The Japanese differentiate that much between the two concepts—and I dare say it's ... unseamly!

I therefore looked up "seam" in the dictionary, and this word emerged as the main way to say "seam":

縫い目 or 縫目 (ぬいめ: seam; stitch)     to sew + a place something is done

As is often the case with such immersions, I've had a heightened awareness of seams lately. I've been thinking about "seamless transitions," distraught people who are "falling apart at the seams," and something so full that it's said to be "bursting at the seams." I've even contemplated the "seamy side of life"! Where did that expression come from?! Oh, perhaps it's the hidden, dark side of a seam, the part no one is meant to see. So that's the English parallel to the beautiful Japanese concept. Where they have rosebuds, we have prostitutes and junkies. Fantastic!

If I hadn't been hyper-aware of the word "seam" last night, I probably wouldn't have noticed when my yoga teacher told us to turn the "underseam" of our legs toward the front wall. I think she meant the seam that would run up the back of the leg if one were wearing stockings! Or do other people's legs contain seams?! The body should indeed have them. That would make surgery so much easier!

Have a great weekend!


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