JOK Notebook

Water, Water Everywhere

As I assessed the etymology of 滅 (to destroy) for essay 1848, which just came out, I was quite surprised to find water (氵) and fire (火) together in the same character. I was even more startled when I contemplated the role of water in a kanji meaning "destroy."

Then again, you can clearly see the destructive powers of water in a video that has just emerged. It's of the 2011 tsunami in Japan, and this footage is unlike any other. But beware—it's 25 minutes, so don't start watching it if you really should be doing something else!

The video ends with fires that cast an eerie purple hue over the newly created waterworld. As they spread across the horizon, it begins to seem possible that the water could serve a positive purpose, somehow dousing the fires. But that doesn't happen.

Although water and fire combine in 滅, they don't balance each other out. Given the meanings of 滅 (to destroy, annihilate; cease to exist; ruin), they clearly lead to destruction.

Water and fire are two of the most basic elements on this planet, and they've been with us for millennia. Nevertheless, they remain mysterious. 

Yanagibashi in Tokyo, a 1954 work by
Shiro Kasamatsu (1898–1991).

The following word expresses that sense of the unknown:

水面下 (すいめんか: (1) underwater; (2) behind closed doors; behind the scenes; below the surface)     water + surface + below

This word initially struck me as counterintuitive. After all, when a river is clear, you can see to the bottom. However, the figurative meanings "behind closed doors; behind the scenes; below the surface" hint at dirty deals, implying that it's difficult to see beneath the surface of the metaphorical water.

I asked my proofreader for the back story on 水面下, certain that there would be a great one. Something about fish that are dangerous or that hide behind rocks?

No. It's just hard to see clearly underwater. For example, we can only glimpse the tip of the iceberg; we have no idea how far down the rest goes. Also, a duck constantly paddles its legs underwater, but those of us above the surface see little to none of that movement. The duck appears to be floating along calmly on a pond with few ripples.

Mitake by Hiroshige Utagawa (Ando) (1797–1858), number 50 in the series The 69 Stations of the Kisokaido (1834–1842). Mitake was a post town that travelers reached on foot via an old highway.

The words on the shoji screen are きちん宿 (きちんやど: cheap lodging house). And the Japanese writing on the blue background indicates the name of the work, the series name, and the like.

We sometimes perceive still water as serene. At the same time, idioms in both English and Japanese celebrate flowing water as a sign of progress:

水に流す (みずにながす: to let water flow; let bygones be bygones; let it slide)

湧く (わく: to come up with (an idea); well (up); gush forth; spring out; surge; appear (esp. suddenly); feel emotions form (joy, bravery, etc.))

My horoscope today:

It's important that you not fight against the current today. Things are going pretty well for you, but that's only true inasmuch as you are going with the flow and letting the world be your guide.

We associate such movement with the release of something blocked. In fact, I once chatted with someone about writer's block, and she said that when she feels stuck, she finds a way to be near water. She might walk along a lively brook, she told me, but really a puddle or even a full bathtub will do!

I hadn't realized it till then, but I'm much the same way. I grew up on a cliff bounded by a river, so that must be part of it. When I'm near bodies of water, I feel right. I often run in the woods alongside a creek that has carved out an enormous canyon. Last week I spotted (and had prolonged eye contact with!) a coyote and two deer, as well as a rabbit (who paid me no attention). These encounters lifted my heart (and made it pound in the case of the coyote!). But the sight of the creek touches me in a different way. It's a constant, something that's always there, even when it dries to a near trickle in late autumn. And yet it's moving, moving, never the same creek as even five minutes before. What a paradox.

Clearly, water represents many things to us. On top of everything else, could it be a cerebral, abstract entity? In this word it is:

思潮 (しちょう: trend of thought)     thought + tide

Just as each of us has brainwaves, so does the culture on a collective level. As everyone mulls over the same matters at the same time, we ride a wave together.

And if we can't agree about these matters (as inevitably we can't)? Then we face this:

波風 (なみかぜ: (1) wind and waves; (2) strife; discord; dissension)     waves + wind

Ah, we're back to water as a destructive entity—at least when the wind whips it up into a froth.

Incidentally, one of my proofreaders caught a TV show about kanji in which the announcer quizzed the audience as follows:

Why does 太平洋 (たいへいよう: Pacific Ocean) use 太, whereas 大西洋 (たいせいよう: Atlantic Ocean) uses 大?

Warehouses at Tomonoura, a 1930 work by Yoshida Hiroshi (1876–1950)
from the series Inland Sea (Seto Naikai).

Here's the answer: although 大西洋 breaks down as large + west + ocean, 太平洋 means Pacific (1st 2 kanji) + ocean. Incidentally, 太平 also means "tranquility" and "perfect peace," breaking down further as large + calm.

The announcer added, "If you don't want to be confused about which ocean names use which kanji, just imagine that the extra stroke in 太 represents a Hawaiian island."

Good idea! Now how can I remember that 西 (west) corresponds to "Atlantic" when this ocean is to the east of me?!

Let's return to the breakdown of 太平洋. Is the Pacific calmer than the Atlantic? Well, "pacific" in English means "peaceful" and "calm," so English speakers have apparently thought so, too. How ironic that seems in light of the tsunamis that have roiled the Pacific.

Ah, a dictionary explains the origin of the English term. When Magellan sailed into the Pacific around 1500, he named it that because he found it calmer than the stormy Atlantic. Little did he know ...

One more ocean name is of interest:

地中海 (ちちゅうかい: Mediterranean)     land + middle + sea

The English and Japanese have a bit in common here, though the names don't convey exactly the same thing. The word 地中海 means "sea surrounded by land," according to various sources. And "Mediterranean" means "middle of the earth"! Clearly, whoever coined that name didn't worry for a minute about ethnocentrism! They were proud to declare that body of water the center of the world. Yes, the dictionary confirms the etymology of the English term, though not the ethnocentrism. Before "Mediterranean" came into being, those using Old English had called that body of water Wendel-sae after a tribe named the Vandals.

By the way, that tribe name gave rise to the term "vandalism"! And hey—vandalism brings us right back to 滅 (to destroy)! Here's a sneak preview of the new essay:

Have a great weekend! 

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