JOK Notebook

Weirdly Wonderful Words

I've stumbled onto a treasure trove of weirdly put-together words, and as usual I'd like to share them in the form of a quiz. Have at it, matching each term to the best definition:

1. 帰化 (きか)     to return + to change

a. returning from a trip with a fresh perspective
b. naturalization
c. returning an item to a store
d. physical transformation

2. 人質 (ひとじち)     person + quality

a. personality traits
b. exemplary person
c. personal profile (e.g., a bio or description of oneself on a website)
d. hostage 

3. 鼠講 (ねずみこう)     mouse + club

a. dating site for shy people
b. Mickey Mouse Club
c. club for people who are afraid of mice 
d. pyramid scheme

4. 山彦 (やまびこ)     mountain + good-looking man

a. echo 
b. hick; derogatory term for a rural person
c. resourceful type with a lot of common sense
d. mountain climber

5. 声が裏返る (こえがうらがえる)     voice + to be turned inside out (last 2 kanji)

a. (for a voice) to crack or squeak
b. (for a voice) to be distorted by sobs
c. (for a voice) to sing out of range
d. (for a voice) to turn into a whisper

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

Okay, here we go!

1.b. 帰化 (きか: to settle down + to change) means "naturalization." 

I wondered why this term would include "returning" (帰) when immigration should happen in one direction (say, from the United States to Canada). It turns out that, as Kanjigen indicates, 帰 can also mean "to settle down in the appropriate place" or "to go to the place where someone or something should be." Intriguing! Is that what immigration is truly about—moving to the place one should have been all along?! I've adjusted the blue breakdown to reflect the core part of this meaning.

2.d. 人質 (ひとじち: person + pawn) means "hostage." Again, I've changed the breakdown to reflect the true meaning of one kanji. In this case, 質 doesn't represent "quality." Instead, the character stands for "pawn," just as 質屋 (しちや) means “pawnshop." That is, a 人質 is a "person" that one would "pawn" for money!

3.d. 鼠講 (ねずみこう: mouse + club) means "pyramid scheme." The first kanji is non-Joyo. And what's the role of the mouse? Just as mice reproduce at staggering rates, pyramid schemes acquire exponential numbers of members!

4.a. 山彦 (やまびこ: mountain + good-looking man) means "echo (especially one reverberating in the mountains)." The second kanji is non-Joyo.

The Japanese used to believe that echoes were the voices of the gods of the mountains. And were gods considered to be hot? Not necessarily, says my proofreader, but he doesn't have more information—only that various dictionaries indicate that 山彦 originally meant "mountain god" or "mountain spirit."

5.a.  声が裏返る (こえがうらがえる: voice + to squeak (last 2 kanji)) means "(for a voice) to crack or squeak." The verb at the heart of this phrase has many definitions:

裏返る or 裏反る (うらがえる: (1) to be turned inside out; (2) betray; double-cross; (3) break into a falsetto; squeak; croak; quaver)

In 声が裏返る, the third meanings of the verb are obviously the pertinent ones, and the breakdown above now reflects that. But I wish the 裏返る in 声が裏返る meant "to be turned inside out" because I like the idea that that can happen to a voice, reducing it to a squeak!

Catch you back here next time!



With 山彦 on the brain, I thought of the wondrous book Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko and contacted David Jacobson (one of the book's co-creators) to ask about the book title. I knew it came from a Misuzu Kaneko poem, but which kanji had she used to represent "echo" in that case? As he informed me, 山彦 didn't enter into the picture. Instead, she used the synonym こだま, rendering it in hiragana, which is actually how the Japanese usually write that word for its primary definitions:

こだま (木霊 or 木魂 or 谺》(1) echo; reverberation; (2) spirit of a tree; tree spirit)

I find it weird and lovely to think that the spirit of the tree has to do with echoing, and I said as much to Dave, who referred me to two web pages. One is a short entry about 山彦, and the other is a fascinating and impressively full blog post by Zack Davisson about こだま, the tree spirit.

Recalling that Kodama and Yamabiko happen to be the names of bullet trains, Dave also shared a punny story with me about Shinkansen names:

Around the time of the 3/11 tsunami, when Misuzu’s poem "kodama deshou ka” ("Are you an Echo?") was being broadcast on the airwaves many times a day, a joke arose, playing on the last two lines of the poem. The last two lines are:

kodama deshou ka?
Are you an echo?

iie, dare demo.
No, you are everyone.

The joke is:

Kodama deshou ka
Is it an Echo (referring to a type of bullet train)?

Iie, Hikari desu.
No, it’s a Hikari (another class of bullet train).


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