JOK Notebook

Where Things Nest

Let's start with a quiz. What do you think the following term could mean?

病巣 (びょうそう)     illness + nest

a. arachnophobia
b. lesion
c. birth defect
d. schizophrenia

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

The answer is b. That is, 病巣 (びょうそう: illness + nest) is a medical term primarily meaning "focus" but also meaning "lesion." 

Although I think of a lesion as some sort of scab or wound, I haven't had a specific picture at all. Should I imagine a bird's nest? 

No, the 巣 in this case doesn't refer to the shape of a lesion. Rather, it indicates where the illness resides—that is, where it nests. Here are two similar examples:

精巣 (せいそう: testis), which is where sperm reside
卵巣 (らんそう: ovary), which is where eggs reside

I came across 病巣 in talking with a Japanese friend about a disease. The older we become, the more we all seem to know people with terrible illnesses. It's just the way life is, I suppose. In the last month alone, that friend and I have talked about diagnoses of schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis. It's hard to discuss such upsetting things, and it's that much more difficult when the words in both languages are highly specialized and daunting even to native speakers. 

To tell him about a friend with multiple sclerosis, I presented this word from Breen:

多発性硬化症 (たはつせいこうかしょう: multiple sclerosis; MS)

Breen has labeled it a medical term, and sure enough my Japanese friend had never heard of it. But he Googled the word and came up with this explanation:


He shared it with me, and despite the grim subject matter, I had fun seeing what I could understand. The more I looked, the more I recognized, finally translating it this way:

illness in which multiple hard lesions appear in the brain and on the spinal cord

脳 (のう: brain); 脊髄 (せきずい: spinal cord); 多発性 (たはつせい: multiple);
硬い (かたい: hard); 病巣 (びょうそう: lesion); みられる (見られる: to be seen); 病気 (びょうき: illness)

Having seen the long Japanese explanation (which is really much better than many I've read in English), I can return to the compact medical term:


Ah, now its meanings pop out at me in a way that didn't happen before. When I copy-pasted Breen's word into the Skype window, I didn't even glance at the characters closely, to tell you the truth. After all, a six-kanji compound is quite daunting. But with the explanation in mind, I can break this long string down as follows:

多発性 (たはつせい: multiple)
硬 (hard)
化 (change)
症 (illness, disease, nature of a disease, syndrome)

The nature of this disease is that multiple things change by becoming hard. Of course, the last three kanji must form compounds in some way.... Yes, I have checked Breen and found this word:

硬化 (こうか: hardening, sclerosis)

And by now I feel I understand this disease in a vivid way. My grasp of it is quite simple, of course, but through the kanji, I think I know what's most important. 

Interpreting kanji involves both micro and macro thinking. You have to dig into the details enough to know what each character means. And if you can't figure that out, you need to zero in on its radical and components in hopes of finding a clue. Then you need to back up enough to glimpse the compounds hiding in a string of characters. And if you back up more, the meaning of the whole will simply come to you ... on a very good day if the winds are just right! 

Most of the time, you're left to enjoy the struggle and the small victories that come when the big ones elude you!

Have a great weekend!


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