JOK Notebook

White Heat

The newest essay, which is on 糾 (to investigate; twist strands into a rope; gather people; put the screws on someone), contains a sentence featuring 紛糾 (ふんきゅう: complication; confusion; disorder):

The discussion became heated, and the meeting grew more and more disorderly.

議論 (ぎろん: discussion); 白熱 (はくねつ: becoming heated); 会議 (かいぎ: meeting); 次第に (しだいに: more and more)

That sentence made me curious about this word:

白熱 (はくねつ: (1) white heat; incandescence; (2) becoming excited; getting heated (e.g., of a discussion); reaching a climax)     white + heat

White heat? I associate whiteness with dullness, from white walls to the blank page that a blocked writer confronts. But here whiteness is about passion.

As it turns out, English speakers interpret "white heat" the same way. Merriam-Webster provides these definitions, one literal and one figurative:

1: a temperature (as for copper and iron from 1500° to 1600° C) which is higher than red heat and at which a body becomes brightly incandescent

2: a state of intense mental or physical strain, emotion, or activity

I found this example: "She had written the letter in a white heat of indignation." 

Aside from the 1949 film White Heat, English speakers seldom put this metaphor to use. We do call things white-hot, and I can think of memorable examples ranging from Billy Joel to the TV show Silicon Valley, but we don't seem to talk about white heat itself. Anyway, I'm glad Japanese people do.

Like White on Rice

I learned more about whiteness from essay 1841 on 妙 (marvelous; strange) in presenting this keyword:

白妙 or 白栲 (しろたえ or しらたえ: (1) white cloth; (2) whiteness)
     white + cloth woven from certain plant fibers

Here's some of what I wrote about the term in that essay:

The second kanji version was probably the original rendering. Back then, 白栲 (in which 栲 is non-Joyo) meant "white fabric made from paper mulberry.” Soldiers in ancient times (probably in Japan) used this fabric. The breakdown therefore reflects the meanings of the kanji in that second compound.


I wondered when someone would use 白妙 as “whiteness” instead of simply writing 白 (しろ). As I learned, the Japanese use 白妙 in waka (poems), always combining it with certain words, including 衣 (ころも: clothes), 袖 (そで: sleeve), 雪 (ゆき: snow), and 雲 (くも: cloud). The first two are about cloth, and the last two are known for their whiteness!

None of that is terribly important here; I just thought I'd give you some context. 

Anyway, when I found 白妙 in Breen, I noticed that instead of defining it as "(1) white cloth; (2) whiteness," as I have done above, he had "white" as the second sense of the word. 

Because he deemed the term a noun, I asked my proofreader whether I could replace the second definition, "white," with "whiteness." He said no, along with this: 

白 = white color

白さ = whiteness

I replied that, to me, whiteness = white color. That was news to him, so we talked about it more. He said that to the Japanese, 白 is the white color itself, whereas 白さ refers to how white something is. They have a lot in common but aren’t exactly synonymous. A detergent ad might say this:

(clothes will become) surprisingly white with a small amount (of detergent)

少し (すこし: a little); 量 (りょう: amount); 驚き (おどろき: surprise); 白さ (しろさ: whiteness)

This 白さ is about how white the clothes become, not about the white color itself, so the 白さ cannot be replaced by 白.

Talk about 驚き! I had no idea such a distinction existed!

More Surprises

When it comes to studying Japanese, I seem to have an endless capacity for surprise because there's an astonishing amount to discover. In recent talks with my language partner Kensuke, he introduced two words that didn't mean what I would have expected.

Here's the first:

台無しにする or 台なしにする (だいなしにする: to spoil; ruin; destroy; make a mess of)     stand + no

I wanted to tell Kensuke about the powerful Korean movie Parasite because he is an expert on Korea, but I also didn't want to ruin the story in case he saw it. I asked how to say "ruin" in that sense, and he provided this verb. I looked at it, puzzled. Why would "no (無) table (台)" convey such a thing?

My proofreader later told me that, according to Gogen, this 台 originally referred to a pedestal on which one would display a statue of Buddha. Without the pedestal, the statue wouldn’t look solemn, thereby "ruining" the effect. 

He added that these terms are much more common than 台無しにする:

ネタバレ (spoiler)  

ネタバレする or ネタをバラす (to give a spoiler)

The slang term ネタ, an anagram of the sounds in 種 (たね: trick; magician's trick), also means “magician's trick." And バレ comes from the slang バレる (to be exposed; be found out). The verb バラす (to expose) is its transitive counterpart. So giving away the plot of a story is like ruining a magic trick.

Here's the other term with which Kensuke surprised me:

非難 or 批難 (ひなん: criticism; blame; censure; attack; reproach)     mistake + problem

Well, first it threw me off to hear ひなん because I thought of 避難 (ひなん: taking refuge; finding shelter; evacuation; escape), which he kept using in October when discussing a terrifying typhoon. 

To clarify which homonym he meant, he wrote 非難, which looked like it would mean "no trouble," as in "no problem"! The word means that there's in fact quite a large problem.

As I soon realized, 非 can also mean "mistake," "wrong," or "slander." Here are other instances of 非 in all its wrongness:

是非 (ぜひ: right and/or wrong; by all means)

非行 (ひこう: delinquency, misdeed, misdemeanor)

非道い (ひどい: cruel, harsh, rough; severe, intense, heavy), though 酷い is the more common kanji rendering

非とする (ひとする: to condemn, denounce)

是々非々 (ぜぜひひ: being fair and just; calling a spade a spade) 

The last term has to do with objectively deeming a right (是) thing right (是) and a wrong (非) thing wrong (非). 

All of this shows just how wrong one can be!

I'll leave you with a preview of essay 1151:

Catch you back here next time!


Did you like this post? Express your love by supporting Joy o' Kanji on Patreon:


Add comment

Log in or register to post comments