JOK Notebook

Wit as a Weapon

Welcome back from the holiday break, and Happy New Year!

Or is it not so happy? As we head into a time that feels dark and unappealing, many of us are deeply anxious. When the heart is heavy, it's hard to joke around (or may even seem inappropriate), but I believe it's never been more important to focus on joy and playfulness. For me that's the main escape route, the best way to remind myself of all that can be wonderful about life and about human ingenuity.

To that end I offer a recent culling of witty kanji treats—of course as a quiz. What do you think these terms could mean (and note that multiple answers may be right):

1. お目覚 (おめざ)     eye + to wake up

a. stimulating kanji concoction that wakes up your brain and heart
b. freezing-cold water used to wash the face first thing in the morning
c. type of candy given to a child after he or she wakes up from a nap
d. attractive person; eye candy

2. 同胞 (どうほう)     same + placenta

a. identical twins
b. siblings who aren't necessarily twins
c. soulmates; people "cut from the same cloth"
d. compatriots

3. 横文字 (よこもじ)     sideways + characters (last 2 kanji)

a. horizontal writing
b. Western languages; Western words
c. writing that you have to rotate the page 90 degrees to read
d. insult; backhanded compliment

4. 白波 (しらなみ)     white + waves

a. creamy frosting
b. whitecaps; white-crested waves
c. thief
d. problematic TV reception

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

Okay, here we go.

1.c. お目覚 (おめざ: eye + to wake up) means "type of candy given to a child after he or she wakes up from a nap." There's really such a thing?! I wish I were encouraged to nap—and then given sweets as a reward afterward! Actually, the candy definition is the second one; primarily, お目覚 is a child's way of saying "waking up."

2.b and d. 同胞 (どうほう: same + placenta) literally means “people born from the same placenta" (that is, the same parents), so it refers to both "siblings" and "compatriots."

3.a and b. 横文字 (よこもじ: sideways + characters (last 2 kanji)) literally means "horizontal writing" but never applies to kanji or hanzi written from left to right. Instead, 横文字 always refers to Western languages because they are written horizontally. Specifically, the term can mean any of the following: (1) the alphabetic letters of Western languages; (2) Western languages themselves, whether written or spoken; or (3) Western words. A sentence from essay 2095 on 氾 (to spread out) shows how the Japanese might use 横文字:

Our everyday language is flooded with Western words.

日常語 (にちじょうご: everyday language);
氾濫 (はんらん: flood)

The Japanese typically render 横文字-type words in katakana, so a near synonym is カタカナ語 (カタカナご: katakana words). 

4.b and c. 白波 or 白浪 (しらなみ: white + waves) means both "whitecaps; white-crested waves" and "thief." The latter definition was inspired by thieves in ancient China. After the suppression of the so-called Yellow Turban Rebellion (what a great name!) in 205 CE, the surviving rebels became thieves and settled in a place called 白波谷 (which the Japanese pronounce as はくはこく). The thieves came to be known as 白波賊 (はくはぞく), a nickname that established a connection between 白波 and thieves. Initially, the Japanese used on-yomi to read this 白波 as はくは, later switching over to the kun-kun reading しらなみ. In the second kanji rendering, 白浪, the 波 has simply been replaced by the synonymous 浪. A famous kabuki play called 「白浪五人男 (しらなみごにんおとこ)」 features five thieves as the protagonists.

Have a great weekend! And keep your wit about you!


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