Eyes Wide Open (4) 限, 眼, 根, 恨, 痕, 銀 and 退


In continuing our search of kanji that contain “eye,” this post is about the component 艮, which is described in dictionaries to mean “to halt,” “to go against” or “immobile.” The top of 艮 has only one line inside, instead of the two that you would expect as an “eye.” So, it is a little puzzling. Fortunately the ancient writing gives us a good clue about what it meant.

(1) 限 “to limit; restrict”

History of The Kanji  限For the kanji 限, let us look at the right side, 艮, first. In the bronze ware style writing, (1), we can unmistakably see an eye. The shape underneath the eye was a mirror image of the ancient writing for ninben or hito, 人. The ancient writing for a ninben or hito usually faced left, instead of right, signifying “backward.” So, one interpretation for the right side 艮 is that an eye and a person facing backward. An alternative interpretation that has been suggested is that a fearsome evil eye petrified a person with such fear that he became immobile or stepped back. In ten style, (2), an eye became a part of a person. In kanji, (3), two shapes became a continuous shape, with an emphasis on feet that retreat.

The left side of 限 is a bush kozato-hen, which meant a ladder on which a god descended, or a tall mound of soil that formed an earthen wall or boundary. Together the kanji 限 meant “a limit; restrict.” The kun-reading is /kagi’ru/ and it means “to limit”; and the on-reading /ge’n/ is in 制限 (“restrictions” /seege’n/) and 限定 (“limitation” /gentee/).

(2) 眼 “eye”

History of 眼While the left side 目 gave the meaning of “eye”, the right side was used for the sound /gan/ “round.” A round part of an eye is an eyeball. The kanji 眼 meant “eye; eyeball.” As we have seen in (1) 限 above, the right side 艮 contained an element of an eye or seeing but in this kanji its role was primarily phonetic. This is a semantic-phonetic composite writing, “keisei-moji (形声文字),” where one part of the kanji represented meaning and another its pronunciation. We see a good example of the fact that even if a particular component of a kanji was primarily intended to represent how it sounded, the shape was also often chosen for its original meaning as well. The kun-reading of the kanji 眼, /ma’nako/, is used as a more poetic expression than just saying /me‘/. 眼 is also used in 眼鏡 (”eye glasses” /me’gane/.) The on-reading /gan/ is in 近眼 (“near-sightedness; myopia” /kingan/).

(3) 根 “root”

Historyof根The kanji 根 had a bush kihen ‘tree.” The right side 艮 was used for the sound /kon/ but it also came with the original meaning of “immobile” or “to stay in one place.” What does not change or move with respect to a tree, regardless of the season?  The answer is Its root. So, the kanji 根 meant “root; fundamental.” By itself is the kun-reading /ne’/ and means “root.” The On-reading /ko’n/ is used in words such as 根本的な(“fundameantal” /konponteki-na.)

(4) 恨 “to resent”

History of 恨What would the combination of the shape of “a heart” (a bushu risshinben, a vertical shape of a heart, on the left side) and the shape 艮 “to stay in one place” mean? One reason why one cannot move on is because something lingers in his heart and that is “resentment” or a “grudge.” The kun-reading word 恨む (/ura’mu/) means “to resent; to have a grudge.” The on-reading /kon/ is in 悔恨 “regrettable; sorrowful.“

(5) 痕 “mark; scar”

History-of-痕In bronze ware style, (1) and (2), the left side was a bed placed vertically which became a bushu yamaidare “fatigue; ill.” A bushu yamaidade “ill” and 艮 “something that remains” together meant “a scar” or “mark.” The kun-reading 痕 /a’to/  means “scar.” The on-reading /ko’n/ is used in 血痕 (“bloodstain” /kekkon/) and 痕跡 (“trace; sign (from the past)” /konseki/).

 (6) 銀 “silver”

History of 銀In 銀, the left side a bush kanehen came from gold nuggets hidden underground. The right side was used phonetically. Together they meant “silver.” A bank, /ginkoo/, is written as 銀行, literally meaning a place to conduct business (行) in silver (銀). The name /ginza/ 銀座 was the silver foundry where the bakufu controlled the production of silver currency during the Edo period. The name Ginza was used for a lively commercial district, the most famous of which is the Ginza district in Tokyo in modern-day Tokyo.

(7) 退 “to retreat”

History of 退The last one in this post 退 had a different story. In ten style, the top of 艮 was not an eye but the sun. Below that was a foot that was facing downward or backward. With the left half of a crossroad彳, altogether they meant to go backward or to retreat. In kanji, on the right side a bushu shinnyoo, “to move on (in a forward direction),” was adopted.* It is hard for us to grasp the meaning of “to retreat” visually from the kanji shape 退. Another example where kanji shape is hiding its true meaning, and that looking into its ancient precursors is helpful to understand what the kanji really means.

Our readers may be tired of “eye” by now.  To be honest, so am I.  But there is one more important shape that we have not looked at, that is 見. I hope to discuss the kanji 見, 現, 親, 視, 規, 観 and 覚.

*Notes: The shapes for a forward footstep (止) and a backward footstep (as in the bottom of 夏) play an important role in kanji and we will certainly visit them later. In the meantime, for a discussion of a bushu shinnyoo, please refer to an earlier post entitled, The History of Kanji Radical Shinnyoo posted on December 28, 2013.   Thank you.  [April 7, 2014]

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