(1) The kanji 母 “mother”
The two kanji shapes 女 and 母 show little resemblance to each other. But the meanings “woman” and “mother” are closely related; A mother is a woman who has a child. When a woman becomes a mother, the first thing that she does is to nurse a baby. That was what creators of the ancient writing focused on to differentiate the two meanings.
On the left is the development of the kanji 母 from oracle bone style (brown), bronze ware style (green), ten style (red). It was a woman keeling down with her hands crossed in front, with two dots added to the ancient writing of 女. In those shapes two dots signified a nursing woman’s breasts. The development of the kanji 女 from the last post is shown on the right for comparison. When we compare the two kanji in each of the three ancient styles, they show direct correspondence, except that for the kanji 母 two dots had been added. Even in the two kanji shapes that did not appear to have a resemblance, similarity starts to show up.
The kun-yomi /ha’ha/ (“mother”) is in 母方の (“maternal side” /hahakata-no/). The on-yomi /bo/ is in 父母 (“parents” /hu’bo/), 母校 (“one’s alma mater” /bo’koo/) and 分母 (“denominator” /bu’nbo/). It is also customarily used for お母さん (“mother” /oka’asan/) and 母屋 (“o’moya” /main house/.)
(2) The kanji 毎 “every”
The kanji 毎, 海, 悔, 梅 and 毒, have 毋 in common. The shape 毋 came from 母. We are going to look at those five kanji now. In the kanji 毎, in all three ancient styles, at the top of 母, a line of different contours (straight, wiggly, or curving upward) was added. There seems to be different interpretation on what this extra line signified, including “a plant that grew profusely” and “a hair accessary on a woman who was busily engaged in religious ceremony.” Together with the meaning that a mother could give a birth to a child one after another, it signified something “multiplying, proliferating.” From that it meant “every.” Throughout the ancient writings, there were two dots that were breasts, but in kanji they became a long single line.
The kun-yomi /goto/ is in 〜する毎に (“every time one does something” /suru-go’to ni/), 一週間毎 (“every week; by the week” /isshuukango’to/). The on-yomi /ma’i/ is in 毎日 (“every day” /ma’inichi; mainichi/) and 毎月 (“every month” /maitsuki/.)
(3) The kanji 海 “ocean; sea”
In the kanji 海, the left side was a bushu sanzui “water” and the right side 毎 was used phonetically to mean “dark; unknown.” From unknown water it meant “ocean; sea.” The kun-yomi /u’mi/ is in 荒海 (“rough sea” /araumi/) and 海や山 (“the sea and mountains” /u’mi ya yama/).
The on-yomi /ka’i/ is in 北海道 (”Hokkaido Island” /hokka’idoo/), 日本海 (“the Japan Sea” /niho’nkai/) and 海水 (“sea water” /kaisui/.)
(4) The kanji 悔 “to regret; to repent; vexing”
In the ten style of the kanji 悔, the left side was a vertical shape of a heart. This bushu is called risshinben “vertical heart.” When the heart 心 was used on the left side it took this shape to make room. The right side was used phonetically for /kai/ which meant “dark; regret; vex.”
The kun-yomi /ku/ is in the verb 悔いる (“to repent; regret” /kui’ru/ ), 悔やむ (“to regret” /kuya’mu/) and the adjective 悔しい (“vexing; regretful” /kuyashi’i/.) The on-yomi /ka’i/ is in 後悔する (“to regret” /ko’okai-suru/.)
(5) The Kanji 梅 “plum”
In the ten style of the kanji 梅, the left side 木 was a bushu kihen “tree.” The right side was the same as that of 毎., and was used phonetically to mean a tree that bears sour fruits such as a plumb tree. In the Key to Kanji, I referred to the view that associated the tart acidity of plums with relieving morning sickness and the kanji 梅. Now I am wondering if this story was added at a later time.
Plum flowers bloom very early in the spring before other spring flowers, and Japanese people appreciate them as a sign of the arrival of a new spring. Every year, from the end of January through February, TV news features blooming plum flowers, starting form Kyushu Island and gradually moving to the north, just as they do with cherry blossoms. Because it blooms early, it is also appreciated as an auspicious tree together with the pine tree 松 and bamboo 竹 in the word 松竹梅 (“auspicious combination of trees”/shoochiku’bai/.)
Plum fruits are also popular. During the rainy season, which is mid-June through mid-July in the Tokyo area, green fruits are sold and some people pickle them to make 梅干し/umeboshi/ that are salty and sour but very pungent. The fruits also make a flavorful drink called umeshu “plum drink” which is popular among women.
The kunyomi /ume/ is in 梅干し (“pickled plum /umeboshi/), 梅酒 (“plum drink” /umeshu/). The on-yomi /ba’i/ is in 梅雨 (“rainy season”/ba’iu/). The word 梅雨 is also pronounced as /tsuyu‘/ and in 梅雨時 (“rainy season” /tsuyudoki/).
(6) The kanji 毒 “poison”
For the the kanji 毒, the ten style added two lines to the ten style of the kanji 毎. What did the additional lines mean? There are two different interpretations. One is that the top was poisonous plants. This view may have come from the pre-ten style given in the Setsumon Kaiji (shown in gray here) that had two grasses growing at the top. Another is that this was three elaborate hair accessories on the hair of a woman, 母. Too many hair accessories was gaudy, and from that it meant “poisonous; poison.” Another thing to note about the ten style writing is that all the five kanji above had two dots for breasts, but for 毒 it had already become a single horizontal line. The kanji 毒 means “poison; poisonous.” There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /doku’/ means “poison” and is in 毒々しい (“gaudy; excessively showy” /dokudokushi’i/), 無毒 (“not harmful” /mu’doku/) and 毒味 (“tasting before serving for poison” /dokumi’/).
The stroke order of the three kanji 女, 母 and 毎 are shown for comparison. The first two strokes of 女 correspond to those of the kanji 母, which is repeated in 毎.
In these last two posts we have seen that the shapes 女, 母 and 毎, 毋 are all closely related to the origins of “woman.” In the next post, we are going to look at the kanji 男 “man; male.” [December 10, 2014]