The Kanji 大太天夫央英映笑 – Posture (1)


In the next few posts, we are going to look at the kanji that originated from the shape of the posture of a person using his entire body. They vary depending on how the posture was viewed, from the front or from the side.

(1) The kanji 大 “large; grand”

History of the kanji 大For the kanji 大, in oracle bone style, in brown, bronze ware style, in green, and ten style, in red, it was a person standing with his arms and legs spread, who was viewed from the front. Spreading the arms and legs makes a person look large. The kanji 大 means “large.” When it is used as a component, it keeps the original meaning of a “person.”

The kun-yomi 大きい /ooki’i/ means “large; grand,” and is in 大げさな (“exaggerated” /oogesa-na/), 大いなる (“great” /o’oinaru/). The on-yomi /da’i/ is in 莫大な (“huge; enormous” /bakudai-na/. Another on-yomi /ta’i/ is in 大作 (“monumental work” /taisaku/) and 大河ドラマ (“a saga that runs a great many episodes” /taiga-do’rama/). Other reading includes 大人 (“adult; grown-up” /otona/.)

(2) The kanji 太 “peaceful; thick; fat; big”

History of the kanji 太For the kanji 太, in oracle bone style and bronze ware style, it was the same as the kanji 大. For ten style, there were two shapes, (a) and (b) on the left. The shape (a) was treated as an older style and (b) as ten style in Setsumon. The account by the Kadokawa kanji dictionary is that (a) had a person, and two short lines inside signified “doubling.” Together they signified “even larger; very large.” Shirakawa and the Kanjigen treated the writing (a) as a simplified shape from (b). (b) had a person at the top, two hands and water inside. Together they signified two hands rescuing a person from drowning. From that, it meant “living in security; peaceful.”

In current use, two different kanji are used -太 and 泰. The kanji 泰 means “peaceful” and is used in 安泰 (“peace and security” /antai/). Other than that it is rarely used. (It is used for a name.) The kanji 太 is more inclusive of the original meaning “peaceful; thick; fat; big.”

The kun-yomi 太い /huto’i/ means “thick,” and is in 太る (“to gain weight” /huto’ru/) and 図太い (“bold; impudent” /zubuto’i/). The on-yomi /ta’i/ is in 太平洋 (“the Pacific ocean” /taihe’eyoo/) and 太陽 (“the sun” /ta’iyoo/). One tricky thing to remember when writing kanji for the Pacific ocean 太平洋 /taihe’eyoo/ and the Atlantic ocean 大西洋 /taise’eyoo/ is that, even though both are pronounced as /ta’i/, the Pacific ocean uses the kanji 太 whereas the Atlantic ocean uses the kanji 大. It must have been transliterated from the word pacific, “peaceful.”

(3) The kanji 天 “heaven; sky”

History of the kanji 天For the kanji 天, in all ancient styles, it was a person, facing front, with his head emphasized. The first line at the top was the head itself, but it meant something above his head, that is “heaven; sky.”

The kun-yomi /a’me/ in 天地の (“heaven and earth” /a’metsuchi-no/), a literary phrase. Another kun-yomi /a’ma/ is in 天降り or 天下り (“high-ranking government official landing an industry job” /amakudari/). The on-yomi /te’n/ is in 天下 (“world” /te’nka/), 天火 (“cooking oven” /te’npi/), 天日干し (“sun-drying” /tenpiboshi/), and 天引き “check off from (salary, etc.)” /tenbiki).

(4) The kanji 夫 “husband”

History of the kanji 夫We looked at the origin of the kanji 夫 in connection with the kanji 妻 “wife” in the post on November 24, 2014. In all ancient writing styles, it had a man with an ornamental hairpin, which signified a bridegroom. In both 妻 and 夫, the line at the top was an ornamental hairpin for a wedding. It meant “husband; man.”

The kun-yomi 夫 /otto/ means “husband.” The on-yomi /hu/ is in 夫妻 (“married couple” /hu’sai/) and 夫人 (“wife of; Mrs.” /hujin/). Another on-yomi /pu/ is in 人夫 (“laborer” /ni’npu/). A third reading /hu’u/ is in 夫婦 (“married couple” /hu’uhu/) and 工夫する (“to devise” /kuhuu-suru/). The word 夫人 (“wife of; Mrs.” /hujin/) is an honorific word and you never use it for your own name. When an English-speaking person, say Mr. Smith, says something like “I will discuss it with Mrs. Smith,..” when referring to his own wife, it does not sound odd. (It may be used more in British English.) But it sounds odd to a Japanese speaker, because we tend to translate it as スミス夫人. Chines look at this the same way Japanese do. A young Chinese tutor I knew was frustrated because her female student kept on referring to herself as /furen/, the Chinese pronunciation of /hujin/. I immediately understood what she was talking about.

(5) The kanji 央 “center; central”


History of Kanji 央The next three kanji 央 英  and 映 have 央 in common. In the oracle bone style of the kanji 央, it was a man facing front with a yoke around his neck, which meant “bad luck.” Then its original meaning had been dropped and it was used to mean “center; central,” from the fact that the neck was the center of the body. The bronze ware style writing had a short stroke under an arm, but what it signified is not clear. In ten style we see that the shape for “person” was the same as that for 夫. In kanji in both 夫 and 央, “person” returned to the shape 大, in which is easier for us to see the original meaning being “person.”

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /o’o/ is in 中央 (“center; central” /chuuo’o/), 中央出口 (“central exit” /chuuoode’guchi/) and 震央 (“epicenter” /shin-oo/.)

Note: This section on the kanji 央 has been revised as new information came to my attention. Thank you. Noriko (February 5, 2016)

(6) The kanji 英 “excellent; English”

History of the kanji 英In the ten style of the kanji 英, the top was “plants; grass,” and the bottom was 央 “center,” which was used phonetically. The center of a flower is the most beautiful part. It meant “beautiful; flourishing; excellent.” The use of this kanji for “English language” 英語 /eego/ came from the Chinese word for England 英吉利. Unlike Japanese language, which developed two phonetic letter systems, the Chinese language does not have phonetic letters to express a new word. So, existing kanji gets chosen phonetically. My observation is that when they assign kanji to a foreign name, the kanji combination tends to carry a flattering meaning. The literal meaning of the Chinese word for America is 美国 “beautiful country” and for England is 英国 “flourishing beautiful country.” The kanji 英 means “excellent; English.”

The kun-yomi is not in Joyo kanji. The on-yomi /e’e/ is 英訳 (“English translation” /eeyaku/), 英和辞典 (“English-Japanese dictionary” /eewaji’ten/) and 英雄 (“hero” /eeyuu/).

(7) 映 “to be reflected; be imaged”

History of the kanji 映In the ten style of the kanji 映, the left side was 日 “the sun,” and the right side meant “the center” of a person’s body. From the outline of a person in the sun, it meant “to be reflected; to be imaged.”

The kun-yomi 映る /utsu’ru/ means “to reflect; to be imaged. ” Another kun-yomi 映える /hae’ru/ means “to glow; shine; look better.” The on-yomi /e’e/is in 映画 (“movie” /e’ega/), 反映する (“to reflect” /han-ei-suru/) and 上映される (“to be shown/screened” /joosee-sareru/).

(8) The kanji 笑 “to smile”

History of Kanji 笑Let me add one more kanji that has the shape 大 to mean “person.” In the ten style of the kanji 笑, the top was bamboo. The bottom 夭 “young; to die young” by itself has a fuller history, shown on the right side. History of Kanji 夭

The kanji 夭 In oracle bone style and bronze ware style, a person was swaying his hands and head in dancing, and the pliant posture originally meant “young.” The meaning “young” came to be used to mean “to die young” in the word 夭折する (“to die young” /yoosetsu-suru/). On the other hand the kanji 笑 with bamboo at the top, a pliant plant swaying easily in wind, gave the meaning “to smile” from easily smiling.

The kun-yomi 笑う/warau/ means “to laugh; smile,” and is in 笑い声 (“laughter” /waraigo’e/), 苦笑いする (“to smile a wry smile” /nigawa’rai-suru/), 大笑いする (“to roar; to laugh hard” /oowa’rai-suru/). Another kun-yomi /e’mu/ is in 笑顔 (“smiling face” /e’gao/). The on-yomi /sho’o/ is in 冷笑する (“to sneer at” /reeshoo-suru/), 爆笑する (“to burst into laughter” /bakushoo-suru/).

In this post we have looked at kanji that originated from the image of a standing person viewed from the front – 大. In the next post, we will look at the kanji whose original image included the ground that a person was standing on – 立. [March 14, 2015.]

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