To begin our exploration on kanji that originated from weapons, we are going to look at shapes that came from an edged object. The first of this series is on the shape 刀, katana “sword; knife” this week – 刀切窃初分雰紛契喫潔.
The kanji 刀 “knife; sword”
For the kanji 刀, in oracle bone style, in brown, it was a shape of a sword. In ten style the slightly curved handle in oracle bone style was bent backward sharply, and that became the kanji shape 刀. The kanji 刀 meant “sword; knife.”
The kun-yomi /katana’; kata’na/ means “sword,” and is in 小刀 (“pocketknife” /koga’tana/). The on-yomi /to’o/ is in 刀剣 (“sword” /tooken/), 日本刀 (“Japanese sword” /nihontoo/), 二刀流 (“a fighting style using two swords” /nitooryuu/) and in a phrase 一刀両断 (“cutting decisively in two with a single stroke of a sword” /itto’o ryoodan/).
The kanji 切 “to cut; all; earnest”
For the kanji 切, in ten style the left side of (b) had a small contour signifying a cut in the middle, and it was used phonetically for /setsu/ to mean “to cut.” The right side 刀 added the meaning of “to cut.” Together they meant “to cut.” When there is nothing left as if it were a cut off, it meant “all.” When one faces a sharp knife one has to be serious, and from that it also meant “precious; earnest.”
The kun-yomi /ki’ru/ means “to cut,” and is in 切手 (“postal stamp” /kitte/). When it is attached to a verb stem, such as 食べきる (“to eat them all” /tabeki’ru/) it means “doing completely.” (切る is usually written in hiragana as an auxiliary verb.) The on-yomi /se’tsu/ is in 切実な (“acute; earnest” /setsujitsu-na/) and 親切な (“kind” /shi’nsetsu-na/). Another on-yomi /sa’i/ is in 一切 (“all; everything” /i’ssai/).
The kanji 窃 “steal secretly”
The kanji 窃 means “to steal secretly.” It is not an every-day kanji. When do we see it? It is in more specialized words such as 窃盗犯 (“thief of personal property” /setto’ohan/) and 剽窃 (“plagiarism; piracy” /hyoosetsu/). The latter word has come up quite often as an illegal or dishonest act in scholarly work, art, copying of other people’s work including from the Internet, has come more and more to the attention of people and government. In this regard, I find the ten style writing of the kanji 窃 interesting. The top was a house, signifying a granary, and a hole. The bottom left was “rice,” and the bottom right was small bugs in a lump. The four elements (house; hole; rice; and bugs) worked together like this — inside a rice granary bugs burrowed and ate the grains, leaving empty hull while the owner was not aware of what was happening. From that 窃 meant “to steal away secretly.” What is left for the owner is just empty hulls.
The kanji 初 “first time; beginning”
For the kanji 初, in oracle bone style, bronze ware style, in green, and ten style the left side was the shape of a “collar,” its front and back, and the right side was a “knife.” In order to make clothes, fabric has to be cut first. From that the kanji 初 meant “first time; beginning.” In kanji the collar became a bushu koromohen, which looked like a katakana /ne/ with an extra stroke attached. (We will look at a group of kanji that have a koromohen later on.)
The kun-yomi 初めて /haji’mete/ means “for the first time.” The second kun-yomi /u-/ is in 初々しい (“innocent; pure; fresh” /uiuishi’i/) and 初な (“naïve; green” /u’buna/). The third kun-yomi /ha’tsu/ is in 初物 (“the first of the season” /hatsumono/) and 初恋(“first love” /hatsukoi/). The on-yomi /sho/ is in 最初 (“in the beginning” /saisho/), 初夏 (“early summer” /sho’ka/) and 初期 (“beginning” /sho’ki/).
The kanji 分 “to divide; understand; social status; minute”
In the kanji 分, in each of the three ancient writing styles a sword or knife was placed in the middle of something that was cut in half (ハ). It meant “to divide; portion.” This kanji included many related meanings. From the meaning of “one’s own portion,” it meant “one’s social status.” Dividing an hour makes “minutes.” When something is explained in a clear-cut manner, it is easy to understand, thus it meant “to understand.”
The kun-yomi /wa/ is in 分ける (“to divide” /wake’ru/) and its intransitive verb counterpart 分かれる (“to branch off; separate” /wakare’ru/). It is also in 仕分ける “to classify; sort out” /siwake’ru/) and 分かる (“to understand” /waka’ru/). The on-yomi /bu’n/ is in 分数 (“division” /bunsu’u/), 身分 (“social status” /mi’bun/). The two different pronunciations of 分 (/bun/ and /hun/) are used two totally different meanings in the word 分別—分別 /bunbetsu/ means “division; separation,” as in ゴミの分別 (“sorting out different types of trash (for recicling)” /gomi-no-bunbetsu/), and /hu’nbetsu/ means “prudence; wisdom.” It is almost comical to think about going through the chore of sorting trash for a trash collection while thinking about the other meaning “prudence.” Japanese cities require residents strict adherence to ゴミの分別.
The kanji 雰 “atmosphere”
Less than a month ago we looked at the kanji 粉 “flower” in connection with komehen “rice.” 米 and 分 together meant that rice was pulverized into powder. The kanji 雰 had 分 at the bottom of a bushu amekanmuri “rain; atmospheric”. Together pulverized drops of water in the air meant something pervading in the air. From that it meant “atmosphere.” The use of this kanji is limited to 雰囲気 (“atmosphere” /huni’ki/), but the word itself is often used.
The kanji 紛 (“to become confused; become lost”
For the kanji 紛 the left side in ten style was a skein of thread. When a skein of threads comes apart, it becomes tangled up. From that the kanji 紛 means “to become confused; become lost.” It also included turmoil.
The kun-yomi 紛らわしい /magirawashi’i/ means “deceptive; confusing” and is in 気が紛れる (“one’s mind becomes diverted from concern/boredom” /ki-ga-magire’ru/). The on-yomi /hu’n/ is in 紛糾する (“to become embroiled” /hunkyuu-suru/), 紛争 (“dispute; conflict” /hunsoo/), 内紛 (“internal dispute” /naihun/) and 紛失する (“to lose” /hunshitsu-suru/).
The next three kanji 契喫潔 share the same component, even though the shared component was used phonetically in 喫 and 潔.
The kanji 契 “to pledge; contract”
In the ten style writing of the kanji 契, the top left had a vertical line with three short lines intersecting, and the top right had a knife. It signified one making notches on a piece of wood with a knife. This was cut in half as a tally to match later on. The bottom was a “person.” Together people make a pledge or “contract.” The kanji 契 means “contract.”
The kun-yomi 契りを結ぶ /chigiri’o musubu/ means “to make a pledge; exchange a marriage vow.” The on-yomi /kee/ is in 契約 (“contract” /keeyaku/) and 契機 (“momentum” /ke’eki/).
The kanji 喫 “to chew; eat; drink; smoke”
For the kanji 喫, a mouth (口) was added to 契, which was used phonetically to mean “to chew.” Together they meant an act in which one put something in the mouth, such as “to chew; eat; drink; smoke.”
There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /kitsu/ is in 喫茶店 (“café; tea house” /kissaten/), 喫煙所 (“smoking area” /kitsuenjo/) and 満喫する (“to eat and drink plentifully” /mankitsu-suru/).
The kanji 潔 “pure; clean; bravely graceful”
For the kanji 潔, in ten style the left side was “water.” The bottom right had skein of threads, but it was used phonetically for /ke’tsu/ to mean “to purify.” Together they signified “to purify with water.” The meaning of “pure; clean” was also used to describe the manner in which one acted, “brave; graceful; manly.”
The kun-yomi 潔い /isagiyo’i/ means “brave; manly,” as i n (過ちを)潔く認める (“to readily admit one’s fault” /(ayama’chi-o) isagiyo’ku mitomeru/). The on-yomi /ke’tsu/ is in 清潔な (“clean; immaculate” /seeketsu-na/), 不潔な (“huketsu-na” /unsanitary/) and 潔白な (“innocent; guiltless” /keppaku-na/).
In the next post, we continue to look at kanji related to “knife,” including another bushu called risshinben. Thank you for your reading. – Noriko [October 23, 2016]