The Kanji 貝貨貯貢賃得負貿貴遺潰- cowrie (1)


The shape 貝 in kanji is used in two unrelated meanings. One is from a cowrie, and it carried the meaning “monetary value,” and another is from a bronze ware tripod (鼎), which carried the meaning of “tripod; pod.” We start our exploration with those that originated from a cowrie. The post this week is on the kanji 貝貨貯貢賃得負貿貴遺潰.

  1. The kanji 貝 “shell”

History of Kanji 貝For the kanji 貝, (a) and (b) in oracle bone style, in brown, and (c) and (d) in bronze ware style, in green, was a cowrie, a spiral shell that has an opening in the back. A cowrie was found in the southern sea of China, a long way from the inland where the civilization was situation. It was treasured and valued and was used for an exchange of goods and as money. A majority of kanji that means “value; money” contain a component 貝 “cowry,” as we shall see in a few posts now.  By itself the kanji 貝 means “shell; shellfish,” inclusive of all shapes of shells.

In Japanese a cowrie is called 子安貝 /koyasu’gai/. In the early Heian period story called Taketori Monogatari 竹取物語, one of the impossible riddles that the beautiful young lady, called Kaguya-hime, gave to her five noble suitors was to bring to her a koyasugai that a swallow mothered. In the end none of the riddles for the five suitors was answered successfully including the one involving a koyasugai, and Kaguya-hime returned to the Moon where she came from.

The kun-yomi 貝 /kai/ means seashell,” and is in 二枚貝 “bivalve” /buna’igai/), 子安貝 (“cowrie” /koyasu’gai/), 貝殻 (“shell” /kaiga’ra/) and 貝塚 (“shell mound; Kaizuka” /ka’izuka/). There is no on-yomi in Joyo kanji.

  1. The kanji 貨 “goods”

History of Kanji 貨For the kanji 貨, the left side of the seal style writing, in red, was a standing person (イ), and the right side had ヒ as a phonetic feature /ka/ to mean “change” and 貝 “cowrie; valuable.” Together they meant something that could be exchanged as money or for goods. In kanji the top became 化 (“to change” and phonetically /ka/). The kanji 貸 means “goods; money.”

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /ka/ is in 貨物 (“freight; cargo” /ka’motsu/), 貨幣 (“money” /ka’hee/), 金貨 (“gold coin” /kinnka/), 雑貨 (“sundries; miscellaneous goods” /zakka/), 百貨店 (“department store” /hyakka’ten/) and 硬貨 (“coin” /ko’oka/).

  1. The kanji 貯 “to save; store”

History of Kanji 貯For the kanji 貯 (a) in oracle bone style was a container, the inside of which showed a cowrie. It meant “to store valuable things.” In (b) and (c) in bronze ware style the container and the cowrie became two separate components top and bottom, which were later placed side by side in seal style, (d). Cowries were so important that they were kept in an elaborate bronze ware container called 貯貝器 /choba’iki/. In kanji the right side 丁 seems to be out of place but in fact one of the origins of the kanji 丁 was a square shape.  The kanji 貯 means “to save up; lay up; make cash of.”

The kun-yomi 貯める /tameru/. The on-yomi /cho/ is in 貯金 (“saving; deposit (in a bank)” /chokin/), 貯蓄 (”saving up; putting aside” /chochiku/), 貯蔵庫 (“storage; depository” /chozo’oko/) and 貯水池 (“water reservoir” /chosu’ichi/).

  1. The kanji 貢 “tribute”

History of Kanji 貢The top of the seal style writing for the kanji 貢, 工, was used phonetically for /koo/ to mean “product; skilled work,” and the bottom 貝 was “cowrie; money.” Many kinds of products of value were paid as a tribute.  The kanji 貢 means “tribute; contribution.”

The kun-yomi 貢ぐ /mitsu’gu/ means “to pay a tribute; support financially,” and is in 貢物 (“present” /mitsugimono/). The on-yomi /koo/ means 貢献 (“contribution” /kooken/). Another on-yomi /gu/ was in 年貢 (“land tax; tribute” /nengu/).

  1. The kanji 賃 “wage”

History of Kanji 賃For the kanji 賃, in (a) and (b) in bronze ware style and (c) in seal style the left side and the top of the right side made up 任, which was used phonetically for /jin/ to mean “work.” The bottom right was 貝 “cowrie.” Together they meant paying money to hire a person to do work for wages. The kanji 賃 means “wages.”

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /chin/ is in 賃金 (“wage; pay; salary” /chi’ngin/), 家賃 (“house-rent” /ya’chin/), 運賃 (“fair; tariff” /u’nchin/) and 賃貸住宅 (“rental housing” /chintaiju’utaku/).

  1. The kanji 得 “gain; profit; benefit”

History of Kanji 得For the kanji 得, (a) in oracle bone style and (c) in bronze ware style had a cowrie and a hand, whereas (b) and (d) in bronze ware style had a crossroad added. Together they mean one going “to obtain something valuable.”  In seal style, on the left side a crossroad was added to a cowrie, and a hand was on the right side. From “going out to gain something valuable” it meant “to gain; make a profit.” In kanji the cowrie became a 旦 “sunrise” and a hand became 寸.

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /toku/ is in 得をする- 得する (“to profit; benefit; gain” /toku-osuru; toku-suru), 得意になる(“to preen; become proud” /toku’i-ni naru/), お買い得 (“great deal; bargain” /okaidoku/), 納得する (“to understand” /nattoku-suru/) and 得心する (“to consent to; realize” /tokushin-suru/).

  1. The kanji 負 “to carry on one’s back; be defeated; negative”

History of Kanji 負The seal style writing of the kanji 負 had a person with his back bent at the top, and “cowrie,” signifying “money” at the bottom. Together they meant a man carrying something on his back, or a debt, on his bent back. The kanji 負 means “debt; to lose; owe; carry on one’s back.”

The kun-yomi 負ける /makeru/ means “to be defeated; lose,” and is in 勝ち負け (“victory and defeat” /ka’chimake/) and 負けず嫌い (“hating to lose; unyielding; competitive.”)  Another kun-yomi 負う/ou/ means “to carry on the back; have a debt,” and is in 背負う “to carry on one’s back.”  The on-yomi word 負 /hu/ means “negative (number); minus,” and is in 負債 (“debt; liabilities” /husai/). /-Bu/ is in 勝負 (“match; contest; game” /sho’obu/).

  1. The kanji 貿 “trade”

History of Kanji 貿For the kanji 貿 in bronze ware style and seal style, the top was used phonetically for /boo/ to mean “to divide in two,” and the bottom was “cowrie.” Together they signified “to trade goods” The kanji 貿means “to trade.”

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /boo/ is used only in the word 貿易 (“foreign trade; commerce” /booeki/), such as 貿易風 (“trade wind” /booekihuu/), 貿易収支 (“balance of trade” /booeki-shu’ushi/), 貿易自由化 (“liberalization of trade; deregulation of trade” /booeki-jiyuuka/) and 貿易摩擦 (“trade friction; trade dispute” /booeki-ma’satsu/).

  1. The kanji 貴 “noble; precious”

History of Kanji 貴In seal style writing, the kanji 貴 had two hands holding something reverently. The bottom was a cowrie. Together they signified “to handle something valuable carefully.” It means “precious; valuable; of high value.” It is also used for people to mean “noble; august.” The kanji 貴 means “precious; valuable; noble; venerable.”

The kun-yomi 貴い /tooto’i/ means “august; venerable; noble.” Another kun-yomi 貴ぶ /tatto’bu/ means “to appreciate; treasure.” The on-yomi /ki/ is in 貴重な (“precious; valuable” /kichoo-na/), 高貴な (“noble” /ko’oki-na/) and 貴族 (“aristocracy” /ki’zoku/).

  1. The kanji 遺 “to leave behind; give”

History of Kanji 遺In bronze ware style, (a) had “two hands holding something carefully” (top), “crossroad” (left) and a cowrie (bottom right).  In (b) a hand was at the bottom, and a footprint was added at the bottom left. Together they meant someone leaving something precious behind. In (c), underneath two hands holding a thing carefully, were a crossroad and footprint, which in (d) in seal style became 辵 “to go forward,” a precursor of a bushu shinnyoo.  The kanji 遺 means “to leave behind; bequest.”

The kun-yomi 遺す /noko’su/ means “to leave behind.” The on-yomi /i/ is in 遺品 (“article left behind (after one’s death); memento” /ihin/), 遺失物 (“lost-and-found article” /ishitsu’butsu/), 遺跡 (“remains; historical spot; ruins” /iseki/) and 遺書 (“a will; a note left by a dead person” /i’sho/).

  1. The kanji 潰 “to crush; collapse”

History of Kanji 潰The seal style writing of the kanji 潰 had “water” and 貴, which was used phonetically for /kai/ to mean “to collapse.” Together their ogirinal meaning was  “a breach of water; bursting a bank.” It described a forceful destruction such as one made by a collapse of a bank –“collapse; crush; smash.” The kanji 潰 means “a breach of water; collapse; crush.”

The kun-yomi 潰す /tsubusu/ means “to crush; break down; squash,” and its intransitive verb counterpart 潰れる (“to tumble; crumble; collapse” /tsubureru/). The expression シラミ潰しに・しらみつぶしに means “(to check) thoroughly; one by one” /shirami-tsu’bushi-ni/). (シラミ /shirami/ means “lice.”) The on-yomi /kai/ is in 決潰 (“collapse; rip” /kekkai/), 潰滅 (“annihilation; total demolition” /kaimetsu/) and 潰瘍 (“ulcer” /kaiyoo/).  The kanji 潰 was not in the previous Joyo kanji, and the kanji 壊 was substituted until the revision.

There are many more kanji with a cowrie. I expect we shall need a couple of more posts on this topic. Thank you very much for your reading. — Noriko [June 17, 2017]

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