KANJI CURIOSITY.

Freelance writer Eve Kushner has been “fascinated by kanji ever since I started learning the characters in fall 2002,” and she’s started posting weekly essays about them at Kanji Curiosity. Her first is called “Neck and Neck,” and begins:

Do Japanese people regard the nose of an airplane as its neck?!
I initially thought so when I examined the kanji for 機首 (kishu: nose of plane):
機 = machine
首 = neck

I imagined a plane as a long, headless neck with wings! Then I realized that 首 (SHU, kubi) means not only “neck” but also “head,” “beginning,” and “first.” Associated meanings include “forepart of a vessel” and “occupying a head position” or “main.”
Ah, now the kishu compound makes more sense. But still I was tickled, because I have a deep affection for 首, which shows up in fascinating places:

手首 (tekubi: wrist)   hand + neck
足首 (ashikubi: ankle)   leg + neck

The wrist is the “neck” of the arm, and the ankle is the “neck” of the leg. Similar thinking applies to flowers:

花首 (hanakubi: the place where a flower joins its stem)    flower + neck

We have a comparable concept in English, with terms such as “bottleneck” describing narrowed areas. But somehow compounds involving 首 feel more fanciful or fun. Take, for instance, these imaginative words, in which 首 truly means “neck” in the anatomical sense:

首っ引き (kubippiki: tug of war using necks; constantly referring to a dictionary)   neck + pull
猪首 (ikubi: short, thick neck)   boar + neck

I don’t know about you, but that kind of comparison helps characters stick in my head.

Comments

  1. I’m a Korean and it is interesting even for me. I have not seen such usage of 首 as ‘neck’ in korean.

  2. Do English-speaking people regard the front of an airplane as its nose?!

  3. P. Spaelti says:

    I have not seen such usage of 首 as ‘neck’ in korean.

    Of course you wouldn’t. The meaning ‘neck’ has nothing to do with the Kanji. It is just the meaning of the Japanese lexeme ‘kubi’. In adapting the Kanji, the Japanese apparently found no use for this Kanji, as they had already assigned their word for head (‘atama’) to 頭. However they also borrowed the Chinese lexeme and its meaning along with the Kanji. So now the Kanji is used to write things that are unrelated. (In the 機首 example the Kanji is used with a meaning closer to the original Chinese, which is something more like ‘head’).
    There are plenty more cases like this in Japanese. Kushner’s observations may be cute, but they are also a nice example of confusing writing and language.

  4. There’s another method for learning kanji, developed by Vadim Smolensky (he also authored a kanji dictionary in software, which seems to be a great improvement over the older ones, both in terms of ease of use and quality of content, and which is also geared to help with that learning method). The method is, in short, to create a chain of kanji with the same “on” reading, and bind them together by a sort of crazy mnemonic story. Here’s his description of this method (Russian only, unfortunately):
    http://www.susi.ru/chains/
    I seem to remember reading an English version somewhere on his site as well.

  5. Do English-speaking people regard the front of an airplane as its nose?!

    Yup.

  6. Sorry, I was being snarky. My point was, even if the Japanese referred to the front of an airplane as a neck (which they do not), that would not mean that they actually “regard” it as such any more than we English-speakers regard it as a nose. We just call it a nose.
    What P. Spaelti said. (But why didn’t they just use 頸 for instance when “kubi” meant “neck” and leave 首 for instances when it meant “head”?)

  7. My point was, even if the Japanese referred to the front of an airplane as a neck (which they do not), that would not mean that they actually “regard” it as such any more than we English-speakers regard it as a nose. We just call it a nose.

    People are terrible at disentangling the-map-is-not-the-territory confusion—it’s a constant source of bugs in the programming projects I’ve been involved with. I don’t think we can say with certainty that English-speakers distinguish consistently between ‘calling something a nose’ and ‘regarding something as a nose.’

  8. People are terrible at disentangling the-map-is-not-the-territory confusion…

    Cf. especially many people placing more importance on the written form of a word than the spoken one; and the constant interference from the orthography when English-speakers learn phonetic transcription and apply it to English. Spoken language preceeds written language, both historically and for the individual, and most language use to this day is spoken, but still there’s an invidious confusion between the map (the written form) and the territory (the spoken language.)

  9. ‘Precedes!’ To my shame …

  10. Adrienne Li says:

    首 indeed has the meanings ‘head, first’ in Chinese, but this is the first time I have heard of the Japanese ‘neck’ meaning. I guess my problem is opposite to that of Kushner!

  11. marie-lucie says:

    A few years ago I went to a garage to buy a new set of tires. The first thing I saw on entering was a large sign advertising a special price on NOSE BRAS. Nose bras??? in a garage??? I had no idea of what those words could refer to. Later, I noticed that some cars were “wearing” protective covers across their “noses”, which I would have described as belt-like rather than bra-like. Surely the expression “nose bra” is one illustration of the idea that many men think of their cars as not only human but female.

  12. Surely the expression “nose bra” is one illustration of the idea that many men think of their cars as not only human but female.
    I would say that it’s a good illustration that men think of cars as cars. If they thought of cars as female, why would they buy bras for the noses? “Nose bra” doesn’t even make sense–unless it’s for a car. That works against the argument that people think a car is analogous to a human.
    (follow finger->see moon->forget finger)

  13. Re: P. Spaelti: AMEN.

  14. “Regarding”/”calling” issue aside, P. Spaelti raises an issue which is really one of viewpoint. To judge from the comments of Chinese- and Korean-speakers here, all of the following are true:
    - 首-as-hanzi has nothing to do with necks.
    - 首-as-hanja has nothing to do with necks.
    - 首 is etymologically (referring to its development in China) unrelated to necks.
    - 首-as-kanji sometimes has something to do with necks.
    In other words, it’s not surprising that Chinese/Korean speakers wouldn’t know about the “neck” usage — but that doesn’t mean that the usage “has nothing to do with the _kanji_” (my emphasis) or that necks are “unrelated” to 首-as-kanji… IF your viewpoint is based on “usage in Japanese” rather than “pre-Japanese etymology”. And usage does seem to be the focus of Kushner’s blog.
    (Of course, for some kanji usage, not even Japanese speakers agree on what’s acceptable, like the 応 thing I wrote about the other day. Those arguments are even more interesting. But “首 = /kubi/” is way too old and venerable for anyone to get uptight about.)
    P.S. Amida– many people _did_ differentiate between 首 /kubi/ as in “everything from the neck up” (as opposed to 頭 for “just the head”) and 頸/頚 /kubi/ as in “just the neck”, in the good old days. Some people still do, as Google will confirm. As for why it has become less common to do so, I blame simplification (頸/頚 ain’t 常用漢字).

  15. Oh, full disclosure — I’ve exchanged a few e-mails with Eve, we’re “internet friends”.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    Surely the expression “nose bra” is one illustration of the idea that many men think of their cars as not only human but female.

    Which, in turn, is a nice illustration of how this case of sex assignment depends on gender assignment. In German, cars aren’t feminine, so it is unthinkable to consider them female.

  17. marie-lucie says:

    Remarks on American men’s perceptions of their cars as (metaphorically) female have been made for decades, in spite of the fact that common nouns like car are neutral or genderless in English.

  18. marie-lucie says:

    What about the seeming contradictions in German, such as das Weib “the woman” and das Mädchen “the girl”, two words with neuter gender, yet denoting females?

  19. Andrew Dunbar says:

    I’ve never heard nose bra before but about 15-20 years ago when I used to read a lot of car magazines the term car bra was pretty common.

  20. marie-lucie says:

    Andrew, where were those magazines from (eg Britain, US, etc)? I am not familiar with too much car jargon but the place which had nose bras on special was in Western Canada.

  21. marie-lucie says:

    Back to “neck” in Japanese words: Eve interprets it as “narrow place on the body” but there is at least one other possibility. In several Native American languages words for “neck”, “wrist” or “ankle” are often based on a root meaning “turn” or “rotate”: these parts allow the head, hand or foot, respectively, to turn or rotate (at least partially). The other meanings in Japanese (“first”, “main part”; and “flower stem”) could be secondary developments arising from the specific meaning “neck” and its association with the head.

  22. Speaking of writing and etymology, there’s always the head in the road 道.

  23. P. Spaelti says:

    Back to “neck” in Japanese words: Eve interprets it as “narrow place on the body” but there is at least one other possibility. … The other meanings in Japanese (“first”, “main part”; and “flower stem”) could be secondary developments arising from the specific meaning “neck” and its association with the head.
    This has things backwards. ‘kubi’ means “neck”. That’s all it means, and that’s all it has ever meant (AFAIK, I am not a native speaker). It does not have any meaning “first” or “main part” either as a secondary development or otherwise. Meanings like ‘tekubi’ “wrist” and ‘ashikubi’ “ankle” and ‘hanakubi’ “flowerstem” are fairly straightfoward compounds of Japanese lexemes including this lexeme ‘kubi’ “neck”.
    There is a Chinese lexeme ‘shou’ which means “head” or “first”. This lexeme doesn’t mean “neck”, and never has (as far as I can tell.) The Japanese have borrowed this (the way English has borrowed ‘capit-’ from Latin) as ‘shu’, and use it in compounds like ‘shuto’ “capital (city)”, and ‘shuki’ “head of the machine (i.e. airplane)”.
    There is one complication. Because of the Kanji connection ‘shu’ has now also become the On-yomi of ‘kubi’. So the Japanese can write something like 絞首刑 ‘koushukei’ “death by hanging”. Here 絞首 ‘koushu’ probably looks like gibberish to Chinese speakers or Koreans because this is just reverse-engineered from 首を絞める ‘kubi-o shimeru’ “wring the neck”. Notice that Japanese even reverses the order of the Kanji to make it look more Chinese. So from cases like this, one could say that ‘shu’ (the Sino-Japanese morpheme) has developed a secondary meaning of “neck”.
    In the end the question is really how did the lexeme ‘kubi’ ever get associated with the Kanji 首 and the associated Chinese morpheme ‘shou’. I am just guessing, but perhaps phrases like ‘kubi-o furu’ “shake the head (lit. neck)” and ‘kubi-o kiru’ “behead (lit. cut the neck)” lead them to equate them. But this is just a wild guess, and I don’t know enough about Chinese or Old Japanese to know if this is on the right track.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    What about the seeming contradictions in German, such as das Weib “the woman” and das Mädchen “the girl”, two words with neuter gender, yet denoting females?

    The latter is easy — it’s a diminutive, and for no good reason all diminutives are neutral in German. Note that most people refer to girls using sie rather than es most of the time.
    The former is (today anyway) a pejorative. Not one with a specific meaning, just “a woman I don’t like”. Maybe that’s influenced by the gender.

    Remarks on American men’s perceptions of their cars as (metaphorically) female have been made for decades, in spite of the fact that common nouns like car are neutral or genderless in English.

    That’s actually what I mean: “genderless” makes more sense than “neutral” in English where only persons (in a wide sense) can be masculine or feminine and where persons are never neutral. Once a car is seen as a personality, English speakers want to consider it masculine or feminine, and go with the latter option.
    In German this tends to result in masculine cars, probably influenced by Wagen (“cart”, a common word for “car” somewhere up north).

  25. Hello,
    I am a native speaker of Japanese, and the word ‘kubi’ does not only mean ‘neck’ but also ‘head’. I hope that this solves the riddle.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    About German words for females which have neuter gender, my question was rhetorical, in response to David M’s claim that (grammatical) gender determines sex interpretation, and therefore cars could not be thought of as female in German.
    As a French speaker, I know very well that objects denoted by nouns of a certain (grammatical) gender have a tendency (in the right context) to be personified as humans of the corresponding sex, ex. in a fantasy or fable about animals or objects which are acting in a human manner, the ones of feminine gender will speak and be addressed as women and those of masculine gender as men, although in daily life no one pays special attention to this difference in common words. A few objects or even animals are known by two separate words, one feminine and the other masculine. As an example, the title of the well-known book “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” was translated into French as “Jonathan Livingston le goéland” rather than “J.L. la mouette” because the two words are synonymous and the masculine form was the obvious choice for the male character. If the book had been about a frigatebird rather than a seagull, it would have been more difficult to translate the title literally as the only noun available would have been feminine. On the other hand, the Russian play “The Seagull” is known as “La mouette” since the character compared to a seagull is a woman (I don’t know much Russian but I suppose that the word is feminine in Russian too).
    About Japanese “neck” words again: my main point was not the possible path of extension of “neck” words to other, derived meanings (which were mentioned in LH’s post above), but the possible explanation of why a word meaning “neck” would be a member of compounds meaning “wrist” (lit. hand-neck) and “ankle” (lit. leg-neck). It is obvious from those examples that the concepts, etc. associated with the neck in Japanese and English are not the same, and the Japanese ones remind me of the same grouping of concepts (including also the head) in some Native American languages.
    One cannot interpret those associations by inference from the English ones, which are more likely to derive from the concept of narrowing. The “neck” of a bottle is narrower than the “body”, and the general shape brings to mind a human neck above the wider shoulders, regardless of the length of this part in a bottle. A “bottleneck” in traffic arises when vehicles can no longer move freely because the roadway narrows for some reason and cannot handle the same volume of traffic.

  27. Andrew Dunbar says:

    Andrew, where were those magazines from (eg Britain, US, etc)? I am not familiar with too much car jargon but the place which had nose bras on special was in Western Canada.
    Marie-lucie, they were mostly VW magazines from the US but I certainly saw car bras advertised for many other cars than just Volkswagens.

  28. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you, Andrew. I did not know either expression.

  29. Well, I’ve just been looking up Shouwen (the primer misguided etymological dictionary) and Kangxi, both said 首 means head, so in Chinese indeed, 首 is head with hair (cf 頁 [1]).
    It seems that that connotation led Japanese adaptation to kubi rather than having another character for head.
    BTW, 絞首刑 isn’t that gibberish to Chinese nowadays, it’s being reimported. I know hanging was known as 繯首死刑 in Hong Kong back in the days of hanging.
    Indeed, hanging in China is a more honourable way of death than in most places because beheading is the usual way of capital punishment. Higher officials often asked to hang themselves after an order of execution was given to them. [2]
    [1] http://www.kangxizidian.com/kangxi/1427.gif
    [2] http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E7%BB%9E%E5%88%91 (Sorry, English portion didn’t say hanging in China, perhaps it was uncommon way of execution compare with other countries.)

  30. bathrobe says:

    ‘Kubi-nashi Nikku’ means ‘headless Nick’ (Harry Potter). No Japanese would mistake it as ‘neckless Nick’.

  31. When I was first learning kanji, it wasn’t my friend. But as I had to learn more and more, I told kanji, “You and I have to be friends. I accept you.” And now I love it! Long live kanji!

  32. bathrobe,
    THAT is what I meant! No one seems to be paying attention to what I have noted, though.

  33. bathrobe says:

    Actually, I think they do realise that. The problem is the mapping of Chinese characters onto Japanese.
    Obviously there is some discrepancy between the word ‘kubi’ and the Chinese character

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