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.