Matt of No-Sword has posted about the new Nihongogen Daijiten, the ‘Big Dictionary of Japanese Etymology.’ If I knew Japanese, I would definitely want this book, but I’m disappointed by Matt’s description:

The Nihongogen Daijiten is an attempt to solve or at least neutralise [the problem of different etymologies in different dictionaries] by bringing everyone’s ideas together in one place, from the carefully backed-up linguistic arguments to crazy stuff some drunk guy wrote down centuries ago.
So, for example, if you look up “Fuji” (as in the mountain), you can see the commonly heard explanation that it derives from the Ainu word huchi, meaning “God of Fire”, but also these other theories:
* It evolved from ho-de (火出, “fire comes out”)
* It’s a shortened version of kefuri-shigeshi (煙茂し, “smoke grows”)
* It’s a shortened version of fu-ji-na (吹息穴, “hole that breathes out”)
… and it comes down to which source you want to trust the most. (Sometimes the editors add a note weighing in on one side, or proposing an entirely different derivation, but this too is scrupulously identified as editorial comment.)

As I said in Matt’s comments, I consider it an abdication of the responsibility of an etymologist to simply present a bunch of ideas, some clearly wacko, and let the reader sort them out. If you have to give them all, present the one or two you think plausible in regular type and the rest in small type in a separate paragraph. But at least the groundwork has been laid for someone to come along and do it right.


  1. I agree. And it implies that etymology is entirely guesswork and plausibility judgements, which it isn’t (not entirely, anyway).

  2. Japanese etymology is a sensitive topic. God forbid you discover any important words have Korean roots.

  3. Thanks for the link! I’ve always been a bit of an etymologiphile and am ever on the look-out for a new source for Japanese. One of the things I’ve found irritating about Japanese kokugo-jiten is the absence of the kind of etymological information we take for granted in most of our English dictionaries.
    For those who know Japanese, Kurashi no Kotoba: Gogen Jiten, edited by Yoshinori Yamaguchi (Kodansha 1998), contains short articles on several hundred words. It’s not comprehensive by any means, but is a fairly entertaining read.

  4. Today’s “On Language” column by Nathan Bierma in the Chicago Tribune touches on the ideas of etymology, by way of presenting a book by Anatoly Liberman. (As a matter of full disclosure, please note that his book is published by my employer and that my boss edited it.) In Word Origins and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone, Liberman discussed among other things the examination of the intersection of possible etymologies. Bierma writes,

    Take the word “speed.” Liberman says the root of “speed” can only be determined by what linguists call “internal reconstruction,” which basically amounts to an educated guess. Liberman writes that by analyzing a family of related words, including the Old English word “spowan,” the Old Slavic word “speti,” and the Latin “spes,” linguists can speculate that the root of all of these words must have been “spodi.” But he puts an asterisk in his book by the word to show the existence of “spodi” is hypothetical.

  5. Thanks — I’ve given the book its own post!

  6. Perhaps “crazy stuff some drunk guy wrote down centuries ago” is a bit of hyperbole on Matt’s part. Traditional but incorrect etymologies could be important, if only to know what everyone else is likely to think is the correct etymology.
    So, “crazy stuff some drunk guy wrote down centuries ago, but which has been treated as gospel in many circles” is different from “crazy stuff some drunk guy posted in him blog last Thursday.”

  7. It’s true, I was being a little hyperbolic, but they do seem to have included stuff that strikes me as obvious nonsense (for instance, the word “oppai”, meaning “boobies” or “breast milk”, has two possible derivations listed: one from “ippai” (“one cup”, “a certain quantity”, “full”), as proposed by a dictionary last published in the 1950s… and one from “oo umai” (“oh, delicious!”), which was proposed by some philological work in 1850.)
    Also, the problem is that a lot of etymology in Japanese IS guesswork and plausibility judgments. Unlike, say, the Indo-European languages, there’s not really all that much history or sibling language evolution to go by. They only really started trying to write anything down one and a half millennia ago. Words that predate that (and aren’t obvious) are difficult to pin down.
    I also would have liked a little more editorial intervention in the work, though, at least listing the theories in order of probability.

  8. At least readers, with lots of possible explanations to choose from at each entry, will be alerted to the fact that obviously some of them are wrong. I’m afraid that most readers aren’t similarly aware that many of the “etymologies” in a very popular Chinese-English dictionary available online as well as in print are little more than fairy tales. Although the author of this Chinese-character-based dictionary does note that the work “does not represent the current state of research,” far too few notice this caveat, alas.

  9. I would like to know of any radio stations which broadcast about words
    and that also have radio links of after shows listening to them, so that one
    can re-listen to the show. More so than just Richard Lededer’s show.
    Any guesses?

  10. Contributor says

    I disagree (somewhat). Etymology is often multi-sourced, and a lot of times one doesn’t know where words come from. In the example given, these all seem more like “both and” rather than “either or”. E.g. In Latin animus has a meaning ranging from “wind” to “spirit”. Our modern language is MUCH more specific and nuanced. The older language is more metaphorical and deep. We talk in contracts, they spoke in meaning.

  11. David Marjanović says

    Our modern language is MUCH more specific and nuanced. The older language is more metaphorical and deep. We talk in contracts, they spoke in meaning.

    I’m metaphorically afraid this is metaphorical bullshit. Most of what we have of Classical Latin is poetry or at least literature. Iron Age Greek begins with epic poems and religious hymns – but everything we have of Bronze Age Greek is bureaucracy. And most of the very oldest writings are contracts – not metaphorically, but literally. You can metaphorically bet your metaphorical ass on that. 🙂

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    The English “spirit” has a meaning ranging from “ghost” to “soul” to “bravery” to “distilled alcohol”, while “wind” ranges from meteorology to flatulence. Obviously English is much more metaphorical and deep than Latin.

  13. David Marjanović says

    A spirited defense!

  14. From what I can tell, the pun in the English translation of the movie name Spirited Away fairly parallels the meaning of the Japanese 神隠し kamikakushi.

Speak Your Mind