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Kanji for ‘big’ will expand your Japanese skills

by Mary Sisk Noguchi

Every year on Aug. 16, at exactly 8 p.m., the first in a series of five giant bonfires is lit on a mountainside overlooking the city of Kyoto, signaling the moment when ancestral ghosts return to the spirit world after visiting relatives on Earth during the three-day O-bon festival. The largest and most iconic blaze, on 大文字山 (Daimonjiyama, Big Letter Mountain), comprises 75 torches arranged in the shape of 大, a kanji meaning “big.”

大 (ō, dai, tai) pictures a headless stick figure with legs and arms spread wide. (Note that the kanji for “person,” 人, can be seen within 大.) In addition to its core meaning of “big,” 大 possesses a variety of related nuances and serves as a powerful building block in an unending array of kanji compound words.

Used in its literal sense of “physically large,” 大 may be found in 大陸 (tairiku large/land, continent), 大根 (daikon large/root, Japanese radish), and 粗大ゴミ (sodaigomi shabby/large/trash, large trash items). 大袈裟 (ōgesa exaggerated) is a combination of 大 and 袈裟 (kesa), an ornate stole worn by Buddhist monks. 大脳 (dainō large/brain) is the semantic no-brainer “cerebrum.” While Westerners normally associate having large testicles with “daring,” its Japanese counterpart 大胆 (daitan big/gall bladder, daring) is reminiscent of the English expression “has the gall (to do something brazen).”

With an associated meaning of “extreme,” 大 is the first kanji in 大好き (daisuki extreme/liking, love) and 大嫌い (daikirai extreme/dislike, abhorrence). 大丈夫 (daijōbu extreme/height/man, all right), traces its roots to the ancient practice of bringing along a tall man for security in threatening situations (a custom that continues elsewhere, too).

大安売り (ōyasuuri extreme/cheap/sale, bargain sale) signs are ubiquitous in Japan. Far from being considered a deadly sin, 大食い (ōgui extreme/eating, gluttony) is a national obsession, with winners of eating contests attaining hero status. 大味 (ōaji extreme/flavor) is a negative expression for food that is not subtly seasoned.

大 is also used to describe extreme (i.e., loud) noises, as in 大声 (ōgoe extreme/voice, loud voice). To inform your kids in Japanese that the television volume is too much to bear, you can holler, “音が大きい!” (Oto ga ōkii, “the sound is extreme”).

大 can also mean “important,” as in 大事 (daiji important/thing, serious matter) and 大学 (daigaku important/learning, university). 大物 (ōmono important/guy) is a generic “big shot,” while 大臣 (daijin important/retainer) is a cabinet minister and 大統領 (daitōryō big/united rule/leader) is a president. These two titles are tacked on the end of family names (i.e., オバマ大統領, Obama Daitōryō President Barack Obama). 大名 (daimyō important/name) was a feudal lord in premodern Japan, when 名(myō) referred to a person subject to taxation on his land holdings.

With a meaning of “more or less,” 大 is the first character in 大体 (daitai more or less/the body, generally) and 大雑把 (ōzappa more or less/miscellaneous/grasp, rough estimate).

While 大 is usually pronounced “ō,” and “dai” or “tai” in compound words, a few notable exceptions — or “special readings” — are 大人 (otona big/person), which means “adult,” and 大和 (Yamato big/harmony), the name for ancient Japan.

大目に見る (ōme ni miru “to look with big eyes”) means to “overlook faults,” and 針小棒大 (shinshōbōdai needle/small/pole/big) is “exaggeration.” While English speakers use “a drop in the bucket” to describe a negligible amount, the Japanese say “big ocean, one drop”: 大海一滴 (taikaiitteki).

Speaking of oceans, don’t confuse 大 with 太 (tai, futo-i), a near-clone kanji that means “huge” or “fat.” When writing大西洋 (taiseiyō big/west/ocean, Atlantic Ocean) and 太平洋 (taiheiyō huge/flat/ocean, Pacific Ocean), 大 is the first character in the former while 太 is in the latter. (太 was originally written with one 大 atop another to signify “doubly big,” but now a tiny dot stroke substitutes for the 大 at the bottom.) As a memory aid, think of the dot stroke in 太 as the tiny nation of Japan floating in the vast Pacific Ocean.

The quiz below will allow you to explore more fully the remarkable creative power of kanji.

QUIZ: Match each of the following kanji compounds containing 大 with its pronunciation and meaning.

1. 大豆 (big/bean)
2. 大口 (big/mouth)
3. 大手 (big/hand)
4. 大家(big/house)
5. 大変 (big/abnormal)
6. 大幅 (big/width)
7. 大枚 (big/flat things)
8. 大意 (big/meaning)

a. gist (taii)
b. soybean (daizu)
c. terrible (taihen)
d. bragging (ōguchi)
e. landlord (ōya)
f. major companies (ōte)
g. large sum of money (taimai)
h. substantial (ōhaba)

Answers:
1=b
2=d
3=f
4=e
5=c
6=h
7=g
8=a

More than 100 Kanji Clinic columns are archived at www.kanjiclinic.com