Joining Japanese words together to reveal the true nature of things


Special To The Japan Times

Lets take an everyday English word — “footwear” — that combines two independent nouns, “foot” and “wear,” to create the general term for things people wear on their feet. In Japanese the word is 履物 (haki-mono), formed by combining a form of the verb 履く (haku, to wear on the foot or lower body) and 物 (mono, thing).

With the same formula you can make words like 着物 (ki-mono, an article of clothing), formed from 着る (kiru, to wear); 被り物 (kaburi-mono, head gear), formed from 被る (kaburu, to wear on the head); and so on.

As an aid to understanding, throughout today’s column I’ve selectively inserted hyphens to indicate where the word breaks occur.

This use by which the 連用形 (renyōkei, conjunctive form of a verb) connects to a noun — in this case mono — follows a consistent and logical pattern. Once you understand how the pieces fit together, you can magically turn verbs into nouns and vice versa, expanding your vocabulary by leaps and bounds. For example, you can use the verb 出来る (dekiru, to be able, or to grow) to create 出来物 (deki-mono, a tumor or growth).

Nouns can also be created just by using the renyōkei forms of verbs. Take the verb 係る (kakaru, to concern, to involve or to relate to). As the noun 係り(kakari), we have the word for a person responsible for something, as in 掃除係 (sōji-gakari, the janitor).

Nouns can also be created by joining two verbs together, such as by combining 食べる (taberu, eat) and 残す (nokosu, to leave behind) to make 食べ残し (tabe-nokoshi, leftovers).

Take 轢き逃げ (hiki-nige, a hit-and-run accident). It is usually written ひき逃げ using the hiragana instead of a kanji, but I’ve used the kanji 轢く (hiku) here to show that this particular hiku means to run over someone with a vehicle — as opposed to pulling a door open (引く) or strumming a guitar (弾く) — and is combined with nige from 逃げる (nigeru, to flee).

On the left side of the kanji 轢く (hiku)you can see the classifier 車 (kuruma, a wheel); on the right is the phonetic component 楽 (by itself read raku or tanoshii, meaning “pleasure”). Does this mean it’s enjoyable to be run over by a vehicle? Actually, it’s not read raku but reki making the compound word 轢死 (rekishi, to be fatally run over by a wheeled vehicle). It’s easy to remember because it’s a homonym for 歴史 (rekishi, history) which gives us a useful mnemonic: Get run over by a speeding car and you’re history.

Just as prepositions in English are commonly used to indicate a direction, certain Japanese verbs serve much the same function. Surely one of the most versatile examples has got to be the auxiliary verb 込む (komu). It’s composed of 辶, the shinnyō classifier, widely used with words related to motion or direction, and accompanied by 入 (read nyū, hairu or iru, meaning “to enter”).

Add 呼ぶ (yobu, to call) to the renyōkei form, komi, and you get 呼び込み (yobi-komi, a greeter), usually a tout who stands outside an establishment and encourages customers to enter. I fondly remember one in Shinjuku who used to get laughs by sarcastically proclaiming 本日も当店の前を素通りして いただきまして、まことにありがとうございます (Honjitsu mo, tōten no mae o sudōrishite itadakimashite, makoto ni arigatō gozaimasu, “Today once again, thank you truly for walking past this shop [without entering]”).

Komi also pops up frequently in the jargon used by police and criminals. A 張り込み (hari-komi) is a police stakeout. A house-to-house inquiry or canvassing is called 聞き込み (kiki-komi). A かり込み (kari-komi), is a roundup of suspects. Then there’s 垂れ込み (tare-komi), a tip-off to the cops by an informer.

While no longer current, the word 連れ込み (tsure-komi, literally, “to escort in”) used to be fashionable. It was later replaced by アベック — from the French avec (with). Both were used in reference to what are now usually called ラブホ (rabuho, love hotels).

Another everyday komi word is 振り込み (furi-komi, a money transfer between bank accounts). It has been used by banks since the 19th century, and I’m speculating here, but perhaps the term owes its derivation from the motion of shaking out coins from one’s purse into another’s palm.

Yet another word with furi is 振りかけ (furi-kake, “shake-atop”), varieties of condiments that get sprinkled over steamed rice.

The same furu is a versatile verb that can mean to wave, shake or swing. The elegant long-sleeved kimono used by stage performers is referred to as 振袖 (furi-sode, “waving sleeves”). An old saying goes 振袖で仕事はできぬ (Furi-sode de shigoto wa dekinu, “One can’t perform one’s job in a luxurious costume,” or “A cat in gloves catches no mice”).

The swirling flames of the 明暦の大火 (Meireki no taika), the catastrophic fire that destroyed much of Edo (now Tokyo) in 1657, were figuratively described as furi-sode. In a more humorous vein, furi-sode also refers to sagging flesh that accumulates on the underside of the biceps when some people age.

  • Rebecca

    I think “waving sleeves” is a nicer way to describe fleshy arms than the British “bingo wings” (aimed at older woman – it would be – excitedly holding aloft their winning bingo card).

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