Behold the kanji character 工. Somewhat resembling a sans serif letter “H” turned on its side, and originally used to represent a tool, it refers to various aspects of labor, functioning as a character in its own right and appearing in other kanji, like 左 (hidari, left), which originally depicted a hand gripping a tool.

In the dictionary, this kanji is commonly read two ways: , with an elongated vowel, and ku, with a short vowel. Think of it like this: You can’t walk down a street for more than a few meters without seeing a sign reading 工事中 (kōjichū, under construction). Which makes it likely that somewhere nearby, a 大工 (daiku, carpenter), is building a house.

A less common reading is gu, such as in the compound word 工合 (guai), an older reading of 具合 (guai) to mean condition or health, as in 彼は工合が悪いので、会社を休みました (Kare wa guai ga warui node, kaisha o yasumimashita, As he wasn’t feeling well, he took an absence from his company).

If I may be allowed to digress for a moment, the characters in 工合 were originally used to abbreviate a longer term meaning “Chinese Industrial Cooperatives”; a U.S. Marine officer who had been posted in China introduced the term as a training slogan, abbreviated as “gung-ho” and intended to mean “work together.” In 1943, Hollywood got involved with a movie titled “Gung Ho!” featuring Randolph Scott and an all-star cast.

Eventually gung-ho became an adjective to mean “enthusiastic” or “overzealous,” as in a “gung-ho worker.” It’s found in English-Japanese dictionaries — but without mention of its kanji origin. Instead ガンホー (ganhō) appears in katakana, with such definitions provided as 猛烈社員 (mōretsu shain, an “eager beaver” member of staff).

We need to beware of when the same compound words take on completely different readings or meanings. Take 工夫 (kōfu, a laborer). Use it as a verb, as in 工夫する (kufū suru), and it’s read kufū, meaning to devise, scheme or figure out (another meaning sees it translated as dedication to spiritual improvement, particularly through Zen meditation).

This work-related character often pops up in words such as 工業 (kōgyō, industry) and 工程 (kōtei), which can mean process, operation, stage of a process or progress of work.

Ad copywriters often extol the designers’ skills at 人間工学 (ningen kōgaku, human engineering), leading to designs that are 使いやすい (tsukai yasui, easy to use).

Rather than the English スパイ (supai, spy), James Bond’s job description in Japanese might be 工作員 (kōsakuin, an operative or saboteur). And let’s not forget the fairly common family name 工藤 (Kudō), among numerous others.

Pronounced , 工 also serves as an easily recognizable phonetic classifier, appearing in body parts such as 項 (unaji, nape of the neck). Somehow, 項 also came to mean a clause or paragraph in a document and appears in the compound word 項目 (kōmoku, item).

Set beside the nikuzuki (meat radical), the phonetic is utilized in another body part, 肛 (, rectum), typically written or spoken as a compound word, 肛門 (kōmon). Jack Seward’s humorous book “Japanese in Action” cautions new learners to take extra care not to confuse this anatomical location with 顧問 (komon, adviser), pronounced with a short vowel with the accent on the second syllable.

In addition to its usual military applications, 攻撃 (kōgeki, attack) finds colloquial usage in sports like baseball. When it’s a team’s turn at bat — we’ll use the Yomiuri Giants for this example — a TV announcer might say, 4回裏、巨人の攻撃です (Yonkai-ura, kyojin no kōgeki desu, It’s the bottom of the fourth inning, and the Giants’ turn to bat). The 攻 in kōgeki also finds service with the verb 攻める (semeru, to blame or to torment).

The 功 in 功績 (kōseki), meaning meritorious service or achievement, works well as the given name Isao for men. Along similar lines, the character 貢 (, tribute) appears in 貢献する (kōken suru, to contribute) and as the male given names Mitsugu, Mitsugi and Susumu.

We also find 工 as a phonetic classifier in 紅 (beni, kurenai or , red), such as in the title of NHK TV’s annual music competition 紅白歌合戦 (“Kōhaku Uta Gassen,” the “Red and White Song Battle”), which is held on New Year’s Eve. Typing こうよう (kōyō) into a word processor will get you 紅葉 (red leaves) but the same characters can be accessed by typing もみじ (momiji), which is the name of the Japanese dwarf maple.

Several weeks ago, an editor friend of mine mailed to ask if I knew how the character 虹 (niji), formed by combining mushi-hen, the insect radical combined with 工, came to mean rainbow. Was the association with bugs, perhaps, because the wings of some insects appear 玉虫色 (tamamushi-iro, iridescent), much like the color spectrum seen in a rainbow?

Apparently not. My 漢和辞典 (kanwa jiten, dictionary of kanji origins), explains that the character for rainbow originally depicted a winged mythological creature, similar to a dragon, whose name was Hong. The insect radical, it seems, is also applied to reptiles. To understand this ancient writing system, we must occasionally remind ourselves that our contemporary assumptions don’t always pan out.

I was nevertheless reminded that tamamushi-iro is also sometimes used figuratively to describe a convoluted statement — typically said by a savvy politician or bureaucrat — that can be interpreted in more ways than one.

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