chou/haku – 潮・汐 – tide

As promised, another update. Today’s article will be the first one on kanji etymology.

While going through some kanji flashcards, I noticed the similarity in meaning of the two character 潮 and 汐 – they both mean tide. Just by taking a close look on them, we notice that they are made up of ⺡water and 朝 morning>, and ⺡water and 夕 evening, respectively. Thus literally, they would indicate morning water and evening water. A quick look in Japanese dictionary on Chinese characters as well as another resource confirms this is indeed the correct etymology.

Originally, while 潮 referred to the morning tide, 汐 was the evening tide. Over time, this distinction was lost and 潮 is the character generally used for tide, whether it be in the morning or the afternoon. 汐 has become a now somewhat rarely used character.

Alright, this time the etymology was plain and obvious, but for many characters, it is not going to go so easily.


tsuide – 序で – opportunity, occasion

As promised, a new entry today. We’ll learn a lesson about dictionaries this time.

At first, when you think about tsuide, what might cross your mind is that this word really looks like a verb; perhaps even the te-form of tsugu?

“Well, let’s consult a dictionary”, is the first step usually. Doing just that, we find in the 広辞苑第六版(Kōjien, 6th ed.)

(from the continuative form of [the verb] tsuidzu)

The next dictionary, 精選版日本国語大辞典(Nihon Kokugo Daijiten, concise version) reads:

(noun) possibly an abbreviated version of tsugi-te

Two different dictionaries, two different explanations, and they are incompatible. At least one of them must be wrong.

As for the Nihon Kokugo Daijiten, it’s noteworthy that the author(s) felt uncertain about it as well. Unless it’s a printing error and the entry should read の変化した語か, which would express no uncertainty. Let’s assume for now it’s not a mistake. If the word really comes from tsugi-te, this would be an instance of a mixed Japanese-Chinese reading, which is somewhat unusual; and tsugi-te itself would already be a shortening of tsugi-tē. It’s possible, but it doesn’t seem likely.

Yet, on the other hand, the alternative version feels equally strange. It postulates the word ?tsuidzu, which would be a strange verb indeed: To my knowledge, it would be first verb ending on the the voiced syllable づ dzu. This made me quite doubtful when I first read this explanation, but after some more research, I found an entry in the 大辞林(Daijirin), listing exactly this verb.

Further research revealed an actual usage example of this word, an old Japanese text written completely with Chinese characters actually uses tsuidzu. If you’re interested, click me for the link.

Considering the above, it’s my opinion that the etymology from tsuidzu bring order to, put into order is the correct explanation. Interestingly, the Daijirin also mentions that tsuidzu itself derives from 継ぎ- tsugi-tsu, which would lift the mystery of the ending syllable.

Moral of the story, never trust any one dictionary unconditionally, always cross-check with other dictionaries. There are enough monolingual dictionaries available online, and free of charge at that.

misasagi – 陵 – imperial tomb

I’m still here. I know I didn’t post for a while – sorry. It’s just that I didn’t come across any words to write about.

So this, we’ll be talking about misasagi. Again, this is a case where the kanji is of no use, so we can forget about it. Let’s think about native Japanese words.

The first thing that stands out is that this word is a noun, and that it ends on an i-sound (ie “ee”-sound for English speakers). While not conclusive, this is a good indication that this noun is probably derived from some verb, asl one of the functions of the 連用形-form of a verb is to turn it into a noun.

You should remember this well, there are many nouns in Japanese that are derived from verbs like this, even some simple words you probably never though about. To list a few examples, hikari light from the verb [i]光る hikaru[/i], tatami (mat) from the verb 畳む tatamu to fold, mizugi swimsuit from the noun 水 mizu water and the verb 着る kiru to wear, inori prayer from the verb 祈る pray, or tsugi the next from the verb 次ぐ tsugu to follow.

The next thing that catches our attention is the first syllable, mi, as it reminds us of the word 御 mi august, used when talking about persons of high status. Which would leave us with sasagi, which we predict comes from a verb sasagu. Now we should ask ourselves the most important question, does such a verb exist, and does it make sense?

In fact, it does. Although to many learners of Japanese, its modern form 捧げる sasageru is the one they will be familiar with. Which brings me to another vital point for Japanese etymology, namely that many transitive/intransitive verb pairs derive from the same original word.

To illustrate this, think about the verb pair 終える oeru 終わる owaru, which both basically mean “end, finish”. I don’t wish to explain the difference here, as that is of no importance. The interesting point is that both these verb are derived from the now archaic verb 終ふ をふ ō end, finish, probably through combination with some other verb such as 有る aru or 得る. Again, Japanese learners will find examples of this aplenty.

Back to today’s topic, sasageru derives from 捧ぐ sasagu offer, devote, dedicate, sacrifice. The last piece of the puzzle is found, misasagi is a place devoted to persons of high status, ie imperial tomb.

I’ll try to post again sooner this time. 捧ぐ me your 祈りs…

otori – 囮 – decoy

The character for this word intuitively hints at its meaning, consisting of the meaning-element enclosure ⼞ and the sound-element 化. Other than that, this character won’t help us discovering the origin of the actual Japanese word otori.

There is, however, an alternate spelling of the word: 媒鳥. Well, the first character is questionable, but the second character tori, bird, gives us a valuable hint regarding the etymology. So far, so good. Now comes the moment we need to consult a dictionary, and we discover the last piece of the puzzle.


The current word is contraction of oki-tori. Tori mean bird and oki is and old version of the verb maneku which means invite, call for. The whole phrase otori thus literally translates to inviting bird. And in fact, otori originally referred to a bird one would use to attract and catch birds of the same species. Over time, this meaning became extended to humans.

Now you know it. To the Japanese mind, people are like flocking birds. Fits the Japanese sense of community : )

nigate – 苦手 – bitter, poisonous hand possessing mysterious powers

Should you, after reading the title, now be questioning your basic grasp of Japanese, goal achieved. But seriously, I’m not kidding. Didn’t you ever wonder about this word, after having looked up the kanji used to write nigate, which only means unskilled nowadays, and finding that niga(i) is the word for bitter? I sure did.

The truth is, the original usage of this word was perfectly understandable. But let’s make this another episode of let’s read Japanese dictionary and consult the equivalent of the Bible for the linguist/ambitious student:



To summarize, as the heading of this post already states, a bitter poisonous substance was somehow thought to be connected with unusual powers. And one thing we learn about reading classic dictionaries is that we can ignore the examples. They’re mostly from ancient Japanese and are hardly understandable, and they don’t reflect current usage. Use a good dictionary such as 明鏡国語辞典 for that.

I suppose now would be the time for me to tell how we get a 180° flip in meaning to arrive from “super skill” at “no skill”, but alas, I’ve got no idea and I didn’t find anything on the net. Well, I could certainly speculate and make up my own theory, but I’d rather not to that without any evidence to back it up; and it may lead some people to think of me an authority and lead them to take my hypothesis for a fact. Not what I want.

With that being said, I’d love to hear you personal theory in the comments, feel free to speculate.

matsurigoto – 政 – government

Just happened to come across this word in a dictionary, and I was like, “wth?” I don’t know about you, but when you see just this word for the first time without any explanations or translations, you’re most likely thinking of anything but “government”. The first thing that probably comes to the mind of a somewhat advanced learner is that this word literally reads 祭り事 matsurigoto,festival.

The Chinese character that was assigned to this word should remind you of 政治 government, so that takes of care of that. Still, what’s up with the actual Japanese reading?

Once we look it up, we’re reminded of the fact that etymology is often intricate and complex, based upon things that were common or common-sense to the people of a certain period of history. And also, that often, when you think about it after you’ve looked it up, you’ll think “makes sense, it could really mean that.” But you couldn’t even begin to figure out the meaning beforehand.

But I disgress. The answer you’ve been waiting for: According to the Meikyou Kokugo Jiten, festivals did play an important role among the men in power, thus festival, feast was used to refer to them.

Huh. Surprisingly simple explanation, don’t you think.

PS: Another dictionary elaborates, the worship (matsuri) of kami (Japanese deities) was a major feature of Old Japanese culture. Executing the will of the kami was the official justification for ruling.


zehimonai – 是非も無い – inevitable

At first sight, one might recognize 是非 from expressions such as zehi goraikan kudasai (We very much hope you will honor us with a visit.) and identify the word zehi with an affirmative, eg certainly.

Then zehi mo nai would be very strange to that person, as it would sound to him like 確かでもない and appear to mean the opposite of what it really does.

However, zehi in that meaning is already a derivation from its original meaning, which is evident when we look at how it is written with Chinese characters. Note that we are talking about a sino-Japanese word for the first time, so taking a look at the kanji is a good thing.

The two characters 是 非 literally mean existence and non-existence, or rephrased, yes or no. Thus zehi mo nai in turn literally expresses [It is] not even [a question of] yes or no., ie there can be not doubt, it is inevitable.