Aug 19, 2015

Etymology Expeditions: Etymology, Sei Style

I don't know Japanese or Chinese, so I don't feel qualified to go into the etymology of Japanese words, but I'll share this fascinating bit from The Pillow Book and its appendixes.

(147) Things that look ordinary but become extraordinary when written--Strawberries. The dew plant. The prickly water lily. Spiders. Chestnuts. Doctors of literature. Postgraduate students. Acting masters of the Empress Dowager's Palace. The arbutus tree.
People write the name 'knotweed' with characters meaning 'tiger's staff'. A tiger doesn't look like it would need a staff!

And here are the translator's notes:

Many names even for common objects were or could be written with Chinese characters that, when interpreted literally, often produced strange or incomprehensible meanings, as are most of the items here.
1. Strawberry . . . Dew-plant . . . chestnuts: Respectively, overturned tray child; sole of duck's foot grass; barbarian peach. 

Aww! This makes me want to learn Chinese and Japanese!

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