Radically Fishy – An Adventure in Ideograms

12 Jun

Hi blog.

The rainy season has arrived, so be prepared to put up with me ranting about the locals’ inability to cope with the heat and humidity.

Recent news has been dominated with the story of Yamato Tonooka, whose parents left him in the forest for a few minutes as punishment, only to have him disappear and not be found for nearly a week.  The media have been tripping over themselves to bring us the exclusive reports, which now include close-up shots of the tap he drank from…

This post comes from an idea floating around inside my head for a few years but was crystallised by a school lunch, of all things.

Lunch included Japanese Spanish mackerel (“So is it Japanese or Spanish?  Make up your mind!”), which is known in the vernacular as sawara and written 鰆.  Astute readers might recognise the radical as the character for fish (魚) combined with the character for spring (春).  This fish always seems a little dry, and I quipped that since we are now in summer, it is out of season.

Time to look at some characters with the fish radical.  Let’s keep this simple and go by stroke number.

The modern character for fish.

The first one combines fish with the element for fortune telling (占) to make 鮎.  Avid readers may recognise it as ayu or sweetfish, although it originally referred to the catfish – namazu – now written 鯰.

Next is one you might be able to guess.  If we combine fish with an older version of the character for flat (平) – which I can’t reproduce here due to unicode issues – we get 鮃, read as hirame.  Hmm, a flat fish…  I hope you’re not floundering for an answer.  The answer is, of course, the olive flounder, bastard halibut or Japanese halibut.

The fish with the package (包) is a little confusing.  I’m pretty good with the fish characters – more than a match for a typical Japanese adult – but 鮑 had me stumped.  One reason is because it is not a fish at all – it is abalone!  The locals know it as awabi.

Moving along to another season, let’s look at the fish with winter (冬), read as konoshiro.  Actually, this character – one of several used for the fish – is misleading.  The answer is the dotted gizzard shad, konoshiro gizzard shad, or spotted sardine, which is actually in season in autumn.

The fish with the rock (石) makes sense.  The adults of this family of fish – known locally as kajika (鮖) – apparently lack swim bladders, and so sink when they stop swimming.  It is the sculpin, a large family of fish which inhabit a variety of freshwater and marine environments.  Interestingly enough, another character is also used for this fish.  This character uses fish combined with autumn (秋) to make 鰍, although in the original Chinese it referred to the weather loach.  The weather loach or weatherfish  – dojo in Japanese –  is now typically written as 鰌.

Sometimes the meanings of the parts of the characters is not immediately clear.  The next two are prime examples of this.  The first combines fish with the character for “to be” (有), but in this case it is to represent a fish that swims freely.  The Japanese name for the fish is said to be a corruption of meguro (“black eyes”) and is pronounced maguro (鮪).  The fish in question is the tuna.  Curiously, the Japanese have taken to using the word tsuna (a corruption of the English tuna) to refer to canned tuna…

My other example is fish combined with a character referring to a jade tablet (圭), but taken to mean a triangular shape, or possibly a good shape.  The resulting character is (鮭), referring to salmon.  The Japanese name for the fish is sake, which may have its roots in the Ainu language.  Closely related fish, which may be known as either salmon or trout in English are sold under the name saamon, a corruption of the English salmon.

How about a fish that includes the element for switch, cross over, or interact with (交)?  The resulting character becomes 鮫, and should be somewhat familiar to regular followers.  That’s right, it’s same, meaning shark.  Apparently, the shark’s twisting movements give rise to that character.  The Japanese name same may be of Ainu origin.

Our next fish has the character for village, and also for an old measure of distance (里).  I imagined that the right side referred to the fishes’ length or possibly the distance they swam, but it turns out that it is also a reference to sinews.  The resulting 鯉 is read koi, meaning carp.

We’ve already had one example of the fish radical meaning something other than a fish, so let’s finish off with three more.

The fish radical combined with 京, which typically means capital city but also has the meaning one quintillion or 1×1016 – that’s 10,000,000,000,000,000 – to make the character 鯨.  The ridiculously high number refers to the creature’s size.  That’s right, the character is kujira, and means whale.

Next, let’s combine the fish with a tiger (虎).  This one (鯱) shouldn’t be too hard to guess if I told you to think of a sea creature with the ferocity of a tiger.  The name is shachi, and it refers to the killer whale.  The same characters may also refer to the fanciful creature found on the roofs of castles, often known as shachihoko.

Shachihoko on the roof of Nagoya Castle. Photo taken from Wikipedia.

Shachihoko from the Wakansansaizue. Here it is actually written as two separate characters 魚虎 and not the single character 鯱. Interestingly, it is the second-last entry under “scaly marine fish. Mermaid is last!

Our final ideogram for this post is fish with a character meaning to surprise (咢).  In this case, however, the surprise element is similar to the character for chin or jaw.  Again, followers of this blog might recognise the resulting character as 鰐, wani.  Originally meaning certain kinds of sharks, it has been changed to mean reptiles of the order crocodilia.

I hope you enjoyed this post, because there are more interesting fish-based kanji characters out there.

Original bone oracle script.

Bronze script character. You can clearly see the fish here.

Large seal script. It’s beginning to take shape. I can’t see the fish any more.

Small seal script. It only takes a little imagination to understand what character this is, but it looks almost nothing like the original.

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