I found a new baby

The Nihongogen Daijiten (日本語源大辞典) or "Big Dictionary of Japanese Etymology" was finally published last month, and I picked up my copy earlier this week. 1200 pages of meticulously edited fun.

Most serious Japanese dictionaries these days explain the origin of at least some words, but the problem is that you never know if they're right or not. Japanese etymology is at a disadvantage when compared with, say, Euro-language etymology, because there just isn't anything we can effectively compare and contrast Japanese with. We know a lot about how Japanese evolved after they started writing things down, but the origins of words and constructions that predate the introduction of Chinese characters are often very difficult to pin down.

What this means, of course, is that everyone is free to come up with their own hypotheses. And, naturally, any given dictionary will tend to prefer the hypotheses its editors think make the most sense. But for all we know, those editors could be betting on entirely the wrong horse.

The Nihongogen Daijiten is an attempt to solve or at least neutralise this problem by bringing everyone's ideas together in one place, from the carefully backed-up linguistic arguments to crazy stuff some drunk guy wrote down centuries ago.

So, for example, if you look up "Fuji" (as in the mountain), you can see the commonly heard explanation that it derives from the Ainu word huchi, meaning "God of Fire", but also these other theories:

  • It evolved from ho-de (火出, "fire comes out")
  • It's a shortened version of kefuri-shigeshi (煙茂し, "smoke grows")
  • It's a shortened version of fu-ji-na (吹息穴, "hole that breathes out")

... and it comes down to which source you want to trust the most. (Sometimes the editors add a note weighing in on one side, or proposing an entirely different derivation, but this too is scrupulously identified as editorial comment.)

Similarly, proposed origins for yome (嫁, "wife") include:

  • yobi-me (呼び女, "woman you call")
  • yoha-me (弱女, "weak woman")
  • yo(shi)-me (吉女, "good woman")

... and six others.

The two explanations of musuko (息子, "son") I find most convincing are musu-ko (生す子, "child you cause to live") and musubi-ko (結び子, "connecting child").

Plus, who knew so many folks were proposing non-Chinese roots for the word ke (気), which means "air" or "spirit"? It came from kagu (嗅ぐ, "to smell"), it came from kaze (風, "wind")...

And so on.

So, for all those people who were thinking "I like Matt's blog, but I wish he'd spend more time going into excruciating, irrelevant detail about where certain words may have came from", your prayers have been answered.

Popularity factor: 4


that seems to be an interesting book! even more so if i'm going to take up linguistics..

you don't have a trackback but i blogged about you, here: http://www.kissui.net/j_archives/000891.html



Thanks! Yeah, Blogger doesn't do trackback. I do check my logs though ;)

The book is pretty fascinating if you're into Japanese linguistics. Pricey though. You should just use your university library's copy until you graduate and start making the big money..


Fascinating book, but given your explanation, the title is misleading. Perhaps it would've been more accurate to call it 「日本通俗語源大辞典」...


Man, it's a good thing I don't know Japanese, because if I did I'd have to get this book, and I can't afford it. However, I must say I consider it an abdication of the responsibility of an etymologist to simply present a bunch of ideas, some clearly wacko, and let the reader sort them out. If you have to give them all (perhaps for some obscure cultural reason -- otherwise someone might commit seppuku?), present the one or two you think plausible in regular type and the rest in teeny-tiny type in a separate paragraph.


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