Reach out and help someone

So in my post about Japanese "dream" words, I mentioned the word 夢助, yumesuke, and translated it as "Dreamer Joe". What I meant by this was that 助, -suke, is a common element in boys' names*, and has been for a long time -- so long that people generally interpret a novel phrase of the form "LEXEME + -suke" as either a playful reference to the LEXEME itself, or a mock "name" indicating a person who is prone to or known for LEXEME. It's a bit of an old-fashioned construction now, but not archaic. A few other -suke words of this type in the Kojien include:

  • 芋助 -- imosuke -- "Potato-suke": a country bumpkin (imo can also mean this on its own) or a dolt in general
  • 円助 -- yensuke -- "Yen-suke": Edo slang for "one yen"
  • 半助 -- hansuke -- "Half-suke": Edo slang for "half a yen"; OR a slacker
  • 豆助 -- mamesuke -- "Bean-suke": Shrimp, shorty
  • 凸助 -- dekosuke -- "Convex-suke": Person with a bulging forehead
  • 寝坊助 -- nebosuke -- "Sleep-monk-suke": Sleepyhead
  • 飲助 -- nomisuke -- "Drink-suke": Drunkard
  • 浮助 -- ukisuke -- "Floating-suke": a playboy, a cad ("floating" is an element in all kinds of words relating to transience, pleasure, unfaithfulness...)
  • 露助 -- rosuke -- "Russia-suke": A Russian. Possibly inspired by "Russkii"!

As you can see, it's not generally used to compliment people (no offence to Russians), although of course these terms can be used affectionately (a teacher I know calls his daughter chibisuke, "Shorty").

So what does suke actually mean? Put simply, it means "help". It's an element in a lot of old titles and job descriptions, such as 衛府佐, wefu-no-suke, "defence-office-help", Vice Minister of the Office of Defence, a general term for a whole lot of more closely specified positions in the old government. The suke, by the way, corresponds to the "Vice Minister".

But wait a minute, you say. Isn't there a verb that means "help" and is very like suke? Why, yes there is! It's 助ける, tasukeru, even written with the same kanji. Modern 助ける derives from old 助く, tasuku, which in turn probably comes from ta (hand) + suku (verbal form of suke).

Although this guy thinks that the ta is from Tamil tan, some kind of emphasis prefix.

But if the intra-Japanese etymology is true**, it makes the word 手助け (tedasuke, "hand-help", a helping hand) seem a bit silly. At the very least it suggests an extremely strong urge to add "hand" to words meaning "help", even if a hidden hand is already in there.

But wait, I have more! Most etymologists seem to agree that 助く is related to 救う, sukuu, "help, save". But the real question is: is 救う related to the other sukuu: 掬う, "pick [flowers], snatch up"?

The Iwanami Old Japanese dictionary seems to think so, and it's not difficult to imagine how things might have evolved ("to snatch something -> to snatch someone from the jaws of peril -> to help someone in general"). Still, I'm getting a bit out of my depth so let's end things here.

* Other kanji used to represent suke in names include 介, 輔, 佐, 祐, 典, and about a trillion others.

** Another word with an initial ta suspected of originally meaning "hand": tako, "octopus".

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