A few days ago, someone e-mailed me about a matter which had, it seems, been puzzling them for a long time: Why are so many Japanese women named "Bookmark"? I decided to share my answer here too.

First, some background. The Japanese for "bookmark," in the sense of "item which marks one's place in a book" rather than the newer, web browser-related sense, is shiori, usually written 栞. Shiori is also a feminine given name. The kanji are often different, but still: wouldn't that just make it like naming your kid "Bookmarque"?

Well, not really. The first thing to keep in mind is that "Shiori" is, at this point in time at least, independent as a name. It works the same way in English. When you run into a boy named "Hunter" or a girl named "Piper," you don't immediately visualize them hunting or piping: you parse their names as names. (You may be a crotchety holdout who refuses to acknowledge these as acceptable given names, but I'm sure even in that case you can see the general principle.) That's not to say that the original meaning isn't accessible, but it isn't in most cases a very important part of the name.

Okay, but even so — at some point, someone had to name the first girl-baby "Shiori." Didn't they feel even a little bit weird using a homophone for "bookmark"?

Again, the answer is that they probably did not. Even if that parent was specifically alluding to a real word pronounced shiori, and not just putting sounds together, there are multiple ways to interpret the word shiori, and "bookmark" just happens to be the English translation of the one encountered most often in daily life.

Let's look at that one first. Bookmark-shiori is usually described as a metaphoric extension of the nominalization of shi-oru, 枝折 "fold-branch." This is a verb meaning "to bend/break branches as one proceeds through a forest, in order to mark one's trail." Here's one of the examples in Ōno's Dictionary of Classical Japanese, a poem by Saigyō Hōshi:

furu yuki ni/ shiworishi shiba mo/ uzumorete/ omowanu yama ni/ fuyugomorinuru
The fallen snow has buried even the broken branches that were my guide; I find myself a-winter in mountains unknown

(Side issue #1: What, then, is shi supposed to be? I'm not sure, but it seems to appear in lots of other old botanical words, like shiba for "grass" and/or "small trees/bushes" and shida for "fern", so I'm going to assume it's a solved problem somewhere musty. Side issue #2: My beard is not luxurious enough to allow a- as a productive prefix. For this I have no reply.)

Anyway, from "path of broken branches through the forest" the way to "guide (in general)" — many pre-modern reference books were entitled X no shiori, "A guide to X" — and "notification of where one is (in a book)" is pretty clear. There are holdouts who claim that the shi in bookmark-shiori is the Sino-Japanese reading of 紙, paper — and they might even be right; certainly I'd be astonished if that pun hadn't occurred to anyone during the Edo period.

So, we can already say two things: First, parents might intend the name to just mean "guide" in general: wanting your kid to be an example to others, to always end up on the right path, whatever. Second, even if parents had the meaning of "bookmark" specifically in mind, shiori isn't as boring and functional a word as, well, "bookmark." It has rustic and even lyrical qualities. (Here's a blog post making basically this argument in response to an interlocutor who is saying "My name just means 'bookmark'!", with commenters saying such things as "I just yesterday decided to give my child the name 'Shiori' (栞莉) when she's born, because I love books!", and "I named my daughter 'Shiori' (栞里) because I want her to be an example to others!")

Another well-known shiori, although we may be moving even further away from the name now, is the shiori of Bashō's aesthetics: a sort of deep sympathy for the subject. For example, Bashō specifically praised the shiori of the following poem by his disciple (in haikai; and teacher in painting) Morikawa Kyoriku 森川許六:

Tōdango mo/ kotsubu ni narinu/ aki no kaze
Even the "ten dumplings"/ are become mere grains/ the autumn wind

"Ten dumplings" were (and are) a speciality of Utsunoya Pass in what is now Shizuoka, so on the surface this is a simple lament that things ain't what they used to be and remember when you were a kid and the apples were bigger and tastier? But in it, Bashō apparently saw a deeper sympathy for the topic: tough times up in the pass, the embaddening of all things, etc.

Incidentally, it's possible that this shiori comes from similar places to the first one I described. To see this we would have to go back to the Man'yōshū-old verb shioreru which meant "to be weighed/pushed down by something," first literally (branches in the snow or wind) and then metaphorically (people in dysfunctional relationships). From the Genji monogatari, chapter 2:

「... 心には忘れずながら、消息などもせで久しくはべりしに、むげに思ひしをれて心細かりければ、幼き者などもありしに思ひわづらひて、撫子の花を折りておこせたりし」とて涙ぐみたり。
"... Though I had not forgotten her it had been some time since even my last letter; she became most downhearted and lonely, and worried about the little one who was there also, and picked and sent me a nadeshiko flower [with a letter, natch]," said [Tō no Chūjō], tearing up.

Anyway, you can see how this might be a variant of the same shi-oru as above, although different ideas have been proposed: it's the shi from shinayaka (lithe) or shimo (down)! no, it's the shio meaning "salt", as in tears! etc.

Oh, and there's one more shiori I may as well mention: a gesture in noh indicating sorrow.

Popularity factor: 10


Do we know when Shiori became a common name?

(And I demand anyone who complains about Shiori also have a rant ready to go about Hilary as a girl's name. For consistency in name curmudgeonism.)


貴方は私のブログを参考にこの文章を書いたのでしょうか? 全くのオリジナルですか?


寧夢さん:オリジナルですね。(大野先生の古語辞典をかなり参考にしましたが(笑)) 書いた後、実例を探していたら寧夢さんの記事を見つけて、同様な意見を別の方向からおもしろく書いてあったので参考資料として紹介させていただきました。

MMS: Nooo idea when it became a common name, or even how I would look that up.


The etymology is 枝折, from the verb 枝折る. However, it is a little more complicated than that. The historical spelling was しほり, not しをり, although it was often spelled that way. 枝折る is just ateji for 萎る, which is the ultimate etymology.

The distinction between /h, w/ was lost early on, particularly in medial position where it was realized as [w] for a long time. (Still is before -a.) This led to the various spellings as well as the re-association of 萎る as 枝折る.



In case I was not clear, because it was originally しほり, 枝折 (しをり) is not phonologically possible as an etymology. While they did fall together by the 10th century, there were clearly distinguished before that.

I am aware that Ōno lists the entry under しをり. However, this is deceptive and he should have been more specific. (As a long-time fan of the late Ōno, I am a little disappointed.) At the very least he cross-lists しほり to there.

Other more complete dictionaries, such as 国語大辞典 and 角川国語大辞典 etc. have a little more to say about it.


Thanks, Kindaichi. I came across that claim somewhere in one of my books, and it does make sense as a reanalysis -- but sadly it wasn't backed by any evidence. (Even Ono uses the /wo/ version as the main entry, and the /ho/ version is a redirect.) Do you have anything good?


Oh, snap! You anticipated my Ono comment.

So, when you say "fall together", do you mean that originally both existed and they merged? Or that しをる was a reanalysis (folk etymology) based on the inability of folks at the time to distinguish between the two sounds?


I've often wondered a similar thing about the girls' name Saya. I don't know what kanji (if any) girls named Saya generally use for their names, but given that I imagine that Japanese are in general pretty cognizant of the differing kanji and meanings that can go with a certain set of syllables, and how careful parents are (sometimes) to pay attention to number of strokes in a name and all that, who would name their girl something that can also mean "sheath"? I don't think I have a particularly dirty mind, but when I meet a girl named "sheath" and think about the metaphorical "sword" every man has in his pants, well....

g force:

I met a girl called Chinko once. True story.


Don't know how to follow up g force's comment...

But for what it's worth, I know someone named 'shio' named specifically to mean salt, but using different kanji. The name is halfway between Shiho and Shiori, and so people never can quite accept it as a name.

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